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What Keeping My Head Above Water Really Means With Mental Illness

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“For you, keeping your head above water means being able to put your feet up when you need to.”

That is what a friend told me before cutting off all contact with me. I was in the middle of a week-long city break in London, where I was recovering from an instance of extreme betrayal.

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I had learned that explicit images of me had been shared outside the boundaries of my consent, something I’m sure would set most people’s minds reeling. I was no exception, and so I pulled together every penny I could spare and took off to spend some time as a tourist in a city I normally only see when I’m working with mental health charities.

My entire adult life and a huge chunk of my adolescence have been spent coming to terms with various mental illnesses; from anxiety to depression to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

It gets exhausting.

As such, keeping my head above water involves so much more than simply putting my feet up from time to time. In reality, it can mean anything from hiding in my room and not speaking to anyone for weeks at a time, to running away under the guise of running toward something.

I understand people look at me with some degree of suspicion. I generally forget to carry my neon sign stating I have a mental illness, so from the outside, I tend to look just like everyone else. Shocking, right?

Those of you with mental illnesses of your own won’t need to be told that whilst my life may look calm and still on the surface, a storm is raging beneath my relaxed exterior. My mind rarely, if ever, stops racing; even when I finally fall asleep, the battle in my mind is still ongoing.

If anything, the battle becomes more visible when I fall asleep, because I am powerless to hide it at that point.

Keeping my head above water is a daily and arduous task. It swings from one extreme to another; one day it’ll be reminding myself to eat, the next it’ll be talking myself out of suicide. There is no middle-ground.

That week in London was more than just me going on holiday. My internal narrative often involved me telling myself that the people who had made my last trip so painful were no longer in the area, let alone in my life. I was as safe as any other person walking the streets, despite what my anxiety might say.

I walked for miles that week, as my mind ran itself in circles, constantly reliving every second of my life since things had begun to unravel two months previously. I was in the process of accepting that I couldn’t save a grieving alcoholic friend and in order to save myself, I had to walk away.

The processes I go through just in order to stay alive could be characterized as self-care, except people tend to conjure warm and fuzzy images at the mention of that term; a bubble bath with a glass of wine, or maybe a soppy chick-flick with a bowl of popcorn.

I’ve never known one person who has automatically thought of the painful process of turning your mind inside out and picking through the wreckage left behind by countless people who’ve only ever sought to do damage when the term “self-care” has popped up in conversation. Yet that is exactly what it is, for me. Painful.

We need to banish the idea that people with mental illness are simply sad people who sit in the corner and cry all day because it isn’t true. Yes, we have days like that, but we also lead lives. Sometimes, those lives will look exactly like yours, and occasionally the little glimpses you catch of our lives may spark a fire of envy. It is important to remember that little glimpses are all you get.

The life of each and every person you will ever encounter will be akin to an iceberg. You will likely only ever see a tiny percentage of it. Everything else is generally kept hidden, deep beneath the surface.

In the case of mental illness, the hidden stuff is often left to fester. In these instances, it starts to eat at the person, like an infection that could kill them any day now. Remarks designed to cause pain are like food for the infection. Each one has the potential to finish off the person on the receiving end.

I like to think that the majority of people would hate to be responsible for something as tragic as a person’s life ending long before it ought to. And yet, I am painfully aware that most, if not all of us, are guilty of spitting out careless and damaging words.

Whether it be because of anger or simply because we dislike the person we are addressing, I am convinced that humans are, by nature, vicious creatures. However, that is not to say we cannot train ourselves to be kind.

It takes a lot of work but becoming kind people is a positive step, not only for ourselves but for everybody around us, too. We’re living in a world where every other day a new disaster is being reported on the news. It makes the world seem bleak and unkind. Yet, if you look closely enough, there are far more people helping than trying to do harm. Always look for those people. They will remind you of the good in the world.

“We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.” — Jo Cox, Labour MP

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

Unsplash photo via Marco De Waal

Originally published: July 9, 2017
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