The 3 Biggest Takeaways From My Journey With Mental Illness
I don’t know how many of my peers, coworkers or friends will read this. I don’t know if this will make its way to my family. Yet, I feel the need to #BeThe1To and begin a conversation surrounding mental health in graduate school and the sciences.
It’s been more than 10 years since I have been struggling from major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder and anorexia. I have spent half of my life plagued by mental illness, but only recently have I been able to communicate this to my family. It took two psychiatric hospitalizations for my parents to realize that maybe things aren’t as peachy as they appear for me.
You see, on the outside, I have it all. I am a graduate student at a prestigious university in the U.S., where I am studying molecular and cell biology. I have a supportive PI (principal investigator, also known as my boss) and amazing lab mates. I have a wonderful little sister who refuses to give up on me and whom I wish I could see more often throughout the year. I have a support system and family system that I have built for myself in the midwest after living here for four years. I have a community of friends I have met in therapy, and I have the most amazing rescue pup, who keeps me going and getting out of bed, even when all of the therapy, meditation exercises and medication in the world don’t help.
How can it be, then, that I have mental illness and battle these diseases? Mental illness doesn’t discriminate, as I have learned. I thought it was because I failed my father as a child. I thought I was being punished because I wasn’t the first born son in my family. I was wrong.
One in five will be diagnosed with mental illness throughout their lifetime. Yet, what we often forget is five in five have mental health, which is why I speak. Because I have been quiet for too long, hiding behind the veil of my “perfect” life, refusing to be honest and open with my loved ones about my struggle with mental illness.
Here is what I’ve learned from everything I’ve experienced:
1. I often forget my illness does not define me. My accomplishments do.
I have spent too many years letting my illness define me. I am somebody who can get up in the morning, take the dog on a 5K run, make it to work on time and carry out an intellectual conversation about molecular biology. I should not be ashamed. Yet, I am.
I am ashamed of my illness and how hard it is sometimes to get out of bed, to put on a face and to accomplish all that I have in my short life. I have run two half marathons this year, and I rock climb at the local gym. Yet, I still let my disease define me. I played on the varsity softball team for four years in high school and was a member of the wind ensemble.
Yet, I push all that aside, and instead, I see myself through the lens of my disease. I think: I am a mistake. I am a useless, worthless, invisible individual. I transferred from one of the best public universities in the nation to a prestigious private institution, graduated in four years with honors and received a research award for my senior thesis. Yet, I still let myself be defined by my disease.
Despite all this, by speaking out about my mental illness, I hope to begin a conversation and begin to redefine who I am based on my past experiences and my present self. I often have to be reminded, despite my fight with this disease, I have accomplished a lot in my academic career that I need to be proud of.
2. I should not be ashamed of my scars.
I self-harm. I remember the first time I felt the blade against my skin. I was standing at the sliding door to the backyard at my parent’s house. I was 14 or 15 years old. It has been almost a decade since I started. This is the first time I am admitting to anybody reading this that I self-harm. I’ve told select friends here and there, but I have never admitted it publicly. Why? Because I’m ashamed of my scars and the stares I get when I wear short sleeves out in public or when I wear shorts while running.
Yet, I should not be ashamed that I do what I do in order to cope with my symptoms. It is a release and a way for me to escape from my reality in the moment. It just happens to be damaging and inflicts pain not just on myself but also on those who care about me.
My scars are as much a part of me as my black hair or my eyes. My scars tell my story, a story that as I open up, I should not be ashamed of. My scars show you, the world, how many times I’ve tried to end my life. My scars show how strong I am to have gotten back up on my feet time and time again.
3. It’s OK to talk about mental illness because we all have mental health.
We all have mental health, which is why I speak out because there should not be a stigma associated with mental health. Mental illness is just like any other chronic illness or physical ailment. It just happens to be invisible to the eye. Yet, this doesn’t mean we, those who struggle with mental illness, have to be mute about our conditions. We can speak out because we all have mental health. We all need to take care of our mental health.
I chose to share the beginning of my story here because I have read so many inspirational stories that have given me the tiniest glimmer of hope in my darkest moments. I write to share my story because I am tired of being ashamed of who I am and where I come from. I write to share my story because you never know whose life you may affect or change, or whose life you may save.
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