Why I Struggle to Believe My Mental Illness Makes Me Brave

“When we are weak, we are strong.”

That quote is a line from a song I love. I guess it is what you could call an oxymoron, two things that don’t go together, but do. How can you be strong when you are weak?

This week my psychiatrist told me I was brave. I did not feel brave — I felt weak and trembling, filled with fear and doubt. I’d spent all morning trying to decide if I would keep my appointment, or if I would call and cancel. I’d already had one big panic attack and was fielding off another as I sat in his office. Indeed, strength was not something I was feeling, bravery was most certainly the last thing I would think anyone would have seen in me.

These past weeks I’ve written down some things I never thought I’d be able to put into words, and even less likely to ever be able to share with another person. I’d written in detail about a lesser trauma in the great scheme of things, but one that was important to me as it broke the last of my self-confidence, and filled me with doubt that has clung to me ever since. That single event confirmed I was not worthy, that I was the least of people and my own needs were to be ignored. It crushed me in a way that uncountable events before had not done.

For me, writing and sharing those words brought with it a great fear of being judged, that sharing this would make another person look at me the same way I look at myself — loathsome, broken, dirty, worthless. There was distress involved in just even knowing I had exposed some of my most intimate thoughts and memories, being raw and vulnerable about the feelings that have festered from that day and make me question every single action I make. I felt weak, scared, naked, powerless — not strong, not brave.

It is silly for me to feel those things, I have a deep trust in my doctor — I have spent more than a year building up to this and I knew he would treat me with kindness, respect, understanding, discernment and support, but the fact remained that morning, when I pressed the button in the elevator, I felt a wave of nausea building and struggled against the urge that told me to turn around and run before the doors even slid closed behind me.

The thing is with fear — it is an emotion that demands to be felt. It is part of our instinct to listen to it, to flee at the perception of danger, or to fight or freeze. Formerly I would have listened to that warning buzzing in my ears, freeze or flight would have won out, but today I knew I was going somewhere safe and I needed to fight instead. It would have been pointless to go through all the turmoil of writing and sharing my story with this person who has shown himself worthy of my trust and confidence, and then leave without receiving the professional help I desperately need.

It seems so easy to believe it and to tell someone else they are brave. I often think it, and say it, when I read others’ stories. If someone has shown strength of character by confronting their painful thoughts and feelings and sought help, I see them as brave; I am so very proud of them. But I see myself as weak for needing help or support. I see myself as damaged by my stories — I am ashamed of the feelings and thoughts they bring. I am disappointed in myself for holding onto the past.

Despite my nerves, horror and terrified anxiety about opening up about such a personal part of my past, I was told it was a “breakthrough” — I was assured it was a “really good thing” and that it was the first time I’ve ever “openly expressed that others’ actions have caused me deep pain and hurt” — the first time I’ve truly accepted that “others do not have the right to manipulate me for their own satisfaction.” I was told I was “brave.”

Is it possible to be brave if you are only feeling frightened? I do not feel very brave, but I think possibly that I showed fortitude — I can accept that, and that’s close enough.

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