On my relentless quest to get to the heart of why mental illness makes me choose unhealthy coping mechanisms even though I have a myriad of healthy ones at my disposal, I actually felt the need to do homework as an escape from all that introspection. My parents must be so proud.
Like, I binged on a bag of potato chips. Then, I worked out until I felt sick. Now, I have resolved to eat 1000 calories or less for the next three days. Would it have been easier to eat three normal meals, work out for thirty minutes, and steadily continue that pattern? Yes. I knew this with each handful of chips, but I couldn’t stop. The compulsions never end, but beyond the compulsion, mental illness creates a desire to self-destruct – be it directly (e.g., binge drinking) or indirectly (e.g., procrastination). Why god, why?
The minute someone tells me not to do something, I want to do nothing else, but not in a rebellious way. It’s more like, “wow, I did not realize how much I wanted to do the bad thing until you said I couldn’t do it. Now it’s all I can think about. Thanks.” Then I do the bad thing knowing how detrimental it is and let the heaping coals of guilt burn my unhealthily coping body.
My therapist gives me healthy alternatives, and I agree to do them all while knowing I have absolutely zero intentions of doing them. “Stop associating food with sin.” “Exercise for thirty minutes every day.” “Set a drink limit before you leave the house.” Yeah, first of all, no. Second of all, the unhealthy coping mechanisms I have left are things to which I actually look forward.
There’s something about the instant gratification of shoving the 20th handful of chips into my mouth or finishing a second bottle of wine that can’t compete with taking my meds and sticking to a boring routine. I look around and see people eating unhealthily, drinking, and staying up late, and I’m suddenly acutely aware of how abnormally my brain handles these activities. There is no self-forgiveness. There is no hopping back on the productivity wagon after a minor slip causes me to fall. There is no prioritization of “work now, fun later.” There is only the complete and utter preoccupation with how much I’d rather be doing something destructive even as I drudge through schoolwork and chores at an alarmingly slow rate.
Some of the behaviors like procrastination, I think, are subtle rebellions against my life’s trajectory. Granted, I don’t really like any possible life trajectory at the moment, but I know procrastination will only make my prolonged existence and future compliance with the necessities of a productive life much more difficult. But that doesn’t stop me! I can be shockingly self-aware while simultaneously engaging in behaviors that make me seem oblivious to the real world. Self-sabotage, you sneaky bastard.
Others like drinking, disordered eating, and refusing to sleep, are attempts to regain control and a sense of normalcy. I want to go out with friends, look thin, and not oscillate between effortless all-nighters and endless sleep. I achieve the appearance of normalcy in my own, ass backwards ways. I do what normal college students do for the most part, and even though I don’t throw around the word “normal” a lot, I’m tired of the whole “omg, no one is normal lol” attitude. Some of my quirks are endearing I guess, but what look like quirks can actually be symptoms of an illness that wants to destroy me. That isn’t the cute kind of abnormal. Sometimes I think that if I just pretend long enough, I will become normal through osmosis. This obviously hasn’t happened, but it’s like taking the wrong means to the right end. If it looks the same, I get treated like a normal person, and that’s good enough for me a lot of the time. Implementing healthy coping mechanisms can actually look a lot less normal and further separate me from my peers. Maybe that says more about society than me, but whatever. I can’t always exercise the forethought necessary to forgo unhealthy behaviors in the face of such indirect pressure and, ultimately, desire to engage in them.
More than anything, however, the unhealthiest of my coping mechanisms are my opportunities for complete indulgence in my mental illness. I know exactly how sick I am, but in a world where I’m either too sick or not sick enough at all times, I’m constantly walking a tightrope of façades. Yeah, I mean self-harm. It’s mine. I get to give into the full weight of my illness on my own terms, and then I get to clean it all up on my own. I fixed my problem. Usually after a panic attack or another form of a moment in which I become acutely aware of my mental illness, I feel the need to get it all out because I know I will have to go back to pretending.
I’m not asking for leeway to live in a constant nervous breakdown, but I don’t get taken seriously unless I do and even then, I’m taken too seriously. Sure, it’s serious, but it’s misguided to equate all mentally ill behaviors with an imminent suicide attempt. Sometimes we just have to get it out. Even with the self-harm thing, people either think it’s a cry for attention or a suicide attempt, and I guess it could be those things. But in my opinion, both of those reasons should be seen as symptoms if they are, in fact, the actual reasons.
For me, though, it’s about needing a space to be the amount of “sick” I know I am. I know that sounds alarming, but it’s no more alarming than other self-sabotaging behaviors. Usually, the others end up being more destructive because I can’t always “clean up.” My mental illness makes me create a lot of problems for myself, but in the case of self-harm, I can fix the problem I need to create. Obviously, I don’t expect that logic to make sense to mentally healthy people, but perhaps a little more leeway to actually live on the spectrum of illness instead of at either end of it would do me some good.
In the mean time, I’m not condoning anything by talking about it, but I can be honest without endorsing. It’s important to bring awareness to what makes mental illnesses actual illnesses though. Otherwise, we will always be caught in the limbo of being half-heartedly believed or whole-heartedly feared and pitied.
Above all, I never judge anyone’s coping mechanisms. Do what you have to do, but try to be careful, friends.