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Accepting My Mental Illness Is a Journey, Not a Quest

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Growing up an aspiring fantasy author, I studied the many paths my characters could take. An adventure is a trip without a destination. A journey is where the trip itself matters most. A quest is a trip to accomplish a specific task. I dreamed of romantic journeys, wild adventures and life-changing quests. As a character in my own personal epic, mental illness was just another quest: something to overcome and move past. I did not just reject the idea mental illness could be an ongoing journey, I completely ignored any consideration of it.

I have worn many labels in the form of my diagnoses: generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), major depression, panic disorder and most recently, bulimia nervosa. Each label is a new quest, a new challenge to overcome. A series of quests to the “perfect mental health.” That was true, at least, until I sat down to an online mental health seminar titled “The Imperfect Recovery.”

My goal in attending this seminar was recovery: to beat bulimia and move past it once and for all. This workshop was aimed at “imperfect recoveries,” and recovery was there in the title and thus essential to the plot. My quest was already laid out for me.

I closed my computer barely minutes in when the realization of the true title hit me. “The Imperfect Recovery” — they were talking about adventures, journeys… not quests. Accepting an imperfect recovery meant the story might not end as nicely as I had hoped. A potentially never-ending road of battles and I closed my computer barely minutes in.

An imperfect recovery simply did not compute with my own, deeply held need for perfection. Never properly analyzed, I still have no idea what this perfection meant. What is “perfect mental health?” The absence of mental illness? A never-ending tirade of smiles and happy days?

As a health educator, I should have known “perfect mental health” did not exist. As a health educator, I often describe mental health as being similar to physical health: There are good days and bad days, temporary injuries, chronic conditions and sporadic pains. I held conversations with others to help them come to terms with mental health being an essential part of wellness, to overcome the burden of stigma and to explore options for support before they were inevitably needed. I held the conversations, designed the posters, hosted the events and yet still held onto my own internalized stigma. I would not accept good days and bad days, for I was on a quest for “perfect mental wellness,” mental illness would never be chronic, not for me.

As I battled with my latest diagnosis, bulimia nervosa, “The Imperfect Recovery” hit on deeply held beliefs I had never fully acknowledged: my need for perfection and my consequently internalized mental health stigma. Although not all mental illness will be chronic, I had never properly considered that mine might be.

If perfection is defined as the complete lack of mental illness (which I would argue it’s not), we are setting ourselves up for inevitable failure. It was gently pointed out to me by my therapist that, like physical illness, the complete lack of illness is sometimes impossible. Perfection is an impossible quest.

But, the loss of perfection does not mean the loss of joy. Similarly, accepting a life with mental illness is not giving up. It is accepting just one battle in your life, one opportunity to fight, one story where your strength will shine. It is the first chapter of an epic saga.

I can try to find joy in progress. I can celebrate every small accomplishment and search for room for innovation in every setback. My imperfect recovery with mental illness will include trials and tribulations, good days and bad, and I can continue to grow through each and every one. I can accept this journey that stands in front of me. This is not a quest I am failing at because I have not reached the end — this is a journey where the trip matters most and a set of adventures lay ahead to explore. Perhaps I will never reach my destination, but I can find joy in the constant innovation and creativity that it takes to move forward each day. Acceptance is not done — I will have to practice it every day. But, I am on the journey and that brings me joy.

A version of this article was originally published on The Anxious Scientist.

Unsplash image by Etienne Boulanger

Originally published: July 16, 2021
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