When My Coworker Said What I Always Wanted to Hear About My Mental Illness

She was just as I remembered her from so long ago. I had returned to the school for children with significant special needs, the school that had given me my beloved career, when I bumped into a woman who momentarily transported me back in time. When we had first worked together, I was a volunteer and barely afloat. Having been in and out of hospitals for over a year and sick for even longer, volunteering twice a week gave me respite from myself. I was at my best there, and figured people saw me the way I felt: good.

When we first saw each other she didn’t recognize me. But the next day she said she’d been thinking about it, about me, and that it all finally clicked. 

“I hate to get personal,” she said, “but you’ve done a lot of work.” The statement could not have been more true. I have worked on getting well my entire adult life. This is work that will follow me until I die. The work will ebb and flow in its rigor, but it will always be there, an item perpetually on my to do list.

This was the first time anyone had verbally acknowledged everything I do to stay well; all the work I do on a regular basis to live my life the way I want, to not let my mental illnesses keep me from my dreams, to stay out of the darkness and to slay the demons in my head.

I’ve imagined being acknowledged in this way for years. I imagined if it ever happened, everything would change. I would feel relieved of my hidden burden. I would feel appreciated, recognized and understood. But it’s sort of like a first kiss. The idea of it becomes so grand, and after it happens you wonder why you ever thought it was a big deal. Nothing changes.

She continued and said she knew I was hurting myself over a decade ago, that I come off so differently now and that I wear my war wounds with pride. I laughed uncomfortably in response. She smiled brightly, then had to get back to work. It all whirred in my head. I could make so little sense of it all. Had she really just said that? Did that really just happen? I went to her and thanked her later with a meek smile. She told me I was “brave” that I was “an inspiration” to her.

Nothing changed. Why did nothing change? I was so sure there would be fireworks and fanfare and pomp. I thought being recognized would move mountains within me, that it would release my inner frustration at my invisible illness and remove the weight from my shoulders. Instead, I didn’t know how to feel or how I felt. I came to realize that as much as I was so deeply thankful for what she shared, I was angry, too. Angry she saw my pain and hurt in the one place I thought I was “good”; because as much as I often wish my illnesses weren’t invisible, I’m glad the rest of the world can remain blissfully unaware of the ugliness within me. That part of me is inwardly nasty, cruel, torturous, manipulative and scary, and I will protect anyone from witnessing it if I can.

I overanalyzed my feelings and I continue to do so. Still nothing has changed in the grand sense of things. The sun continues to rise and set and I continue to thirst for recognition, though maybe I’m slightly less parched than I was before.

However, one thing remains true about her incredible kindness — I feel so lucky she felt comfortable sharing that with me. What she said was a gift. It’s a perspective I’m likely never going to get again. I feel so in awe of her words of acknowledgement and recognition. We don’t do that any now. We hedge, wanting to say the right thing, not the true thing, not the meaningful thing. I think maybe we should speak up more. Because it may not change everything, but it might just change something, and that’s a gift worth giving.

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