On Mental Illness and Personal Narrative

This started out as a Facebook status, but then I kept adding words until I realized it was actually a blog post. So.

A fascinating (to me) thing about depression and anxiety is how insidious they can be, and how completely they can warp your thinking and perceptions and your baseline for feeling okay. I spent so long being miserable and exhausted and apathetic about everything that it became the normal state of things, and if anyone asked me how I was doing, I said I was fine, because I really thought I was. I thought that was just the way I was meant to feel, that maybe I was a little lazy, introverted, not a fan of going out, but mostly fine. And if I wasn’t fine, it was only because I was being silly or dramatic or having an off day/week/month/year/life.

But I was only going outside when I absolutely had to, and I was forcing myself through every day and then sleeping for hours in the middle of the afternoon because it took so much effort to be awake. Even when I was awake, I was mostly still in bed. I was hardly reading, wasn’t writing at all, was doing the bare minimum of connecting with people. I didn’t care about anything enough to commit to it in even the smallest ways, let alone in bigger life decisions ways. If I did commit to something, I quickly became panicked about it and wanted to distance myself from it. Winter was my favorite season because it was so cold that staying inside under blankets was what everyone was doing and I didn’t feel like I needed to make myself go outside. I was on edge all the time and cried at the drop of a hat. I called myself a misanthrope because it was easier to say I hated people than to say I was terrified of and exhausted by them, by their very existences. It’s unfathomable to me now that I existed in that state for so long and maintained even the vaguest semblance of being functional, and it’s unfathomable to me that I actually convinced myself I was more or less okay.

Now, I can’t get enough of being out in the sunshine. I want to go out and do interesting things and find interesting places, and meet new people (even if that’s still a little terrifying), and move my body (even if it’s just for fifteen minutes on the treadmill). I’m no longer ghostly pale and it turns out, all I had to do to get some healthy color was leave my house sometimes. Who knew? I make my bed when I get up every morning and I make a point of not getting back into it until I’m ready to wind down for the night. I still don’t eat as well or as often as I should and I still need excessive amounts of quiet alone time after being around people and I’m still too much in my own head, still carrying Xanax around in my purse just in case, still crying at the dentist and the gynecologist, still panicking about the passage of time and how much of it I’m wasting being crazy. I’m still not as good a friend as I would like to be, still too neglectful of the relationships that mean the most to me because distance complicates communication and sometimes, I’m just so tired. I’m still tired a lot. I still cry too easily. I still feel reflexively guilty for so much that isn’t my fault and so much that doesn’t even warrant guilt and so much I can’t change now anyway, and I still seek validation for everything from other people, even after I’ve already validated it for myself.

I’m not perfect, in other words. But now, I’m learning to be okay with that. To not tear myself apart for the slightest flaw, to not hold it up and magnify it until it eclipses all the good things about me. I’m learning that there’s no reason to be uncomfortable about saying I’m kind and funny and creative and good at the things I love doing, or that I’m strong and resilient and braver than I often feel. I’m learning that those things are a lot more important than all the things I think are so wrong with me, and that it takes good and bad to make a whole person.

And I’m learning to be proud of myself for how far I’ve come. I had to hit rock bottom, emotionally, to get here, but it’s okay. I’m sorry for the things that destructed along the way, or, more accurately, I’m sorry for the way they destructed, but it happened. It’s the past. I made mistakes and I didn’t handle things perfectly, and I’m going to make more mistakes and handle more things imperfectly, and that’s how life goes. But when it happens in the future, I’ll have more solid emotional structures to weather it, and I’ll be able to curb my catastrophizing tendencies and not self-destruct, and that’s not nothing. I’ve worked so hard over the past year or so, both in therapy and out of it. I’ve done so much. Just because the bulk of it has been internal doesn’t make it any less worthwhile.

This wasn’t just intended as a rave about how great I am. I also want to say that if you’re anything like I was, if your position is even vaguely similar, you don’t have to live like that. And you don’t deserve to. Perpetual exhaustion/sadness/apathy, extreme reluctance to leave your house/apartment/whatever, fear of everyone and everything, those things aren’t normal. They don’t have to be your normal. This isn’t to imply that there’s something inherently wrong with you or that you’re failing by not fixing yourself/your circumstances. Ultimately you have to do what seems right and best for you, and that’s not always therapy or medication or exercise or any of the other things people always recommend. “Recovery” is a loaded concept that isn’t right for everyone. It’s just to say that if you aren’t happy with the way things are, if you don’t want them to stay that way forever, they can change. You can change them. Depression lies. It tells us that this is how things will be until we die, and, furthermore, that it’s how we deserve for things to be because we’re fundamentally terrible, unlovable human beings. But we’re not. You’re not.

I’m saying this because it’s what I needed to hear. I knew that therapy and medication were good things for other people, and that other people’s mental illnesses were real and serious and deserving of treatment. I knew that the things I was feeling and thinking were bad. But somehow, I couldn’t connect those two concepts into anything that involved asking for help. If I couldn’t be well and happy on my own, it just wasn’t meant for me. That’s nonsense. And it was also nonsense when just months after starting to meet with my first therapist, she decided that I was well enough to be done with therapy and go it alone again. She wasn’t a very good therapist. I didn’t try again for a while, because a professional had told me I was okay. But I wasn’t. My second therapist is so, so much better. I’ve been seeing her for just over a year now, and I think, maybe, at the end of the summer I’ll be ready to decrease the frequency of my sessions. Not stop them, probably, just decrease them. I have a concrete plan for what I want to do with my life, one that actually feels achievable and sustainable and enjoyable, unlike most of the others I’ve considered. If I could get to this point, you definitely can. I’m such an unmotivated, anxious, defeatist person, and, still, here I am.

Therapy and medication might not be your things. They’re the thingsI recommend most strongly because they’re the things that have been the most transformative for me, but you’re not me. All I’m trying to say here is that you don’t deserve to feel the way I felt, and you don’t have to just accept that as the baseline for feeling okay. The story I told myself when I was in the middle of feeling that way was a cruel, destructive, completely untrue story, and I’m sad for that self and how long she believed it. If you’re telling yourself a similar story, of being unworthy of help, of being not mentally ill enough, of being lazy and selfish and horrible, I just want you to hear that it’s not the truth, and that you deserve to write yourself a different, truer one.

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