What A Lifetime of Mental Illness Has Given Me
Ugh. Even as I write that title I want to qualify it by saying that I’m not going to tell you everything happens for a reason or that God opens a window when he slams the door on your mental health. Because depression and mental illness suck. They are a chronic source of uncertainty and fear for me and millions of others.
When I say chronic, I mean I have been living with varying levels of symptoms, treatment, and sometimes incapacitation for the past 17 years. I will probably have to be on antidepressants for the rest of my life. Having experienced three distinct “breakdowns,” the gross truth is that I probably haven’t had my last. Statistically, I am more likely than most to die by suicide. And all of that sucks. Yet somehow, the experience of living with mental illness has given me some of the qualities I most value in myself.
There may come a day when I am not in a good place with my mental health and I will look back on this post with disgust. There may be people reading this right now who can find no value in an illness they are dealing with. The ability to recognize anything good in something that destroys lives is a weird, fucked up privilege. And for now at least, I am one of the lucky ones.
For those who would give anything for mental illness to be stricken from their lives, just know you are not wrong, you are not hopeless, and you have no responsibility to feel what I feel. But hang in there. What you are feeling right now doesn’t have to last forever.
Most of the time, I am patient when it comes to the public’s ignorance or misunderstanding of mental illness. I know by now that it’s an experience you can’t know without living (although that’s probably true for many experiences).
It’s like trying to describe a sound or a color — you might get close if the person has similar references to draw from, but it’s not the same as seeing or hearing it. So when someone says something that makes it clear that mental illness is just a fluffy concept to them, I am able to pick and choose my battles. I decide how much I am willing to disclose, discuss, and engage. I have that choice because you can’t tell from looking at me that I’ve been hospitalized.
I have patience for misunderstanding, but not for callousness and cruelty. I do not have patience for people who complain about traffic caused by someone threatening to end their life. And when someone calls suicide “selfish” or “cowardly,” I have remind myself that the only reason they say that is they have no idea what they’re talking about.
But most of the time I can remember that it’s nearly impossible to fathom mental illness if you don’t have intimate knowledge of it.
And listening to other people harp on an experience they know little about has taught me when to sit down, shut up, and listen. Whether their difference is physical, racial, or anything else, everyone I meet knows their experience far better than I do. So when someone tells me what it’s like to be them, I need to believe them. I highly recommend this to anyone else who is able-bodied, straight, cisgender, and/or white.
I’m not perfect. I have my blind spots and prejudices, and there are times when I’ve voiced my opinion with too little information. But I strive not to and try to check myself when I do.
My worldview was reframed at 11 years old. When everything you care about becomes meaningless, it makes you think about what matters to you (I also thought about boy bands and softball and stuff. I was eleven after all). I was a straight A student who excelled in sports and lived in a stable home, but none of that mattered when I couldn’t think straight or stop crying.
I have the clarity of knowing that my career, my relationships, and everything I do is just part of the central objective, which I’ll call fulfillment because “happy” isn’t really accurate. Sometimes what is important doesn’t make you happy, at least in the short term.
Without my experiences with mental illness, the pivotal choices I’ve made in my life might have been very different. If my concept of “happiness” hadn’t been shaken up like an angsty snow globe, would I have chosen the college I did? The others were more impressive. Would I have majored in creative writing when a career in engineering or medicine had much more promise of security and comfort? Would I have quit my old job to write a novel? Would I push myself toward things I want instead of things I feel like I’m supposed to want?
To put it in more negative terms: I fear being poor, being insignificant, being disliked. But most of all, I fear being empty.
I appreciate feeling good. I feel grateful when I feel good. Sometimes I just stop and savor good weather, a calm mind, a tactile sensation. You don’t need mental illness to do that, but it’s part of why I do.
Because part of my experience with crushing depression is that you look at things you love, you do things that you enjoy, you see people you like, and all the goodness is gone. It’s like being in an impenetrable bubble.You can see all these wonderful things around you, but there is some barrier that keeps any good feeling from reaching you.
When I am fortunate enough to be without that bubble, I try my best to appreciate it.
The other day, I went to Target to pick up my prescriptions. As I made my way to the door, a slightly disheveled man was walking away, yelling incoherently at anyone and no one. We passed each other, walking in opposite directions and I braced myself a bit. When someone is acting angry and erratic, it scares me. But I also remembered that he is the person suffering in this encounter. He is likely confused, scared, and maybe unable to help himself. I walked by as he screamed “Fuck you!” at me. Then I went inside to get my pills. He did not escape his discomfort so easily.
Most of us have internalized the narrative that the transient, many of whom live with mental illness, are a threat. In truth, they are more likely to be hurt than to hurt others. When I encounter people struggling with so much, I try to remember that I have all the power and privilege there. And if circumstance were just a little bit different, that might be me.
There’s something freeing in knowing that bad things happen for no reason. Because although randomness can be scary, it also means it’s not my fault. Three hundred years ago, my illness might have been interpreted as possession or some kind of divine punishment for wickedness. Hell, some people still think it is. But it’s not. I don’t have to worry about what I did to deserve this. And whenever that useless phrase “why me?” comes up, I remember what a wise high school Calculus teacher once said to me: “Everybody has their shit.” This is mine.
While I’m secure in that knowledge, it was the not knowing that used to scare me. After my third period of …I don’t know…incapacitation?…I expressed to my therapist how much it weighed on me, knowing that this could keep happening for the rest of my life. I was jammed on the thought that even if I was recovering from my most recent episode, it could all happen again.
In that way, mental illness is not so different from cancer. For some, it is a one-time scare. They get the treatment they need and keep an eye on their health in the future. But for others, it comes back. My therapist has referred to my depression as being “in remission.”
Once, she asked me what was the worst thing that could happen. When I said it would be to go back to that lightless room, she reminded me that I’ve found a way out before. Multiple times, in fact. And that was a comfort.
A couple of months ago, a man I used to work with died by suicide. We had only talked a few times, but I liked him. I sensed in him a kindred dark spirit, the kind that sticks out at a happy-go-lucky startup.
I’m not fool enough to think his death was about me, but I wondered if there was something I should have said. When I was younger, I allowed my mental illness too much power over my identity. I let it define me too much. Now it’s just a part of me — a significant part — but not the most important. And I sometimes still worry that I talk about it too much, that I’m reliving a story I don’t need to keep telling, that my efforts at openness are just redundant and preachy.
But when I heard about James, I wished I had shouted it from the rooftops. I wish I had worn an “Ask me about my mental illness” T-shirt to the office every day. And maybe it wouldn’t have made any difference at all, but the chance that it might have would totally have been worth downgrading my already dismal wardrobe.
I feel a responsibility to talk about my mental illness because I’m not afraid to talk about it. I’ve lived with this shit since the sixth grade — this isn’t my first rodeo at the DSM corral. I can only imagine how scary it is to be grappling with this when it’s new. To feel like you can’t tell people. I’m scared to publish this or speak up, not because of what people will think of me, but that if someone I don’t know messages me, I won’t be able to help them or I will let them down or I just won’t answer because strangers and the comments section scare me. I’m not a medical professional or a counselor. I’m just an expert of my own experience.
I also worry that I haven’t suffered enough to speak up. Depression is probably the most socially acceptable mental illness. The Affordable Care Act kicked in right when I needed it. I found a cocktail of antidepressants that work for me. I’ve never tried to kill myself.
I feel a responsibility to talk about my experience with mental illness because it is not the biggest thing in my life. It has been the biggest thing before — and it may become that again one day — but for now, it’s not. For now, I can see all that I have learned from this set of circumstances.
Again, I’m not saying mental illness is a gift or that anyone should feel thankful for it. It sucks. And I don’t quite know how to reconcile that with the wonderful things I have learned because of it.