I’ve lived with mental illness for over half of my life now.
I’ve spent most of those years fighting it off, trying to get rid of it, refusing to accept it as my reality. I thought that, if I tried hard, if I went to therapy and worked out and prayed enough, that eventually, it would go away.
One day, I’d wake up happy.
One day, I wouldn’t be some woman who came with the caveat of sadness or anxiety or suicidal thoughts.
One day, I could be normal. I wouldn’t be broken anymore.
I’m not sure where that narrative came from. It’s likely that I made it up myself; this belief that mental illness was simply a game to be beat, a problem that could be solved. I’m a perfectionist and I hate showing any kind of weakness, so the idea of accepting a part of me to be permanently broken, without any reason or cause, has been so insanely hard for me. I didn’t do anything to break my brain, so I couldn’t accept it to be my truth. There had to be a way for me to fix it. I had to fix it.
I have a bad knee. My brother and I were in a car accident when I was fifteen and my knee hit the dashboard. For a long time, we didn’t know why it was hurting, but the pain ended my volleyball career and kept me in physical therapy for a long time. Eventually, I had surgery and learned that, on that Christmas morning when my knee hit the dashboard, it had cracked the cartilage behind my knee cap. And there was nothing they could do about it.
When the doctor told me that I’d be in pain for the rest of my life, I didn’t question him. We’d done the work and explored our options and he said, “You can do some exercises to help the pain, but you’ll never be able to run, squat, or jump like you used to. This is permanent.” This was a big game changer for me, a girl who had been playing sports since I was three, and almost ten years later I’m more angry about it than I was then, but I accept it as part of my reality. There is no shame for me in telling someone that I have a bad knee; I have scars to show them, a physical representation of what I’ve been through. I’m not questioned when I have to admit that I can’t do something because of the pain, and I don’t blame myself it either.
I know that I have a bad knee, a doctor has told me that the injury is permanent, and I have no problem accepting that fact.
But the idea of accepting my mental illness in the same way feels impossible.
You see, depression and anxiety are different for everyone. Some people are depressed for a short season, one time, and then it never comes back again. Some people live with anxiety but don’t have depressive tendencies. Some people are in therapy but have never had a suicidal thought. Often, someone has a traumatic event that can trigger depression, but after they’ve dealt with that trauma, it lifts and never comes back. For some of us, depression is a part of our family history. Just as clearly as I have my dad’s eyes, I have my mother’s depressive tendencies. Mental illness is as diverse as those of us that deal with it.
I spent most of my time in college, with that therapist, trying to figure out what my mental illness was like. We explored options. We dealt with my past head on, hoping that if I rewrote that narrative and owned my story that maybe, just maybe, the depression would lift. For a long time, my depression was cyclistic; it robbed me of six months out of the year before giving me my life back for a while. In therapy, we wondered if this was due to the way my brain worked, or if it was directly linked to trauma. We tried so many things, just like the orthopedic surgeon did with my knee, but none of them changed anything.
So, when my therapist, after working with me for four years, looked at me and said, “What if you battle depression for the rest of your life?” I felt defeated, weak, like a failure. What hadn’t we tried? What had I done wrong? Why couldn’t my brain just work like it was supposed to?
Still, though, I knew. I knew that we had tried everything. I was frustrated, but I was able to look back at her and say, “I think I’ll be okay. I think that I can do it. I’ve made it this far.”
And, without missing a beat, she looked at me and said, “I know you can.”
The last year has been a lot of things, but one of the biggest changes that have come in my life has been accepting my mental illness for what it is. Since I’ve graduated, I have a new therapist and rather than trying to make my depression go away, we’re practicing what it looks like to live with it. She isn’t afraid of my darkness, and I’m learning that I shouldn’t be, either. I’ve gotten on medication and pay attention to how certain things affect my brain. I know that working out, eating well, and sleeping eight hours a night helps me stay above water. I know that reading about mental illness, not sleeping, and seasons of stress make it worse. I’m learning what it looks like not to spend my energy fighting what is, but using it to stay alive and live well, despite the anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts that may riddle my day. I’m learning that these things don’t mean that I’m broken or any less able than the next person. I’m learning to believe that these things don’t make me weak, but the fact that I am alive, and the fact that I can live with them every day, actually makes me strong.
This week is National Suicide Prevention Week, and I am glad to be alive. I’ve dealt with mental illness for over half of my life, and rather than choosing to believe that that makes me weak, I’m choosing to believe that every single day of my life is a miracle.