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When Mental Illness Makes You Feel Like a Failure

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Growing up I always felt inadequate.

As a woman especially, it’s just so easy to compare yourself to those around you. I was a timid, chubby little girl with a learning disability and little-to-no talent. I could hardly hold a pencil, and it took me several years of occupational therapy to be able to tie my shoes or button my jeans. It made me envious of the women I was surrounded by; they all seemed like goddesses to me, these talented, beautiful, dragon-hearted women. They were everything I pictured myself wanting to be, but all that just seemed so far out of reach.

None seemed more majestic and fiercer than my older sister, the one I compared myself to the most. We will call her Jesse. I think she will appreciate that, for it was her cool biker chick persona. (Even though she was cool enough for the both of us with her government name.)

My sister is eight years my senior. She and my brother are from my mother’s previous relationship. Due to the age gap, she was almost like a second mother to me. We either had the opportunity to be strangers or the best of friends; we were always the latter. To me the sun rose and set for her. The outside world would think I wanted to be a pink Power Ranger, but the truth is I wanted nothing more than to be my sister. I vowed to be just like her. I too would be smart, beautiful, and have men fall at my feet one day. If only life were that easy. As a child I wore rose-colored glasses. I saw the pretty pictures she painted. I couldn’t see the struggles she faced. She wasn’t perfect. She taught me one of the greatest lessons: that even heroes fall sometimes.

I remember the day those rose-colored glasses fell off (more like they were knocked straight off my face). I was 7, maybe 8. A few minor details are fuzzy. A therapist later told me I had probably blocked out parts to protect myself, but I remember my mother rushing out the door towards an ambulance, telling me my father or grandmother would soon return home. I begged my mother to come. I needed to be there — she was my sister after all, but my mother smiled at me and insisted my sister would not want me to see her like that. Like what? I didn’t understand.

Later when they returned home, I worked something out. I saw my sister with bandages on her wrist. I knew something was off. I remember sitting in the hallway outside of my mother’s bedroom hearing her tell my sister perhaps she should go to the hospital. Was she sick? I also recall my father’s stoic silence. He is an understanding man but has a lot to learn when it comes to the psychiatric community. Was he angry? Probably a bit so. That’s how he deals with most emotions. I thought I should be angry too, but for what, I had no idea. Clearly, in my 8-year-old brain, my father was angry, therefore I should be too.

That was my first real brush with mental health (well, that I was aware of anyway). My childhood was spent in and out of doctor’s offices, whether it was for my brother and his “stomach issues,” which we were later discovered equated to anxiety caused by OCD or my sister attending weekly therapy sessions for the things I still didn’t understand. I recall my mother talking to my special education teacher, telling her she worried I wouldn’t get enough attention due to the chaos surrounding me, I would be left out. But I didn’t feel left out. For once I felt I had something over everybody else in my family. I didn’t have a mental illness. Until I did — or at least until acknowledged it.

Anxiety has always been a part of me, I just didn’t understand how I was feeling. I remember the first time I felt legitimately anxious. It was September 11, 2001. I remember the tension that filled the fourth-grade classroom as the teachers whispered back and forth, but nobody said anything to us kids. Instead, they sent a note home, one I tried to decipher on the bus. The note explained there had been a terrorist attack, whatever that meant. They left it to the parents to explain. I was a latchkey kid. I figured it out by the news reports when I turned on the TV when I got home. Suddenly my stomach knotted so tight that it hurt. I must have been sick. I ended up missing two weeks of school, whether for vomiting every morning or “missing the bus.” Home was safe. The outside world was not. That mentality seemed to stick with me for the rest of my life in one form or another. It used to come and go in bouts. Until it didn’t.

It started the summer after I graduated high school. My father had lost his job, and I couldn’t afford to go to college. I didn’t have a job, and I was stuck. Instead, I immersed myself in the internet, various TV shows, and RP groups, things I had control over. I met people that way, one close friend still included. We will call her Haley. We bonded through our connection of American Horror Story, but soon she taught me a lesson. Haley too has anxiety (that is the depth I will go into about it, that’s not my story to tell), but her struggle opened my eyes.

All this time while I had been quiet about my mental health, she was open. She taught me it was better to talk about it, take care of it. That it was nothing to be ashamed of. I owe her the biggest apologies. She stuck around me even though I had been a monster to her being my most toxic self.

I didn’t seek help, though, until I was 25. I started therapy and medication, and for the first time in a while, I felt more like myself, a healthier version. So much so, I stopped going to therapy, I was cured, right? Wrong. All it took was one class I struggled in to send me over the edge. Any feeling of inadequacy I had reared its ugly head. I called my mother sobbing for her to come get me. She did. We later got into a screaming argument about the situation. I told her I wanted to die and she should have taken me to the hospital. She told me she is tired of dealing with this. She later apologized, but her words still lingered in my head. I was supposed to be the “healthy, normal” one, the one who didn’t keep her up, and I had failed. It just meant it was time to start over once again.

Over this time, I got to remind myself that mental illness isn’t a form of failure. It’s an illness. I owe my family the biggest apology, my sister especially for the mentality that I carried that her struggles made her any less heroic to me. In fact, if anything, realizing my own struggles made me realize she is probably even braver to me than she was before. Fighting yourself every day is exhausting. Picking yourself back up takes a lot of strength you don’t know you possess. But I need to stop comparing myself to others. I may not be them, but I am strong, I am beautiful, I am dragon-hearted, but most of all, I am not a failure.

Getty image by Ponomariova_Maria.

Originally published: July 3, 2019
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