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Living With Mental Illness Is a Damn Victory


I sat in a doctor’s office with powder blue walls and terrible quote posters on the walls. Not the motivational ones with the giant letters telling you to persevere, but instead, the ones telling you (in Pinterest calligraphy), to “just breathe,” because, “life is a gift.” I remember staring at my shoes tapping against the fake wood flooring, wondering how I was supposed to breathe through the gift of life with a one-ton monster jumping on my chest. My doctor sat quietly watching me, before leaning forward onto his desk to ask, “Are you ever afraid that you won’t come back from one of these episodes?”

It was then that the noise in my ears came halting to a muffled stop, gurgling, with the monster on my chest pressing his hands to my ears, letting me only listen to the scattered, negative monologue inside my head.

When I was little, I would close my eyes and let my ears sink under the bathtub water while I listened to the world slow around me. What I was hearing didn’t change, but the way I heard it did. A 2011 study conducted by the U.S. Navy in a submarine medical research lab found that the reason our hearing changes underwater is because the way we receive the sounds changes from air conduction, which reaches our ear organs through the ear canal, to a vibration in the bone behind our ears, which allows us to hear at higher frequencies than out of water.

When you’re nearing your 24th birthday, and scared that you might be “losing your mind,” you blink your eyes back open and wait for the bathwater to drain from your ears, watching the doctor’s mouth move and his pen scribble without really hearing a thing.

He drew me a line across the sheet of paper detailing prescription options and graphed my brain activity, spelling out the words “bipolar II disorder, chronic depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” while filling the nurse in.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness informs us that 1 in 5 Americans lives with a mental illness, with depression being the number one cause of disability worldwide. A simple google search of the illnesses the doctor labeled on my file all read: “cannot be cured” and “can last for years or be lifelong.” The google search didn’t mention the friends who would drop out of my life in the months following the diagnosis.

No one warns you about the way your mental illness will change your relationships. Your doctor can’t tell you how many nights you will spend crying yourself to sleep because you don’t know who to call. And, no matter how badly they want to, your family can’t save you every time you feel like drowning.

But, you haven’t “lost your mind.” Your brain just changed the way it works. Maybe it’s thinking through bones instead of neurons now. Throw that wall-quote a middle finger. You’re still breathing. And that isn’t a gift — it’s a god damn victory.

This piece was original public on The Olive Branch

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Lead image via contributor