How This Motivational Phrase Affected My Mental Illness

I got into nursing school. Hundreds of people applied for the program and only 24 got in. I had to get straight As in my prerequisite classes and write an essay and be interviewed and do it all while holding down a full-time job. The night I found out, I bought myself flowers and drank an entire bottle of champagne and danced in the living room in my underwear until 1 a.m. Everyone in my life was so happy for me and so proud of me, and I was proud of myself. But this thing kept happening that was really, really bothering me, and it took me a while to understand why.

People kept saying “See! I told you. I always knew — you can do anything you set your mind to.”

And then I would think of poor bewildered 20-year-old me, sitting in her little bed, trying not to be crushed by the weight of the shame and the guilt and the hopelessness and the despair sitting on her chest like an elephant, making it impossible for her to move.
I think of telling her, “Hey, listen, someday you will ‘set your mind to it,’ and you will accomplish things you never thought you could.”

I think of how ashamed that would make her feel. How self-loathing. I really don’t think it would make her think, “Oh good, things will get better, everything is going to be OK.” I think it would confirm for her that she just wasn’t trying hard enough, that she was clearly capable but she was somehow choosing not to succeed.

I think of many of you. I think of how saying, “Don’t worry, I have bipolar disorder and honestly, my life is pretty OK” can be a comfort but can also be a knife to the heart, another way to prove to yourself that other people are better and stronger than you are.

I’m not a better person than I used to be. I’m not any stronger. I didn’t wake up one day and figure out how to “set my mind.” If I had tried to do this 10 years ago, I simply would not have been able to, and it wasn’t because I didn’t want it bad enough. It wasn’t because I wasn’t trying hard enough. I just know myself a little better now. I have a few more tools. I kept breathing, and I got help, and eventually, after a lot of time and a lot of mistakes and a lot of struggle, I got to know myself and my illness well enough that it stopped being in charge of my life.

And I still mess it up all the time. It’s still a struggle. I know the things to watch for, I know the things that make it worse. I feel myself starting to crack and I take a day off work to sleep on the floor. I give myself permission to be careful with myself in ways I’m not sure other people even have to think about.

I have bipolar disorder, and before I found that out, depression almost killed me. Now, I have an amazing group of friends and a great job and I just got into an extremely competitive school program and I make my bed every single day. Success stories? They’re a thing.

But it’s not as simple as just setting your mind to it. Maybe right now you’re actually not ready to do all the things you want to. Maybe right now you just need to take a breath and do the next thing and the next thing and the next, and then eventually you will be. Sometimes it takes a lot of time and a lot of missteps, and that’s not something you should feel ashamed of. Those things are part of your story. They were part of my story. And — I’ve been trying to avoid cliches so please forgive me, but — they were the part of my story that taught me the most. Every shameful failure and crushing disappointment have been knit together to make me a wiser and kinder and more resilient person, and now here I am, sitting in the sunshine with my bed made and my toenails painted, telling you I did a thing I never thought I could do.

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Thinkstock photo via AntonioGuillem

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