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Surviving Mental Illness in Adulthood Doesn't Make Me Weak

When I was a small child, I believed adults were superheroes. Mummy could heal all things with a hug, and Daddy would be there for me at the drop of a hat. By virtue of living longer than me, I believed they’d lived forever, that they’d continue to live forever, that they were infallible.

Into my teens, I not only realized this wasn’t true but also that this wasn’t an uncommon belief. Many children put their caregivers on these pedestals, while most parents and guardians do all they can do be the protector in their child’s life. There’s nothing wrong with this dynamic – it’s healthy, if not paramount, for children to rely on the stronger, more experienced people in their life. But now I’m an adult myself, I can assert that infallible we are not.

Perhaps it was naive of me, or even insensitive, to not realize my parents were human beings just like myself. But I know I’m not the only one. I, amongst others, was surprised to learn of the mental illness rife in my family.

Part of this owes to my surprise at realizing I had a mental illness. It’s cliched to say you never expect it to happen to you, but it’s true. If, at an earlier time, I had known my everyday feelings were not healthy – if I had known I was susceptible to anorexia, depression and self-harm – then the symptoms of mental illness in my family might have been clearer. It would have made a lot more sense because, as we know, genetics play a significant role. It might have even worked both ways – that is, knowing depression ran in the family might have helped me recognize and validate my own struggle. All this said, I certainly don’t blame my parents for not telling me about their struggles. How exactly do you explain something so painful to a small child? When do you talk with them about your illness when they’re quite happy watching Teletubbies?

As children, we have preconceived notions about being teenagers. As teenagers, we have preconceived notions about being adults. And as adults, we realize nothing turned out the way we thought it would. We don’t have metaphorical superhero capes. We don’t feel the way we thought our parents felt when we were very young. We know we have grown and changed and become better for it, but we’re still fighting an uphill battle. It’s worth noting that mental illness is not a mark of weakness, but it’s no rarity to grow up believing it is. Anxiety – which my family certainly struggle with in one form or another – is unfairly considered immature, infantile. We’re often told to stop being “silly” – words frequently used in an attempt to quieten a stroppy child. If mental illness isn’t taken seriously, then of course children are going to grow into adults feeling in some way wrong, or broken. Like they haven’t matured the right way.

Recently I told my dad I don’t feel like an adult because I still have no idea what I’m doing. He said, “That means you’re an adult.”

Even the healthiest of grownups struggle from time to time. They muddle through life expecting everything to make sense, and much of it won’t. The mark of a truly “healthy” adult, though, is asking for help. It’s acknowledging the problem, be it postpartum depression or an eating disorder, and prioritizing recovery over all other things. The closest we can get to the mythical adult superhero is to care for ourselves – because only then can we care for others. That, to me, is the opposite of weakness. That’s what I call superhero strength.

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Thinkstock photo via puhimec