Writing about being mentally ill has always been a conflict for me. I don’t want to appear self-indulgent, but we’re in an age of acceptance right? A time of self-care, of mental health days. You can vlog taking your anti-depressants, or having a depressive episode, and it can get thousands of positive interactions online.
But I’m unsure what to do with all this support. I know that I can set more boundaries so that people will be more understanding when I’m not productive or particularly chatty. I understand that it is easier to seek help. But I don’t think I will ever be truly understood.
Despite what can be perceived as an almost universal acceptance of mental health issues, I don’t feel that I can ever shift the weight of my mental health. I don’t want to shift it onto someone else. I don’t want to ask the worst question, in case it scares people away.
But what happens if I never get better? I ask this when my mind empties enough, when I’m alone and don’t reach for the nearest distraction. What if this is as good as it gets? I’m stable. Not necessarily happy, and not necessarily sad. I feel guilty for complaining about not being satisfied with myself when so many people have gone through far worse things. I think about fifteen-year-old me, who has so much ahead of her but still feels the same way, still a bit hopeless and lost. The same goes for nineteen-year-old me.
All these versions of me, who are all searching for the end to what she’s going through and yet I don’t know what the answer is. Maybe it’s a poor attempt at existentialism, or it’s pure narcissism, but I am looking for the day I wake up and don’t feel disposable.
I’ve noticed in recent years that there has been frequent framing of mental health issues as a journey where you “owe” it to yourself to keep going as “you’ve made it this far – don’t give up now!”. In my worst moments, I’ve looked at those journeys, those positive social media posts and campaigns with spite. Why do they get to celebrate? Is it that straightforward? I’m not sure if I should owe anything to myself for surviving what I’ve gone through. My body physically trembles when it remembers trauma inflicted by people who have probably forgotten my name but don’t worry – there’s some light at the end of the tunnel, I just can’t see yet? Is it my fault that I can’t complete my journey – or do I not want to?
The concept of being “worth” something has also been a stumbling block in my understanding of mental wellness. Whenever I’ve hinted at the idea that I have low self-esteem, it is always counteracted with anything I’ve achieved or how the person I’m talking to views my work. Often, it is the services we provide that inform our worth in the world. How good of a friend you are, how talented an employee or dedicated caregiver. Sometimes I would just like to exist for who I am, but then I panic that I will be forgotten and so I throw myself back into work in the hopes that something will stick. Why else would I survive the trauma, if not to prove that I can make something from it?
I think about all the ways my mental health affects my everyday life, the way I conduct myself and how I communicate. I admire the way I can now set (some) barriers but grow frustrated that the smallest amount of rejection, something as small as being left on seen or someone being short with me for example, can send me into a minor spiral. My anxiety goes into overdrive, I begin to worry about how I could be perceived by anyone – and then I wonder why I am exhausted when I climb into bed.
The most frustrating element of growing up in an age of information is being told that the information I’m now aware of simply cannot relate to me. I can’t have ADHD or any other disorder because it’s a “trend” now, apparently. I can’t voice how I feel, and if I do it’s not in a serious manner, because I’m afraid of being perceived a certain way, thought of as less than or broken.
Being perceived as mentally ill, for me at least, has felt like a double-edged sword. Perhaps it is rooted in the stigma of asking for help, but I hate being acknowledged as if something is wrong with me. I despise the idea that people in my life could see me as broken or fragile, but then I feel even more lonely when I can’t voice what I’m going through. I think of my most recent period of self-harm and remember that I was at work the next day, acting as if everything was fine. I remember receiving concerned texts from friends, that they hadn’t seen me in days, and dismissing their concerns saying I was feeling “a little bit down” instead of admitting that I needed help – that I probably needed to be hospitalised and I was scared of what I could do next. I know that, if someone cares about you, they will at least attempt to understand your mental illness. So why am I afraid to be honest about how I feel?
The complexity of creating content from your mental illness is that it requires you to be productive – something that conditions like anxiety and depression actively suppress. Even writing this now, I understand that I’m not communicating the actual depth of my feelings. I’m not that much of an oversharer, I promise.
I wonder when I will feel solid as a person, like no more of myself can be eroded away by life. I wonder if I’ve ever been solid. When will the second opinion stop mattering? When will my first thoughts become positive? I start to question whether I was simply not aware of my mental health issues until someone gave me the words to describe what I was going through. Looking for signals that I was neurodivergent as a child is difficult as it feels like I’m looking for an excuse or explanation for what I’m experiencing now as an adult. Were these feelings inevitable? It would be nice to have something to blame, wouldn’t it.
We fundamentally look for things to relate to – be it quotes from TV shows, scenes from the movies or for me personally, CMAT lyrics. I certainly do feel lonely and that “people are just means to an end”, but I’m yearning for the day when I don’t need media or other forms of external communication to signal feelings or turmoil.
I’ve grown accustomed to thinking of my life as ending soon, and I’m trying to overcome that hurdle, but it’s hard to imagine growing older when you’re terrified of the pain you could go through again. Maybe I don’t need to get “better” – but I’m not going to give up on it just yet.