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Dear Mental Illness Warriors, Your Story Is Gold

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Living with a mental illness is hard. For those of us who struggle, we are painfully aware of the hardship. Dealing with thoughts, countless appointments, soul searching, vulnerability, emotion work, trauma work, medication side effects — the list goes on. A lot of these become second nature — we don’t even notice anymore.

But one thing I always notice is the shame surrounding mental illness.

For the longest time, I told myself I wasn’t ashamed of my illness. I knew it didn’t define me and I was accepting of the fact that it was a big part of my life. But I didn’t want anyone else to know about it. At least, not really.

I didn’t want them to know that when I say I spent six months in treatment for an eating disorder, I don’t mean that I’m recovered now. I don’t want them to know that at the beginning of treatment, I didn’t even want to get better — I knew I was slowly killing myself and I didn’t care. I didn’t want them to know that I take antidepressants, or that I have trouble sleeping and I’ve had panic attacks while driving on the interstate. Because when I put it like that, I can’t help but feel like I’m “crazy.” I often feel like too much for people to accept. Surely they’ll stop talking to me or shy away because I’m too much for them to swallow.

What I didn’t realize is that these experiences I had, the struggles I continue to deal with, they have power. Sure, they have power over me, but moreover, they have power to define who I am and what I choose to do with that. I spent a hell of a long time learning that I am not my illness. And I’m not. But I do have an illness, and I continue to fight it every day.

Instead of being ashamed of my experiences, I can own them. Hell, I’m proud of myself for overcoming all that I have. The progress I’ve made is remarkable, and I shouldn’t demean that by trying to shove it away. It isn’t a hastily written chapter in a book that I want to shut tight and put away, never to be read.

I’m proud of every pound I gained, every time I chose not to harm myself, every day I woke up and dragged myself out of bed and sat in therapy groups and meal supports and weekly physicals for hours on end. Every bite I took, every tear I shed, every panic attack I survived — those were battles I won. There is power in strength I once saw as weakness.

Recently, I got an opportunity to work with a nonprofit organization that supports eating disorder awareness and prevention. I’ll be assisting in organizing events and, much to my surprise, I was asked to be a recovery speaker. I was taken back. “We think your story is really powerful,” they said. I paused for a moment, completely struck by the words I had just read.

I’d spent the last few months adjusting to living at home and trying to figure out who I was now that I was outpatient. I wanted to make friends, but I was so scared of people knowing my story. I felt weary and weathered and broken compared to my peers. But when I read that one sentence, something clicked. A fundamental piece of recovery fell into place the moment I realized that owning my story and sharing it publicly could help people — a lot of people. Myself included.

This was a several days ago, and since then, I’ve made it a point not to hide my past. I’ve been talking openly about my illnesses, my struggles, my triumphs and all the real recovery moments that have come and gone, and I’m amazed at how much better I feel. I’d always been terrified of dwelling on the past and getting stuck there. I’m not dwelling on it though. By taking ownership of the power of my story, I’ve given it permission to exist as just that. I’m ready to leave those feelings of fear and inadequacy and shame in the past and use my experiences as tools to build my future — not as chains that hold me down.

I encourage anyone struggling to take a moment and realize how your experiences have helped you. It’s a strange concept, I know. But has your past made you kinder? Wiser? More introspective, self-compassionate, spontaneous, careful, bold or social? Maybe it’s a person, a place or an experience. That doesn’t discount all the suffering or the pain you’ve endured, but hopefully it makes you a little more accepting of this part of you. You have a story and your words are power. They are liberating and inspiring and heart-wrenching, but most of all, they tell a story that deserves to be told.

Warrior, your story is gold.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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Thinkstock photo via ipopba

Originally published: July 13, 2017
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