It’s exhausting, isn’t it? Pretending to not have a mental illness when you do. Society makes us do that. We have to make it seem like we have it all together. We have to act like we’re fine when deep down everyday is a struggle. We have to act outgoing and hardworking all the time when in reality we’re overthinking and wondering if people hate us. People who don’t have mental illnesses don’t get how hard it is.
We have to wear a mask and act “normal,” and the stigma needs to be taken away. Nobody pats us on the back, yet we are actively fighting something.
Some days, trying isn’t good enough for everyone, and that’s hurtful, because some days it’s all we can do. We have to actively try every day to make everyone around us think that we’re some form of okay. And that’s exhausting. Nobody taught us about mental illness in school and it’s sad. When we get out in the real world, there’s no set list of things to do or rules to follow. We constantly think what we’re doing isn’t correct, and maybe it’s not good enough. Ever feel that way?
If you have, I can relate to you. It’s hard to feel good enough when society makes you feel like shit day in and day out. What else do we have to do to make people understand that we’re trying day by day? We have to work so much harder all the time to get to even a small place of contentment. Sometimes we lay in bed and think of all the things we could’ve done “better,” when in reality, we did our absolute best. Ever feel that way?
I’d like to tell anyone who does feel that way: You’re not alone. I feel that way every day, and sometimes I struggle to get out of bed in the morning. I’d like to tell you that you matter and nothing you do is terrible and is absolutely great.
1. You’re constantly called “type A” or “anal retentive” or just “a perfectionist.”
People credit you with going above and beyond the call of duty, and always executing things to an nth degree. They poke fun at how you (sometimes unintentionally) seem like you have a “my way or the highway” mentality, like it’s just a personality quirk. In reality, the idea of not finishing something or doing something exactly how you’ve envisioned makes you sick to your stomach. Things like someone coming over and seeing your laundry or missing a deadline by even an hour makes your head spin. They shouldn’t seem like a big deal to you, they should be something you can move on from and not dwell on, but they aren’t. You obsess and overthink, dwell and stew. So your perfectionist ways (seem) to manage that.
2. You have little ticks that manifest physically, but they just seem like “bad habits” to the outside eye.
Nail biting, hair picking, knuckle cracking, lip chewing. Even picking at your skin or scabs or leaving your cuticles in a bloody mess. They’re all little symptoms of your anxiety. You try to keep your panics and nervousness internalized as best you can, but it slips out in these seemingly little things.
3. You don’t know when to say when.
“No,” is your most underused work in the English language. You don’t know how to stay away from reaching your limit. So you pile things on top of each other, always assuming that you can just handle anything and everything. You stretch yourself way too thin and then even after you’re breaking, still try to take on more.
4. You can relate to the idea of “compartmentalizing” your emotions.
No one would ever be able to say that you’re someone who wears their heart on their sleeve. In fact, you do pretty much the opposite. You’re so used to and trained to behave like everything’s “fine” even when that couldn’t be further from the truth, that you’re nearly impossible to read. You’ve told yourself so many times that you’re just being “dramatic” or that no one would understand that you’ve become a professional level faker of being fine. You rarely let how you’re actually feeling show, instead you just bottle it up and cover it up and hope that it goes away.
5. And because of this, you’ve been called “stoic” or “unemotional” even when that couldn’t be farther from reality.
You’ve likely gotten a reputation for being rational and logical to a fault, because you don’t let how you’re actually feeling show. Your compartmentalization is next level. Rather than feel your feelings and process them in real time, you put them on a metaphorical shelf in your mind in order to “deal with it later.” Problem is, later rarely comes. And then there are all of these anxieties and issues and feelings that pile up on top of each other and it becomes unbearable to manage.
6. You joke about having FOMO — but it’s much bigger than that.
It’s not so much an “I wish I was included” notion, it’s more a deep-seeded fear of missing out on an opportunity. It’s the fear of being a bad friend if you don’t go somewhere with someone. It’s the fear of not being enough if, for some reason, you’re not able to do everything.
7. You worry about opening up because you’ll be accused of “not getting it” because you seemingly live a normal day-to-day life.
There’s this idea in your head that because you’re still “functioning” your anxiety isn’t a problem, and won’t be perceived as one. Even if you don’t mean to, thinking this way plays into that “trauma olympics” mentality. It’s the idea that because you DON’T do something that’s associated with anxiety, or because your anxiety is different in any other way, you don’t “qualify.” So, rather than say, “This is what I’m struggling with,” and open up, you say nothing at all.
8. You lose a lot of sleep.
You keep yourself up at night often. Whether it’s because your mind is going 10,000 miles a minute or because you’re convinced you can just finish one more thing, you’re way too familiar with being exhausted. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead!” you probably laugh after another sleepless night. But reality? It weighs on you. Both physically, mentally, emotionally. It’s a problem.
9. Most people would just call you an “overachiever.”
Because when you look at someone who’s so good at compartmentalizing, repressing, deflecting, and who’s anxiety manifests in a way that makes them hyper-vigilant about very specific things (ie: work, staying occupied, cleaning, list making) it can be so, so easy to only see their successes. But what you don’t see, is the battle that it took to GET there. People only see the achievement part, not the stress, the anxiety, the sleeplessness, and the self-deprecation that it took to get there.
10. You joke about needing to be busy to be happy.
“I LOVE being busy.” “I’m happier with a full to-do list.” “Keeping busy keeps me out of trouble!”
It sounds like a glorification of being busy, but really, it’s a cover-up for a fear of what will happen if you stop. The go go go becomes like a drug. The “always having something do” keeps your mind off of, well, your mind. The constantly chasing something else and doing something is ultimately, a big distraction from the anxiety that is ever present in your life.
11. One of your biggest fears is letting people down.
“You could’ve been better.” “Why did you do this?” “You’re such a bad daughter.” “I wish you were a better friend.”
Are those things being said? Probably not. But in your head, in your anxiety-riddled brain, you hear them when presented with the possibility of not doing something at a top tier level. The pressure you put on yourself is enormous. And it ultimately stems from the idea that if you don’t hold yourself to some near-unacheivable standard, you’ll be letting someone down. And that breaks your heart. It may be the anxiety talking, but that doesn’t mean you don’t feel it every single day.
This isn’t a happily-ever-after article. But it is real and honest, and not without hope.
Recovering from mental illness isn’t a lot of things.
It isn’t a linear process, nor is it easy or fair.
It isn’t about reaching a destination of full-time happiness. It isn’t about feeling invincible or being impermeable.
It isn’t an endless run of good days either. Often, it isn’t about having a good day at all – it’s about feeding yourself well, wearing comfortable clothes, and not giving up just yet.
These lonely nights and even lonelier days happen when the world is up but you’re not really ‘here.’ It isn’t about forcing any emotion or willing yourself to return home.
Sometimes it’s feeling like there’s no way out, despite how hard you’re trying to push through the murkiness. Sometimes, it’s looking forward to the hours, growing in number, that you can be unconscious. It’s hoping you’ll wake up tomorrow and feel differently. It’s being gutted when you don’t.
It is, however, about celebrating when these difficult times are few and far between. It’s celebrating wins, no matter how small.
It’s also appreciating that your mind makes you empathetic, kind, and patient, even though deep down you’d trade all those things to just feel a bit of peace.
It’s wanting to trade this brilliant mind of yours for one that doesn’t actively work against you. Failing this, it’s wishing you could remove it from your skull and give it a thorough clean.
Recovery is an inconsistent and isolating experience. Every now and then, it’s being convinced that there isn’t a single soul on this earth who understands. It’s disappointment because you didn’t think it would be like this.
It’s relating to every heavy metal ‘fuck the world’ song. It’s relating to the gut-wrenchingly beautiful power ballads of Cher, Celine, Shania, and Mariah. It’s also relating to cheesy ‘90s pop and easy listening tunes that remind you of better times – that there will be better times ahead.
It’s dying your hair and moving to a new city. It’s searching for quick fixes that will make you feel brand new and solve everything, even for a little while. It’s choosing vices that make life bearable.
It’s dealing with the cards you’ve been dealt. It’s feeling like you yourself are built of a house of cards – flimsy, unpredictable, and entirely collapsible.
It’s hearing repeatedly that ‘everyone has their stuff,’ but quietly knowing that your ‘stuff’ isn’t quite the same. It’s knowing that while you can’t quantify anyone else’s pain, especially from wounds you cannot see, that severe mental illness is a special kind of torture.
It’s having your heart broken – not by a person, but by this situation.
It’s shattering like glass and discovering the pieces in unexpected places at unexpected times. It’s worrying you’ll never feel whole again. It’s worrying you were never whole to begin with.
It’s failing two courses in one college semester after being an academic overachiever for consecutive years. It’s letting these things go – things that are important to others but can’t be to you, at least not right now. It’s watching on helplessly as maintaining a top GPA tumbles down your list of priorities, not because you want it to but because your brain isn’t giving you a choice. It’s putting your dreams on hold time and time again. These aren’t necessarily even big dreams of yours – just little things that don’t come very easily.
Some weeks, it’s eating nothing but cookie dough and pizza.
It’s feeling like your head is on fire and finding new ways to douse the flames. It’s fearing these flames will reignite somewhere down the track, often without warning or obvious reason.
It’s biting your tongue when ignorant, arrogant people tell you how to tie your laces, despite never having stood in your shoes. It’s making them uncomfortable with your gallows humor.
So too is it feeling like a shitty friend. It’s knowing you should be there, need to be there, but can’t. It’s feeling everything all at once and sometimes feeling nothing at all.
It’s feeling there’s not a single combination of words in the English language that will make any of it okay – not imagined by your psychologist or mum or partner… no one. It’s knowing there isn’t a single combination of words that will ever do justice to what your mind does to you, either.
It’s weeping silently in scummy public toilets because you don’t want any of these people to have front row seats to this version of you.
It’s being grateful for support but every so often feeling like it’s not enough. It’s grieving lost time and experiences you didn’t get to live fully. It’s grieving who you could be, should be. It’s stopping to smell the roses but sometimes feeling like no sweet perfume or amount of sunshine will ever make the pain worth it.
It’s about being realistic and, when able, cautiously optimistic.
It’s giving new meaning to the phrase ‘you do you.’ It’s cancelling plans. It’s lying to loved ones because you fear the truth is just too much, too awful to say aloud. It’s fearing those you keep close will bristle or throw their hands up and admit defeat when they hear you speak. It’s shutting down and sometimes shutting off.
It’s also giving special meaning to the word ‘resilience’ – it’s knowing it takes incredible bravery to stomach your thoughts and weather thunderstorms so brutal and unapologetic in nature. It’s wishing you didn’t have to be this strong all the time.
It’s feeling powerful. Sometimes, it’s feeling powerless. It’s letting go of parts of your identity to make room for new parts – parts that are perhaps less shiny but definitely more genuine and therefore valuable.
It’s accepting that relapse is possible.
And it’s learning to turn the volume down. It’s learning to be relentless instead of fearless, so that even when you’re afraid, you keep going. It’s continuing to fight when you’d convinced yourself there were no more beasts to battle, when you thought the war was over.
Recovering from mental illness is many things.
Most importantly, though, it’s being down but not out. It’s knowing that waving the white flag will put a stop to it all – the bad, the tiny glimpses of good, as well as the potential for something really great. Some days, it’s not wanting to die but just wanting this life as you know it in these moments to end.
Recovery is best done loudly so that we can keep others from dying quietly.
I preach that a lot on my social media because, simply put, it’s true.
At the risk of sounding educational and writing this like a school paper, I want to inform you of just a few things.
1. Mental health is physical health. I said this already. Got it. But knowing this could help reduce the stigma surrounding mental health. There are still so many people who believe depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, etc. are all made up and that people with those illnesses are just “crazy.” And that’s another thing: stop calling people who live with mental illnesses “crazy.” It’s not appropriate nor is it even remotely accurate.
2. Mental illnesses are not only mental, they are physical as well. Ask anyone with an anxiety disorder. I’ll use myself as an example. I battle with severe anxiety. It keeps me from having a job like any other “normal” person. When I go out in public, I feel physical symptoms. It’s not just “I’m so nervous!” It’s also sweating, racing heart and dizziness. That doesn’t even include the symptoms from a panic attack I may have.
3. Depression can be fatal, just like any other physical illness. Yes, for real. Suicide is not just something people do to “get out,” “get bailed out” or do just for “attention.” I can promise you if someone dies by suicide, they struggled… bad. For some people, suicide is the final symptom of depression. Not everyone with depression dies by suicide, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t struggle too. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen on social media, even from friends on Facebook, that people still believe that suicide is selfish and that the person who passed away “took the easy way out.” Come on. That’s not fair and it’s undermining the battle that the person might have fought literally on a daily basis.
4. “You’re making it up to get out of doing (this) or (that). Just smile!” OK… first, that’s just not that easy and you know it. Second… don’t you think if we could “just smile” and everything would be fine that we would have done it a long time ago? Depression can take away your energy. You have to make yourself to do anything. So no… we’re not just “making it up” to get out of anything.
Think of it like this.
Just like you can sometimes “see” other health conditions on tests and scans, PET scans have shown you can see the difference between a “depressed brain” and a brain without depression. Just because depression is “invisible” to other people (because as we know, depression shows physical symptoms as well), does not mean you don’t deserve the help, whether it be with therapy, medication or even ecotherapy. Broken bones heal and they’re good to go after a month or two. But unfortunately, mental illness often isn’t that simple.
Please stop thinking depression or any other mental illness is not as important as physical health. It is physical health. The brain and the body should not be categorized into two totally separate types of healthcare. Mental health is physical health and physical health is healthcare. Healthcare is healthcare.
The World Health Organization defines health as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.
There are many moments in my life when I’d just stare into space and think about how my life would be so different if I didn’t have depression or anxiety. How I’d take more chances. How I’d stand up for myself when I need to the most. How I’d be more secure, more decisive, and just happier.
I wouldn’t think about the thousands of ways I could possibly die. I wouldn’t be afraid to make drastic changes for my health, sanity, and overall well-being. I wouldn’t keep self-sabotaging. I wouldn’t let the most excruciating pain of the past drag me even further behind. I wouldn’t isolate myself from others. I wouldn’t let my irrational fear of scarcity control the way I think or force me to accept a fate that keeps me wandering off to dead end after dead end.
Instead, I would live a life that’s closer to the one I envision for myself instead of surrendering to all the constraints of a harsh reality that keeps me paralyzed and fearful of uncertainty. I would take better care of myself and do more of what’s valuable to me and cut out any thought that’s extraneous to my future, irrelevant to my true self, and toxic to my mental health.
I often wonder how my life would turn out differently if I didn’t have depression or anxiety. But what I wonder about more often is how I can start to act upon the best interests of my future self, moving and taking control as if I didn’t suffer from severe depression or crippling anxiety. These are all the things I’d do:
Network with people
I’ll be honest here – I view networking as disingenuous and sleazy. I always stop myself from reaching out to people because I somehow equate advocating myself with “using other people for my own selfish gain.” Which is why I don’t do it at all and don’t even talk about the skills I have. My insecurities keep telling me that I have none – they tell me it’s because I’m worthless, I’m irrelevant, and I don’t deserve to ask for anything better in life, since I haven’t proven myself worthy yet. But recently, I’ve gotten so fed up with keeping myself stifled, silent, and small that I can’t move on with my life to greater things because of my irrational fear of being judged as incompetent and unqualified. If I didn’t have these thoughts of the worst possible outcome or feelings of worthlessness, I’d network my butt off. I’d tell people what I can do, even when I may not be a master at anything yet, because I have to start somewhere. I have to believe in myself and stand up for myself because otherwise, I’d be stuck in the pitiful stage of paying my dues for a lifetime.
Write more, even when depression makes me abnormally exhausted
I’m tired of keeping myself stuck with writing. I’m tired of holding in the thoughts that I still have yet to share – thoughts that have the potential to turn into thousands of articles, essays, and poems if I allowed myself to be even more vulnerable, resolute, and honest with myself. But my mind is a never-ending war zone, and every time I self-sabotage, my mental exhaustion manifests itself physically, and I shut down before I have a chance to express myself and share more of what’s on my mind. If depression didn’t affect me this way, I’d definitely write more and write my way to the freedom I’ve always craved – the ultimate freedom from my treacherous enemies that keep making their home in my mind.
Create more solutions to recurring problems
If I didn’t have depression or anxiety, I’d create more solutions to problems that always recur in my life: I’m too shy. I don’t stand up for myself. I let myself be a doormat. I let people make me feel grossly inferior and wallow in self-pity because of it. I avoid confrontation, even when confrontation is the only way to solve the problem of me not advocating for myself when I need to. I’d act in spite of the overwhelming feelings of inferiority, which tells me that I’m never going to be good enough to get what I deserve. I’d be a more solution-oriented thinker instead of a problem escapee and work my way out of my problems.
Love myself as I am, regardless of how others are doing “better”
I’d be bolder and claim that I am worthy, I am healing, I am evolving, and I am capable of freeing myself from what hurts me the most – the past, the deep-rooted terrors that control me, and agonizing self-hatred. I’d love myself for who I am and not beat myself up for lagging behind others who seem to be more outwardly successful and have what society considers as “better lives.” And the truth is, my life isn’t worse than someone else’s, but if people evaluate me harshly for it, I shouldn’t give their opinions any weight because my life is mine, and I will not spend the rest of my life hating myself or contorting myself just to fit into someone else’s agenda. If I didn’t have anxiety over how poorly I’m fitting in and if I didn’t get easily depressed about how worthless I seem on the outside compared to other people, I’d love the hell out of myself first and foremost, and then I’d build a life upon this abundance of love and settle for nothing less than that.
But now, it’s no longer a matter of what I would do.
Anxiety is omnipresent; it floats in and out of my every day, interrupting even the most simple and laid back moments. When it isn’t front-and-center, it is still within earshot, ready to destroy the walls of reinforced steel that I have built around myself. It crawls into bed with me at night, and my only reprieve is slipping into a fitful sleep with the assistance of my prescribed anxiety medication, which I’ve been taking for quite some time now.
There is a certain stigma attached to the use of prescribed medication, and if I’m being honest, I don’t see that stigma being alleviated anytime soon. I truly believe that the stigma comes from both pure ignorance and lack of education. It is quite simple, really: if you are not directly affected by mental illness, you do not understand the gravity of its presence; you don’t understand the ins-and-outs of the life-saving medication used to treat chemical imbalances.
It is a privilege to wake up each day and not have to take medication before you do anything else. It is a privilege to not have to think about antidepressants at all, actually. It is a privilege to go to sleep at night and fall asleep almost instantly, instead of lying awake with paralyzing anxiety clawing at you from the inside out. It is a privilege to never know what a panic attack feels like, and it is a privilege to never have to wonder how long your next anxiety attack will grab hold of your nervous system and dismantle all of the work you’ve done to keep the attacks at bay. It is a privilege to live each day with your health intact. These are all privileges I am not afforded. I have lived with the list of aforementioned afflictions for all of my childhood and most of my adult life, and it is absolutely devastating and not to mention debilitating in ways I can’t even express at times.
I am an expert when it comes to my body, my mind, and the way in which I heal and take care of myself. My body and I had somewhat of a cohesive relationship until I was diagnosed with severe anxiety, depression, panic disorder with agoraphobia. My PTSD and somatic nerve disorder arrived a little later, however that is two more villains to add to the lineup.
Needless to say, my relationship with my body is now tumultuous and turbulent at the best of times. And as I write this, I am in a deeply committed relationship with myself — and only myself. I have made the decision to stay single until someone enters my life and loves me where I am at, with all of my flaws and baggage in tow. I will wait for the one that holds space for me in the most gentle and affirming way, the one that I can trust with my wildly damaged and beat-up heart. I do not come without complications — I am messy and emotional and flawed. I am a perfect storm, a force of nature wrapped in scars, lessons and stories that have created and shaped who I am. I am slowly trying to learn how to be proud of the woman I am and the woman that I am becoming. And that means never settling for another human being treating me like I am the second choice ever.
For me, there is a direct correlation between relationships and mental health. I have trust issues that are so deeply embedded into my psyche that I am only now facing them head-on. I have been abandoned at my most vulnerable by people I loved, I have been told that medication doesn’t help and that I don’t need it, that I’m weak for using antidepressants. I have been emotionally and verbally abused so severely that it is no wonder I have substantial trust issues.
I see myself as nothing but a burden, and so to protect myself, I don’t even bother to let anyone inside the corners of my mind. The cozy, rustic rooms of my heart lay vacant or occupied by the love that I cannot let go of. I have so many complicated pieces that make me the young woman that I am, and I have come to a fork in the road – open my heart once again or remain closed off from the world, content to live my quiet existence and carry the heaviness of life on my own. After all, you do not keep returning to the fire if it’s inferno has burned you time and time again – you walk away and move the fuck on.