What Self-Reflection at 3 A.M. Made Me Realize About My Mental Illness

I am standing in front of the mirror, having a conversation. It’s 3 a.m. and I haven’t slept for the past two days. Yet at this moment, in the dead of the night, where exhaustion has crawled into my bones, I can finally hear the sound of my own voice. And what is probably the most reassuring bit: I sound reasonable and calm, and all I am telling myself makes complete sense.

Half an hour ago I was nursing a panic attack — one of several from the past few days. I am able to understand how anxiety combined with trauma works; I also know these are phases where triggers are magnified and anything can set me off. I know my body is stretched to the end of its tether. I can point out where my muscles are stretched, how my hands clench into themselves and the way my jaw is locked each morning because I wake up in a state of panic. I understand all of this will ease out; it will pass. I have lived with debilitating anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) aided by episodes of substance abuse long enough to label all the ways the world crashes around my ears. But when I am curled up in ball, trying to fight for breath at 2:30 in the morning, I don’t remember any of the above. I am thinking about everything at once and nothing at all. This paradox defines the noise that surrounds all of us; it shatters those who are living with some form of mental illness because it contradicts itself and the silence is filled with voices that shuts down our inherent capacity to listen to ourselves and heal.

The woman in front of me at 3 a.m., however, is reasonable. She understands how to curate listening, looking and seeing. She knows about the daily news drivel that celebrates success stories of 23-year-old millionaires, CEOs of startup successes, go-getters who have it all sorted and TEDx speakers who tell you to pursue your dreams because they did and now they can afford motivational speaking. She reads poetry, oddball books and is connected to a social media diet where living a life less ordinary is designed across Pinterest posters, Instagram posts of people who made it and narratives where people are struggling. The 3 a.m. woman has been all of the above — a success story, a go-getter, a trauma survivor — but she now wants to defy labels. The daily struggle of debilitating anxiety and sudden spurts of depression has broken her multiple times, in ways so extreme she had to give it all up. She is trying to be something but the noise makes that something vague. It makes her an anomaly that needs to heal, but at 2:30 a.m. she has no idea how. Her friends tell her to get her act together because she has hidden behind a carefully constructed façade of OK; her family watches in disdain because 33-year-olds should have it together by now. And that is how healing fails.

At 3 a.m., then, she acknowledges the failure of healing because it maps out ways in which the noise can be shut down and she can somehow begin again. She accepts the paradox of her Now, where she is required to be functional and she may find her own way, even if it invites all her dysfunction. She understands the loneliness of this process but she wishes she didn’t have to fight all of these battles alone.

It’s OK to be not OK — she has known this. But the solitary journey through daily anxiety and depression exhausts her. She wants to be the 3 a.m. woman at 10:30 in the morning, at 5 in the evening, but she can’t be because the failure of her functionality is not scheduled. And she runs out of steam to make people understand.

Pain and suffering are isolating; there are times when articulation is impossible and each person will fight their demons in their own way. At 3 a.m., however, she has befriended them. And through the noise of a world on speed, she has a few moments of precious clarity that let her set her own pace. But those few moments are few and far. They are fragile and she does not know how to not let them break.

Photo by Brad Lloyd on Unsplash

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