How One Unexpected Compliment Redefined My Mental Illness

Rarely (maybe never) has anyone referred to me as a “mess.” I’m so hyper-vigilant about appearing to have my life and myself in pristine order that I think it might be the last word people associate with me. Sure, I’m sarcastic and loud and never remember people’s names. But for the most part, I am pulled together and reliable — even if the whole thing is a façade. I do everything in my power to appear as perfect as possible, even in the middle of a severe depressive episode or an acute anxiety attack. I hide my mental illness well, but when I finally came clean to one of the few people I’ve ever been open with about it, the word “mess” ended up being the best compliment I could have asked for.

I had taken four or five different painkillers for a toothache that had spiraled into an agonizing emergency over the course of just a few hours. I kept taking more medication because nothing was working — until it all hit me at once — at which point it seemed like a (not so) smart idea to email my dentist. He had just set me up with a referral for a root canal earlier, but as the medication began giving me some relief and I nodded off at my keyboard every few minutes, I decided to email him.

Now, you would expect understanding and insight from people like a psychiatrist who is trained to deal with mental illness and encounters it all day every day. But from a dentist? Well, he already knew a lot about me. He’s been my metal health warrior for a while. So, being depressed and overwhelmed with anxiety and apprehension, I emailed him to tell him how terrified I was. A confession that he knew all too well was an understatement. Then I apologized — for taking up his time, for needing his help and basically for being, well, me.

He responded with an explanation of the procedure to allay my fears. But I couldn’t get past the first five words of the email to read about it, because he started off with: “You are a perfect mess and you type like you talk — love it!”

I read that line over and over and over again. “You are a perfect mess…”. I couldn’t get it out of my head. No one had ever called me a “perfect mess,” but it summed up everything inside me. And for the first time in a long time, I felt like someone actually understood me in a way I barely understood myself.

Those two words managed to say everything about me and my life with mental illness — everything that I really didn’t know how to say. All the self-hatred and shame I felt for so long. All the times I would lie awake at night and wish I could just fall asleep and never wake up. The moments of sheer, unimaginable terror and panic. The anxiety, the depression, the trauma, the flashbacks, the medications, the therapy, the decades of struggle, the whole world as I knew it — everything could be expressed in two words. Perfect mess.

Those word stuck with me — they still do to this day. For all the negative associations and labels about mental illness, this time it sounded like a strength. This wasn’t some sappy motivational poster style compliment. This wasn’t positive self-talk run amok. This was someone saying, “Yeah, you’re a complete disaster, but don’t change.” It was a refreshingly honest expression of acceptance in the face of stigmas and stereotypes. They don’t teach that in dental school — it comes from a kind soul with an open mind and a caring heart.

As alone and damaged as mental illness can make you feel — sometimes it only takes two words to give you the courage to be OK with who you are. And I can say, with a smile on my face, that I am proud to be a mess — a perfect mess.

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 “HOME” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

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Thinkstock photo via RossHelen

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