My life with mental illness is a series of ups and downs. During the downs, the very act of surviving takes every scrap of energy, courage and strength I can muster. But during the ups, I want to live — and more than that — I want to enjoy life.
The thing is, though, it’s rarely easy.
The phrase, “Feel the fear and do it anyway,” taken from the seminal self-help book of the same name, has become a mantra for encouraging us to grab the bull by the horns and face our anxieties and self-doubts head on. But when you struggle with mental illness, the fear can be so intense, so overwhelming, that “doing it anyway,” simply isn’t an option.
All too often, my self-esteem is so lacking that I just don’t believe I’m capable or worthy of doing whatever it is that I’d really like to do. I’m absolutely certain I’m not good enough, not strong enough, not talented enough, not “well” enough.
Take something simple, like going to church choir practice. I want to go, I really do. But my “messed up” mind starts telling me all the reasons I shouldn’t. What makes you think you’re a good enough singer? It goads me. Everyone will be secretly laughing at you. No one wants you there, they’re just too polite to tell you. You don’t fit in, remember? You’re crazy if you think you could ever be part of this.
Before I know it, I’ve talked myself out of going. But then, I chastise myself. You’re pathetic. What’s the big deal? Everyone else manages to go without having an existential crisis about it.
The result? I end up curled in my bed, lonely, sad, hating myself for my ineptitude, my lack of perseverance, my “weakness.” I curse myself for not being able to do something I really wanted to do. And it feeds the monsters that live in my mind and tell me I’m useless, worthless, good for nothing.
I know I “should” be able to feel the fear and do it anyway, but I can’t. The fear that comes with mental illness is not something that can be overcome by taking a couple of deep breaths and “growing a pair.” It takes on a life of its own, and convinces me this thing I’m facing, whatever it might be, is too much.
Sometimes, I let a friend in. I tell someone how scared I’m feeling, how overwhelmed. But often, their kind and gentle encouragement makes me feel worse. They mean to build me up and give me confidence. They tell me I can do it, tell me I’m strong enough, but I can’t and I’m not, and that adds to the sense of failure.
Occasionally — very occasionally — I do try to face my fears, bolstered by medication that helps suppress the all-consuming sense of terror. And invariably, it’s not as terrifying as I expected. In fact, I gain strength from the fact I did it, even if it was with the support of medication. Those times are few and far between, but they give me a sliver of hope that it won’t always be like this.
For now, though, I have to accept I’m not always able to face my fears. All of my efforts are channelled into keeping my head above the water, and adding extra strain can easily pull me under.
To outsiders, I know it must look as if I’m not trying, as if I’m giving in too easily. Please know I really am trying – but that I have to respect my limits, or I’m in danger of making myself more unwell. Please don’t stop encouraging me, but understand I’m not always going to be able to “man up” or “just get on with it.”
Because when you live with mental illness, it’s not always possible to “feel the fear and do it anyway,” no matter how much you want to.
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Thinkstock photo via ofkosnekras.