A wooden artists mannequin in a glass bottle

I know from personal experience, disconnecting from reality may seem like the answer when your life gets overwhelming. It seems like your only option. Hell, who wants to go through the emotional roller coaster of depression and anxiety on top of the crappy day you just had? I often was in the habit of just disconnecting from reality. I just imagined it was all happening to someone else and I could not feel a thing.

I. Could. Not. Feel. A. Thing.

I could not feel happiness. I could not feel sadness. I could not feel empathy, or love or anything. Just numb. And let me tell you something right here and now. When you get out of that numbness, there is nothing more terrifying than the though of reentering that phase. At the time it seems like the best solution, right? Why wouldn’t I want an easy get-out-of-emotion free card? The problem with disconnecting is that those emotions just simply become buried, to be brought up at another time. It is always healthier to face your emotions when they are presented to you. We all know what happens when emotions and issues get bottled up. Nothing good ever comes from that. Ever.

Ever since I have decided to try and deal with my emotions rather than just disconnect from reality, I will say I have grown stronger in my walk with this illness. I have learned things from this illness that I would have never learned had I decided to disconnect. I am finally beginning to learn how to deal with emotions better than I ever have been thanks to making the decision that I was going to fight like hell to face any of the emotions that cross my path. It is easy to disconnect or to self-medicate the pain away. It all is only temporary though. Right when you come back, your issues are right in your face just in a bigger way. I know first hand how tough major depression and anxiety can be. That is why I implore you to fight. Don’t stand down and look at the ground. No. You jump up to the challenge and confront the emotions and situation and do your damn best. You never go down without a fight! That is not who we are! We are fighters until the end! Never surrender what is yours in this life. Never disconnect to temporarily retreat from your situation. Never step down to depression and anxiety.

Always try your very best to fight back.

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Thinkstock photo via rmbrown

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Last night as I was sitting in my recliner watching a movie, all of my feelings welled up inside me. Feelings of sadness and guilt and anger and doubt. And then, like geyser, all of these feelings were released. All at once. And this certainly wasn’t the first time it’s ever happened to me. Chances are you’ve been in this situation before, too. I sat there and sobbed. And I mean ugly sobbed. Snot everywhere, all in my beard. It was gross. But I needed it. I needed to release those feelings. They’ve been bottled up for months now. I did everything I knew to do. I texted friends to find someone to talk to. I opened a book that gives me comfort. I put on music that always makes me feel better. My best friend that lives over 600 miles away called me and talked to me until I felt like I was calm enough to go to sleep. She reassured me that everything was going to be OK, and that I have people who love me and want me to be OK, and that I have a purpose for this world. This world is better with me in it, she said. Sometimes, it takes someone like that to make us realize that life is going to keep going. My story doesn’t end here. It’s still being written. I want to write down what I was feeling last night, and my response to them today.

I’m feeling too much, but I’m going to be OK.

I need help, so I’m going to start going to counseling again.

I wish I hadn’t messed up a relationship, but there are other girls out there.

I wish I had it together, but I know that I will figure things out eventually.

I’m lonely, but I have friends and family who care about me immensely.

I’m feeling too much, but I’m not done. I’m not leaving. I’m here to stay. I am loved. I am enough. I will find happiness again. I will make it through this. And so will you.

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A few nights ago, I lay in bed willfully trying to wish myself to sleep, just like I do every night. My brain was buzzing and would not allow me the blissful escape sleep can sometimes bring. That evening, I had just finished binge-watching the series “Stranger Things” on Netflix, and I was processing the images and storyline in my head. It was during this time I realized the TV show could serve as a metaphor for mental illness.

Without going into too much detail, I’ll try and explain how I came to this conclusion.

*Spoiler Alert*

In “Stranger Things,” a hideous monster is stalking the town, appearing rather human-like from afar but up close is in fact far from it. Instead of a face, this creature has only a giant mouth, amusingly resembling a walking venus fly trap (it’s basically just teeth-on-legs). It feeds on flesh, whether that be human or not. Nobody really knows where it came from, but all of a sudden it’s just there, and people start to go missing – including a young boy named Will.

The creature evidently doesn’t come from our world – it resides in a much darker realm. In the show, the children named this world the “Upside Down” or the “Other Side” because it appears to be a parallel universe. Only in this version of the universe it is dark, cold and overridden with decay. This is where Will had disappeared to, where he was hiding from the creature, constantly in fear of being found and eaten.

I see these two worlds as my mind: they exist in the same place, but they are very, very different. At the moment, I am stuck in the Upside Down. I have been here for a while, and I am constantly in hiding. I feel detached from people around me, and my surroundings, although familiar, are not the same. I feel an evil lurking in my mind. It stalks me, and I am terrified one day it will catch up and eat me. I am convinced this is how I will meet my end. There have been times when I have almost given up, lain myself bare, and waited for the demon to find me. Perhaps it is then that my cries have reached through, and people in the normal world have heard me. Or seen me. For I am still here, still alive. I might find a good hiding place for sometime, but the demon always reappears. I am so tired, tired of struggling to stay alive. I feel I will never find a way back to the normal world.

I’ve realized I cannot rely on a person to save me. But I cannot yet rely on myself; it is a balance of the two. I need help, but I know I also need to be able to accept that help. Will (the young boy) would not have been saved if it wasn’t for the people who loved him, but it was also down to himself – he had to bang against the walls and cry out to his mum to get messages through. He almost gave up. But he survived.

I am hoping to explain this scenario to my family, so they have relatable imagery to compare my illnesses to. I hope it won’t frighten them, because the Upside Down is such a terrible and lonely place. But that’s the reality for me.

Although it may seem bizarre to compare mental illnesses with “Stranger Things,” it might just help.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741.

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To me, relationships and connections are the most valuable thing life can give you.  Unfortunately, mine quickly become toxic as I let them take over my life. When I get attached, the other person becomes the main character in my own story. The need to talk to them is like an addiction. It leads to an irrationally strong fear of abandonment, I feel like I can’t go on without them. The desperation makes me selfish and manipulative, completely losing touch with my values. The further I get into the attachment, the more I lose my self-worth and myself.

There is a sense of urgency to everything. It’s like my life is at a standstill until they are around. An unanswered text or unreturned phone call can leave me bedridden, in a wave of panic no matter how many times they reassurance me. It puts pressure on the relationship that is hard to cope with. I ask for more and more, so no matter how dedicated they are, they end up having to leave, as they can’t maintain their life while trying to meet my demands.

My expectations for them are too high, as they are for myself. I’m never grateful and it creates constant disappointment and a feeling of inadequacy in both of us. I become close-minded, don’t accept them for the person they are and try to shape them into something else, even though the person they are is the one I truly care about. I forget each person and each relationship is special for its own reasons.

The relationship becomes focused completely on whether they will leave and neither of us can truly enjoy the connection. It creates a self-fulfilling prophecy where I become the burden I’m so scared I am. I believe the only reason they are close to me is because I force them to be. Like somehow I am a toxic, brainwashing influence, which is something they cannot convince me out of. It’s still something I grapple with, even on reflection and something I need to convince myself out of. I wish they would be assertive but when they are, I become harsh and destructive, driven by my insecurities instead of my values.

This makes me extremely sensitive to everything they do or say, constantly analyzing and looking for signs I’m right. I discard any evidence that shows they want to be close and latch onto any doubt, using it as proof for my distorted beliefs. I constantly set tests to see if they “truly” care, but often the line between “giving up” and “accepting” is lost. My friends are put in an impossible position where they feel like they are disrespecting my boundaries by pushing me or they are abandoning me when they choose to accept my choices.

Due to the dependency, I don’t trust them. Instead, I try to control them and push to try and break all their barriers, hoping that it will help me understand them and prevent being hurt by betrayal or naivete. But as they become more vulnerable, I become more defensive and the friendship is not balanced. I switch between loving and hating them, seeing things only in black and white. There is an undertone of resentment and guilt on both sides that destroys a really pure and positive connection.

It is like a rubber band. The more I suffocate them, the more they pull away and the more I hate myself for doing it, until eventually it snaps. When they leave, it is debilitating, but there is also a twisted sense of relief. Realizing I can only control myself is something that took a large weight off my shoulders.

I do all this to avoid taking responsibility of my own life, putting my life responsibilities on them and taking theirs instead. I begin to think I know best and try to make decisions for them, not respecting their wants and needs. They matter so much to me that seeing them hurt is almost too painful to bear, making it impossible for them to show weakness around me. I decide they’re better off without me and push them away before begging them to become closer again.

In the end, I treat the relationships that mean the most to me, without respect or care. I add a lot to their lives but am also the cause of a lot of pain. My fears lead me to become someone I hate around the people I love the most. It becomes so important to me to keep the relationships that I end up losing them.  It’s a terrible and paradoxical cycle that thankfully can be broken.

I’ve found the best way to be able to nurture my relationships is taking space and nurturing my relationship with myself.  To take responsibility for my own life, put up boundaries and start changing my core beliefs. Learning to think myself capable of being self-sufficient and independent. Learning the value of who I am, something I couldn’t see before. Starting by consolidating my identity so it cannot be shaken or lost.

Respecting myself means I am able to respect those around me. Accepting their decisions, whether I understand them or not. Only when I start doing this can I be the loving, caring, giving friend I truly am and want to be.

Intimacy, connection and friendship will always be what I cherish the most. It becomes a daily struggle against the guilt and shame for hurting those around me and missing those who have left. Despite this, I’ve learnt to forgive and love myself, treating myself the way I want to treat others.

I’m not going to lose anyone else important to me due to unhealthy habits that make me just as unhappy as those around me. I thank those who have been there for me in the past and despite hurting them, I hope they know how much they helped me on the road to happiness.

As I build my strength, the dependency on others lessens, allowing for privacy, patience and flexibility in my relationships. When I am secure enough to be vulnerable and trust those around me, I can be close while still giving enough space to both them and myself so the relationship can breathe. I know only when I allow those around me to live their own lives can I truly appreciate being close to them and live my own.

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For many people, mental illness is a daily challenge. Mental illness can be something that interferes with a person’s friendships, work, personal well-being, among many other things that affect quality of life. The daily challenges mental illness can pose are often made worse by the diagnosis a person receives. This can happen because of the stigma of a diagnosis. For many people, accepting a diagnosis of mental illness is a shaming experience.

Think for a second, if you learned someone you know has schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, anxiety or depression. Would this change how you view that person? People who receive a mental illness diagnosis may worry their friends, family and coworkers will view them differently. As if before the diagnosis they were viewed one way, but after receiving a diagnosis, they are viewed differently — often for the worse. Before a diagnosis, they may have been a person who struggled from time to time. But after a diagnosis, things seem to change and they are viewed only as “mentally ill.”

It’s a profound difference.

A diagnosis is a label. It’s an observation of certain behaviors and thought patterns that have been given a name. That’s it. But for some reason, that label holds so much power.

If you or someone you know are coping with mental illness, please know a diagnosis holds no power, that you are the same person you were before and the diagnosis just means maybe you can help yourself a little better now. Please know a diagnosis doesn’t define you and it never will.

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Thinkstock photo via Victor Tongdee.


Editor’s Note: Name has been changed to respect privacy of the individual involved.

Just yesterday, I stumbled upon a YouTube video of what the user called a “crazy” woman on the New York City subway system. She yelled at people who sat near her, causing them to stay away from her. I had to do a double-take when watching.

I know her. That’s Kathy.

Four years ago, I experienced the worst breakdown of my life. My mind was saddled with the conviction that I was the Antichrist incarnate and that President Obama was Satan himself. I was admitted as an inpatient at one of New York City’s hospitals, where I remained for over two months. While I was there, Kathy was one of the other patients living on the unit.

At first, I was very frightened of her. Not because of any hostile act on her part, but due to an “intertwining” of our delusions. She spoke about how she knew people who were involved in the 9/11 attacks, indicating it was a conspiracy that involved the White House. She boasted about having a phone number that directly reached President Obama. Instantly I was spooked.

Perhaps after lunchtime that day, VH1 played the music video for that then-current hit by Carly Rae Jepsen, “Call Me Maybe.” The blood drained from my face. It had to be President Obama. He was telling me to call him.

Fraught with panic, I began crying publicly and whining for help. A nurse approached, reassuring me the phone number was a number readily available to the general populace. But my delusions were already triggered and I was inconsolable. Kathy perceived my actions as hostility and began cursing my presence whenever I walked near her. I felt destroyed and helpless and avoided her at all costs.

A few weeks passed as we gave one another the silent treatment. People came and went onto the unit, yet we both remained. After six weeks, our past resentments were forgotten and we became friendly acquaintances. Eating meals together, having silly conversations.

“I’m sorry about before. I get a bit passionate, you know. I didn’t mean it personally, I know you’re fine.” She had an incredibly warm smile.

We were discharged around the same time, so we traded phone numbers. A couple of months later, Kathy and I agreed to meet up at Central Park. It was a nice time, chatting idly amidst the summer air and green leaves. I became desperately parched without a dollar in my pocket, so she paid three dollars for me to get a Gatorade. I knew she could barely afford it and I promised to pay her back the next time we met. But we never did.

Almost four years later, now seeing this video with Kathy, I am reminded of how I first perceived her on the unit. She seemed threatening, unpredictable and dangerous. I was afraid of her. I wanted to get away from her. This was likely how the people on the subway felt. I might be assumptive here, but I think her aggression served as a barrier of protection. A way to keep people away so she doesn’t get taken advantage of.

Because I remember the laughs we had, once her walls went down. I remember these good times now as I watch the video. And now I am sad to see she does not seem to be well. But who am I to judge? “Crazy people” on the subway are still people. Everyone has a story to tell. Everyone has a past. Everyone has a sense of self. Everyone has a dignified human spirit. Everyone deserves compassion.

Admittedly, it is difficult to discern on first glance whether aggressive behavior has the potential to evolve into physically dangerous altercations. Certainly, caution must be exercised. But why the hatred in the process? Why the stigma? Why do we have to demean others in order to maintain safety? Why do we have to look at people with disparaging eyes?

In my current work as a mental health peer specialist, I am faced with clients who become agitated at times. But I know them very well also. I realize outbursts are a blip in the road and the person will become calmer in a bit. Keeping this in mind, I remain optimistic and respectful. I am not afraid. And even in instances when the person does become dangerous, still I am not afraid. I fight past my fear by keeping positivity and unconditional concern in my heart.

Perhaps that is the core of it: Fear. We fear “crazy” people because they are perceived as unpredictable. Even though it is possible for us to not have fear affect us when we see those mentally afflicted, mainstream society has not learned the skill of “filtering out fear” as we react. Our reactions therefore are tinged with hatred, stigma and disdain. People with mental illness become an annoyance. They think we exhibit behaviors that need to be “corrected.” We are “broken,” so we must give up our autonomy so we can be “fixed.”

I believe education is the answer. Mental health is a concept that is as real as physical health. Surely, we know to wash our hands after using the bathroom. So too should mental hygiene be in the mainstream consciousness. Our tendencies towards prejudice and discrimination must be challenged because it is a matter of public health. When we are kinder and more understanding of one another, we are able to better understand and assist those who are struggling mentally. In the process, we realize we are not “curing” people, but rather, helping them.

This is my dream for the future.

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Thinkstock photo via TataChen.

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