Why I'm Sitting With My Grief About Who I Could Have Been Without Mental Illness
Lately, I’ve been asking myself what my life would look like without mental illness. Who would I be? What would be different about my days? I worry these questions are the kinds that inevitably send you to the bottom of an emotional ditch with the weight of a shovel in your own hands. But the question is too big to push aside, and I am curious if anyone else wonders the same thing.
We learn there are three selves: our ought, our actual and our ideal selves. Our ought selves are run by guilt—what we should do. On the other hand, our ideal selves are who we aspire and hope to be. Then, our actual self is who we are in the present moment. If there is a discrepancy between our ought selves and our actual selves, we experience guilt, shame, anxiety. When there is a big gap between our ideal self and our actual self we experience depression (see more about the social discrepancy theory here).
When I ask myself who I would be without my mental illness, I am really uncovering my ideal self—the person I hope and aspire to be. I see better structure in my day, better time management, my emotions not being big distractors on productivity. I see smoother relationships, more energy, more focus. I see longer bouts of feeling content, more confidence, more enjoyment in my work. I see more doing with less thinking, a lighter heart, a less tense body, solidified healthy habits and routines. Basically, I see a glowing, vibrant version of me. I feel a bit of grief for the loss of this person I never even got to hold or embody. Can we grieve something we never had?
Yes. In fact, it’s said to be a vital step in the healing journey. As I am shifting my way through these feelings myself, my mind contemplates if I should lower the expectations I have—lower what I imagine the best version of myself and my life could be. I don’t think that is the answer. I’ve always admired my ability to dream big and have a clear vision of what I want my life to look like. In fact, having this belief—that life doesn’t have to always be this way—is what helped me climb out of chronic depression. So what is it then? Low self-esteem? Should I bask in gratitude for how far I’ve come and not sell myself short? Bring my actual self closer to my ideal self?
The truth is, I don’t know. These all sound like wonderful, helpful ideas. But for now, I’m going to stop focusing so much on my healing. I am going to stop trudging forward with brows furrowed like I usually do towards the top of the mountain where my ideal self resides. I think I’m going to sit with this grief. I know this may frustrate a few readers who are looking for helpful practical tips to climb out of an emotional slump. I know if I was reading this two months ago, it would not sit well with me. Take that for what you will. For me, I think it is important to sit with this grief and feel it in its entirety.
There are moments when the pain feels too big to hold, and there is an urgency to make it go away. There are moments when your perceived “brokenness” affects people you love negatively. Again, creating urgency to heal yourself. There is fear that if you do not get better or use all your effort and time to try to heal, everything will fall apart. But nothing beautiful grows from soil soaked in fear. I always thought the opposite of fear was courage, until my grade nine teacher told me the opposite of fear is love.
Perhaps welcoming grief is more aligned with love than finding solutions and ways to banish it from my heart space.
Perhaps giving myself more patience with my own healing, lessening my grip, is the loving option.
Perhaps with a little less force, there is more room to flourish.
“What is more aligned with love?” is the question I will ask myself from now on. And right now, it is sitting with the grief of losing the person I would have been if I did not have anxiety. It is placing less emphasis on doing and more emphasis on being. It is having trust that clarity will come when it does. As for you, what is the most loving thing you can do/say/allow for yourself at this moment?
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