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5 Truths I've Learned by Talking About My Mental Illness

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My introduction to mental illness began with a crash.

I was 18 years old and driving my mother’s brand new Impala to school. It was May 29, just a month away from my high school graduation. I would graduate with honors. I would be attending George Washington University in the fall. I would be successful and happy and do great things, I kept telling myself.

But as I was driving to school that morning, another person drove into my lane — right into my mother’s shiny new car. According to the police reports, I was going about 60 mph when I drove straight into a concrete wall. I don’t remember much of what happened. My memories from that day are more like split-second flashes with a lot of blank space in between.

My iPod stopped playing and I noticed that the entire car had shut down. I thought to myself “Oh my God, Dad is going to kill me for crashing Mom’s car.” I saw the concrete wall suddenly appear right in front of me.

Everything went silent.

For a split second I was handing my cellphone to a man who would later call my father. Then I was in an ambulance, strapped down onto a hard board, for what seemed like forever. When my father’s face appeared in the back window, I started sobbing out apologies to him. Then it fades to black again.

Since then, I’ve learned five fundamental truths about living with mental illness:

  1. My illness is not my fault.
  2. It’s OK to fall apart over and over again.
  3. My scars are not symbols of shame. They are symbols of all the times that I wanted to give up — but didn’t.
  4. Depression and anxiety might require a life-long process of recovery. I will probably never wake up one day and be “fixed.”
  5. It’s OK to talk about mental illness.

1. My illness is not my fault, nor is it my parents’ fault.

Life was confusing after the accident. My brain ended up creating its own narrative of what happened, and in that narrative it was all my fault. None of it was actually my fault, I would find out later, but that didn’t matter. The damage was done. I didn’t really feel sad at first; I just felt hollow. The next few weeks were filled with nightmares, panic attacks and self-imposed isolation. I told myself I didn’t deserve to have friends, didn’t deserve to have a loving family, didn’t deserve to be alive.

There was physical pain too, but it was nothing compared to the mental trauma. The physical stuff was fixable. It was something I could touch and something that others could see. The things that were going on inside my head were far less tangible but far more terrifying.

I did graduate, and I did go to GWU in the fall. The business of college took my mind off the accident and I miraculously made it through freshman year in one piece. But the “be successful and happy” part didn’t happen like I had planned.

2. It’s OK to fall apart over and over again.

Eventually it all came back with a vengeance. It morphed into something bigger.

By sophomore year, I was bawling my eyes out in the closet every night. I was skipping classes and sleeping 10-12 hours a day. I stopped hanging out with my friends. I didn’t deserve to have them, I told myself. I cycled through different medications, many of which had terrible side effects. I went to one-on-one therapy and group therapy every week. With just one group therapy session left, one of the participants killed himself in his dorm room.

After a lot of individual therapy sessions, I realized I had been struggling with depression and anxiety for a long time — even before that car accident. I was always an anxious child, self-conscious and perpetually guilt-ridden. Things got worse in high school, but no one realized I had depression. I never realized it. I had been quietly falling apart my whole life and never really knew it.

3. My scars are not symbols of shame. They are symbols of all the times that I wanted to give up, but didn’t.

I was so ashamed. I cut myself off from the world around me, both figuratively and literally. I found stability through cutting. It helped me release all the invisible pain inside of my body. Any time I became too happy, the scars would remind me that I was still a broken mess.

I took an entire semester off from college after one too many violent breakdowns. I went back to school the next semester but I started failing my classes almost immediately. Things in my head spiraled out of control and one morning I woke up in the hospital, headed to the psych ward. So many doctors tried to make me quit school. They told me I would never graduate. They had seen kids like me, they said, and I’d just be back in the psych ward six months later. Just go home.

I refused. I argued. I finally agreed just so they would let me leave the hospital, and then I went back to classes. I registered in my school’s disability department at the urging of my professors and parents. I made it through and I graduated in one piece. I realized recently that although my scars aren’t going to disappear, I don’t have to be ashamed of them. If my family and friends don’t know the reality of those scars, they only know a fragment of who I really am.

My scars tell stories about the many times I could have given up, but chose not to.

4. Depression might be a life-long process of recovery. I will probably never wake up one day and be “fixed.”

I’ve become a different person since my initial diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. I’m in a better place now but I know that things aren’t perfect.

I still allow my dark thoughts to creep in some days and set up camp. I’ve lost a lot of friends over the years. I’ve missed out on a lot of professional and academic opportunities. I allowed myself to get stuck in a fruitless job, working for a failing company, where my self-respect withered away. I still don’t know what I’m meant to do with the rest of my life, and I can’t help but think of how things might have been different — might have been better — without a mental illness.

I’ve lied about my disease for all these years because I’ve been scared of myself. I always hoped depression would just be a passing phase for me. I could cover it up, pack it away once it ended, and never think of it again. I realize now that it’s not going away.

But it’s not all bad, believe it or not. I feel pain more deeply with depression, but I also feel happiness more completely because of it. I’ve found comfort in repetitive and safe activities, like knitting and translating Latin. I’ve made connections with some truly amazing people by opening up about my mental illnesses. I adopted a rescue dog one year ago. I was petrified I would fail her somehow; after all, I could barely take care of myself. I soon found out there’s nothing — no amount of prescription drugs or mental exercises from therapy — more effective at getting you out of bed than a dog smacking your face with her paw.

5. It’s OK to talk about mental illness. 

I’m still ashamed, but now it’s a little bit different. I’m ashamed I put this burden on my parents and my brother to conceal it with me. I’m ashamed I haven’t been honest about who I am with the people who love and care for me the most.

Our culture has created this rule that makes mental illness feel a lot like Fight Club. When you realize you have it, you don’t admit to anything. You don’t tell anyone unless you know it’s absolutely safe. I hate that rule. There aren’t any rules when it comes to mental illness, anyway. We’re all playing this game together but none of us can even agree what the game is, much less which side we’re on or what the rules should be.

I once heard a joke — a quote, actually, from writer Rita Mae Brown — that goes like this:

“The statistics on sanity are that one out of every four Americans [have] some form of mental illness. Think of your three best friends. If they’re OK, then it’s you.”

I respectfully oppose that punch line. If you believe all of your friends are perfectly fine, there’s a good chance at least one of your friends is lying to you. There’s a good chance at least one of your friends is scared, is hurting and is lonely.

So I’m making a proposal: Let’s talk about mental illness. I’m talking about my mental illness because I’m ready. Not because I’m better, not because my nightmares are gone completely, but because I’m ready. Not everyone is ready to be so open about their own illness — and that’s OK — but I urge everyone to join the conversation in some way. The more you talk about it, the more normal it becomes. The more you talk about it, the more control you have over it. The more you talk about it, the less it can define who you are.

Hell, even if you don’t have a mental illness, your voice and your presence still matter. If you don’t know what to say, sometimes it’s OK to ask questions. Sometimes all you need to do is listen and be there.

Talking about mental illness is a huge step and it’s terrifying. But I hope that, if nothing else, maybe I can convince a few more people to speak up with me.

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Originally published: October 14, 2016
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