I am emotionally attached to the depression-hypomanic roller coaster. Talking to other mentally ill people made me realize this attachment is a common theme, and the attachment increases the longer the struggle is prolonged. For instance, my mom had a bought of depression/anxiety, but all it took was some Citalopram and therapy to get her back to normal. I’m not saying her illness is less valid because her road to recovery was relatively short, but when I brought up the whole “being attached to my illness” thing, she couldn’t relate at all. She didn’t struggle long enough to have it become a seemingly inextricable part of her identity.
Inevitably, there are periods of reprieve from the most debilitating symptoms when mental illness persists for many years, as it usually does. Even though I think I would welcome stability if I could guarantee that it would last, these brief periods of symptom alleviation make me extremely nervous as if they somehow invalidate the periods of being completely consumed by my illnesses. Like, “Oh no! I’ve built an entire identity around my suffering, and now that it’s gone, I don’t know who I am.”
I think the fear is twofold. On the one hand, recovery is terrifying because it would force me to reckon with the ways mental illness has permanently altered my personality and worldview even in its absence. Without it, I would be able to see clearly all the things it took from me – the years, the youth, the experiences, the relationships, the grades, etc. For all I know, that realization could send me spiraling in a totally new way. Obviously that’s a pessimistic attitude, but I know myself and my usual reaction to a sense of loss. It isn’t pretty.
On the other hand, recovery would give me the wherewithal to give 100% in everything I do, and with that comes the inability to say that my failure can be attributed to my shortcomings due to my illnesses. My inner perfectionist is terrified by that prospect. For me, it always feels better to fail because I didn’t give 100% – because I usually can’t – than to fail after giving 100% to whatever endeavor because then I have to come to terms with my actual shortcomings as a person, not that I couldn’t overcome those. It’s a personal hang-up that comes from feeling inadequate when things don’t come easily to me, and I know that failure is supposed to be a great teacher, but given all the things I internalized about my “natural intelligence” as a kid, I can’t see it that way. It’d take some real mental rewiring, which sounds like a lot of work on top of all the mental rewiring I would have already done to get better. Do I use my mental illnesses as an excuse for not doing things? No. They truly render me incapable of giving 100%, but I’m scared of what would happen if I could give 100%. I’m scared of being able and wanting to achieve. Everyone talks about the fear of failure, which I have. But I also have a fear of success.
Then there’s the whole “being emotionally attached to my mental illnesses” thing. It’s hard to say from what that stems. For me, I think it has to do with mental illness being the only constant in my life throughout the past four years and even before that if I’m being honest with myself. I’ve had nebulous and higher than normal levels of anxiety for as long as I can remember. Mental illness is my comfort zone despite it being extremely uncomfortable. What would it be like if I wasn’t living in my head 99.99999% of the time? What would it be like to not prepare for the worst-case scenario in every single situation? What would it be like to not have a constant, overarching sense of existential despair? What would it be like to be confident in my social interactions? What would it be like to not do compulsive rituals out of habit? What would it be like to not live life in one of two emotional extremes? I don’t know. Part of doesn’t really want to know. The other part of me desperately wants to know.
It might seem sad that mental illness is my comfort zone, but I don’t really see it that way. Sure, there’s no consolation for it, but when everything seems futile, wanting to dedicate my life to raising awareness for and giving dignity to people with all types of mental illness doesn’t seem quite as futile as other pursuits. It gives me a sense of purpose or at least, more of a sense of purpose than I am able to derive from anything else. Mental illness isn’t something I’d wish on my worst enemy, but then again, I’m probably my own worst enemy. And I do continuously wish it on myself. Again, it doesn’t make up for life with mental illness, but it’s something.
When 1 in 5 people suffer from some sort of mental illness, it seems necessary to let the 20% create the narrative of what it’s actually like to live with a mental illness. Putting faces to the diagnoses helps humanize them when many of us so often feel reduced to them. That means understanding the reasons – albeit they are sometimes irrational – why it seems like we don’t always try to get better.
When there is so much stigma regarding the seeming selfishness of mental illness, it’s clear why we fear the thought of “faking it” so much. If our struggle ever appears gluttonous, know that it is much more convoluted than that. No one likes to step out of his or her comfort zone, especially when that also means losing a huge part of his or her life even if that part absolutely sucks. It’s like getting out of a bad relationship. It seems as easy as “just leaving,” but the irrationality of emotions makes it much more complicated.
I don’t want what I have, but since I’m so accustomed to the company of mental illness, I’m scared of facing the world without it. In the words of The Smashing Pumpkins, I’m in love with my sadness. Sorry ‘bout it.