Sep 13, 2018
This content contains explicit and sensitive information that may not be suitable for all ages.
I regret the many years I spent as a slave to my mental illness.
But something that I have believed for a long time is that the best response to this feeling is to use my insight to help others. I’ve risked exposing myself in the hopes of enabling others to better understand life with a mis-wired brain and/or support people in circumstances similar to mine. I hope this piece inspires greater empathy for people with mental illness or that its relatability will make someone feel less alone.
In my experience living with mental illness, I’ve found myself so dominated by sickness that it has become my identity. While I can only describe my personal experience here, discussions with others have made me aware that I am not alone in this situation.
I’ve realized that many factors have contributed to me losing touch with my genuine self. Firstly, the control mental illness has over my brain makes it almost impossible to focus on anything outside of my negative thoughts and feelings. For too long, this left very little time/energy for me to invest in personal exploration or relationships with people who could point out the tricks of my illness. As I slowly take back control over my mind and body, the voices that yell at me are just slightly weaker; however, years of consistently responding to them has resulted in some pretty entrenched neural pathways that strongly influence how I view myself now.
Living a meaningful life has been dangerous and futile
My brain also has a sneaky way of filtering my perception to support its idea that being sick is what makes me special. For example, during times of greater struggle, it used the worries people expressed about my wellness as evidence that being ill was my most important feature. Constant anxiety and obsession with being the “sickest” overshadowed anything I knew was true about my skills, interests, personality, etc.
As a hostage to my brain, my priority has been listening to its lies and abiding by its rules in order to maintain a false sense of safety. Living a meaningful life has been dangerous and futile – dangerous in that attending to anything other than my monster yields punishment, and futile because success has been measured only by my ability to get sicker. (I know the concept of wanting to be the most ill is really messed up to someone with a healthy brain, but it’s another example of the power mental illness can have over someone’s logic. Not all disorders are competitive in this way, but it can definitely happen.)
On top of the disconnect between my self-perception and what others believe about me, emotional isolation and multiple hospitalizations prevented me from doing/discussing anything unrelated to my mental health.
Imagine that at a young age you moved to a new city. For 15 years you’ve lived in that city and since arriving, you’ve been welcomed by its residents, they call you a member of the community, you can relate to everyone on some level and are an expert on all topics of conversation held. You’ve made some really close connections and feel very comfortable calling this place home.
At first, the chaos provides good distraction and escape from your old life, but eventually you forget why you left and going back doesn’t seem like an option. Logically, you know this new city and its dictator are awful. You don’t enjoy this place, but you’ve been there so long you can’t remember what life was like before arriving. The dictator convinces you that only they are trustworthy, so you have no reliable evidence that people outside the city are much happier. You feel trapped. The city doesn’t provide real comfort, but it’s the only comfort you can count on. Moreover, you feel like outsiders respect you for tolerating these painful conditions and that leaving would signify weakness.
I SHOULD be a different person now.
This analogy reflects my story, and possibly the stories of others. Reading it, I think it’s understandable how one could feel inseparable from their illness, or metaphorically, this city. Personally, a big part of my recovery is not simply rebuilding my identity, but constructing it. I became sick so long ago that I’ve missed so many experiences and important periods of growth. At 25, I cannot just go back to being the 10-year-old I was when I first took the hand of my monster. I SHOULD be a different person now.
The challenge for me is identifying the things Sabrina enjoys and believes, not those which her illness tells her she does. Luckily, I have a pretty amazing crew of people helping me out, reminding me of my healthy self and encouraging me to try new things. To the veterans, the freshman, and those who don’t know they’re even on the team – Thank you.