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The Pressure of Being Perfect as a 'Gifted' Person With Mental Illness

My whole life, I’ve felt different than other people. I have battled mental illness for as long as I can remember. I wasn’t diagnosed until age 20, but I remember having anxiety and depression since I was a young child.

My whole life, people have told me how “gifted” I am. I taught myself how to read and play the piano while in kindergarten. In elementary school, I was the youngest kid put in the gifted program. In middle school, teachers had me help teach concepts to my classmates. In high school, I won awards for being the top student in many of my classes. I won honors for my artistic, musical and creative abilities as well. I had nearly perfect grades and nearly perfect scores on the SAT and ACT.

But all this stuff didn’t really matter to me, because on the inside, I felt completely broken. My social anxiety made me terrified of other people. I was anxious all the time. I felt painfully alone. I was in such a deep depression that I felt empty inside. My classmates prepared to go to Ivy League schools, but those schools seemed too intense and stressful for me. I just longed to find a place where I felt accepted. I wanted to find a safe resting place.

I went to a little college where people seemed kind. My classmates were nice to me. That’s what I cared about most. I won more awards. I had a professor tell me my sophomore paper was better than any she had ever received from her graduate students, and try to convince me to work towards a doctorate. She even said I was “perfect.”

“Perfect” is a word I have always hated. My whole life, people have told me I am perfect because I’m a good student and I’m nice. When people called me “perfect,” I felt there was immense pressure on me to live up to the name. And people were constantly telling me I had to study this subject or that subject, pursue art or music, or something else. It was way too much pressure. I wanted everyone to like me, but whatever subject I chose to to pursue seemed to disappoint others.

If only people knew that behind the high-achieving, smiling student, there was someone who felt empty and broken inside.

I was doing well in my college classes, but in my dorm, I sobbed for hours. Some days, I was afraid to leave my room. I contemplated suicide. I started self-harming. My friends tried to get me to see the school counselor, but I was afraid of being “found out.” I wanted people to think I had it together.

As time progressed, it became more and more difficult for me to hide my illness. One semester, my depression became so obvious that the dean and my parents came to meet with me to try to figure out what to do with me. I defied them all and studied abroad instead.

Finally, my mental illness appeared in all its glory. Everything fell apart. I had my first manic episode. I had psychotic episodes. I had dissociative episodes. I had a mental breakdown. I was hospitalized a few times. After my breakdown, a woman told me my mind was broken and I likely would never be able to go back to school or work again.

I was so angry with her. How did I go from being “perfect” to not being able to function?

It took me a long time to heal from that breakdown. I eventually did graduate from college, but I’m not the “accomplished person” everyone expected me to be. I’ve been working as a caregiver for years. I’m finally back in school, studying to be a counselor. But battling mental illnesses has made many things difficult for me.

I think one of the lies our society tells us is that if someone is “gifted,” they should end up graduating with honors from some fancy college, they should end up with a fancy job and make these big contributions to society. So then you have me, the “gifted” person, who has spent 10 years as a caregiver and having people treat me like I’m dumb. Does this make me a failure?

I say no. I’m back in school studying to be a counselor. But even if it doesn’t work, that’s OK. Maybe I haven’t accomplished things according to the world’s standards. But that doesn’t make me a failure.

I’m 34 and by some standards, I haven’t accomplished much in my life at all. Despite my “giftedness,” I didn’t get a degree from a fancy university. I didn’t get some fancy job. I’m just an ordinary person living in an ugly suburb, renting a tiny, messy house, with an imperfect husband and a series of jobs where I get paid close to nothing for taking care of people. I’m studying to be a counselor, but that might not work either. And that’s OK. Sometimes, life doesn’t work the way we plan.

I am proud of how I juggle a group of mental illnesses and am still able to have friends and a husband and a job I like. I am proud that despite all that I have endured, I have chosen a life for myself that fits me. I am proud that I can help people through my work every day, and encourage people through writing for this site.

It’s OK for me to be “gifted” and not be “living up to my potential,” by society’s standards. Living up to your potential is a lie our society tells us. Forget this arbitrary standard of potential. You don’t owe anything to the world if you are “gifted.” Live your life the way that is right for you. Managing your mental illnesses — that in itself makes you a warrior fighting an important battle. Every day, choose how you want to live. Live your life the way that makes sense to you. I believe that even when battling chronic mental illnesses, we can find ways to have peace and joy, by our own standards. And I believe we all deserve that.

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Thinkstock photo via Betelgejze.