The rooms are always different. The monologue is the same. My voice dutifully recounts my trauma like it’s the weather– casually and with little inflection. Sometimes, my gaze averts to the tacky wallpaper or a dusty bookend. I’ve given the schpiel of my traumas and mental health in therapists offices so often that the words don’t sound like themselves anymore. I struggle to convey the depth of my depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideations not because they aren’t real but because I am so used to them.
I am what high functioning mental illness looks like. I am 25: a college graduate with a fulltime job. Ever an overachiever, I excelled in extracurricular activities in high school. I belonged to a sorority in college and remained ubiquitously active across my campus. Viewing my social media, I’m all smiles and inspirational quotes. You wouldn’t know how many of those pictures were taken with scars on my wrists or fantasizing about hurling my body into traffic only days before those posts existed. I show up to work on time. I say hello, thank you, hold the door for strangers. In the flurry of pleasantries and smoke and mirror medias, you’d never know how often I’m hurt. That doesn’t mean I’m unhappy necessarily. What it means is that my brain is sick. It’s this incredible organ: weaving words at the speed of light, pulling trivia facts like taffy, and yet, my brain believes things that aren’t true. But that’s to be expected. My brain has been a punchbag so often it struggles to remember that it can do better things.
So, it’s hard to convince doctors of my conditions. I look “fine”. I “have everything going for me”. It’s only when my headspace drops like an anvil– when I check myself into the hospital because I might kill myself or find myself in the doctor’s office crying because harassment in my workplace is so intense, that they listen. It doesn’t have to get that bad to seek help. Please, don’t let it get so bad that that’s when you seek help.
My independence doesn’t make my mental illness any less real. I accept the strong likelihood that I will grapple with anxiety and depression for the rest of my life. And you know what? That doesn’t scare me. My head has been the scariest place on earth before. There are days when the hurt is so profound and opaque I cannot see through it. On those days, breathing is labor. I remind myself, “Nostrils wide, all the way to the diaphragm. Breathe in. Breathe out. Again”. Oxygen is a different state of matter in those moments.
Mental upkeep is exhausting, frustrating, and humbling. It bleeds onto our loved ones, and we feel like a burden as they witness our suffering. They just want us to feel better– for love to be louder than all the bad things. They cannot fix us, but we are not broken so we do not need to be fixed. We need to be supported. We need to be reminded that we aren’t alone. Depression makes islands out of all of us in crowded rooms, but humanity is a continent. Do not allow the Pangaea of pain to separate us.
Shame silences dialogues about mental health. We feel this tremendous defect, an implied instability in admitting depression, anxiety, etc. There’s no shame in survival, and a mental health issue is not a personal failure. But ignoring it can be. So, I take my meds. Those meds change from time to time as my body’s chemistry changes and life changes– different dosages, different prescriptions. I go to therapy– even though finding a good therapist is really, really hard. I encourage you to find a mental health professional. Not a life coach (y’all are awesome, though), not some blogger like me, but a licenced professional with the acumen to guide you through this process. The truth is that our loved ones are amazing, but they do not have the training or bandwidth of a counselor.
It takes a village to keep you afloat so build the best damn village possible. Prune every toxic person from your life. Cultivate positive relations with people rooting for you when you win, who rally around you when you lose. Be meticulous and relentless about your self-care regimen– I mean it. It’s a slippery slope. I’ve thrived so high I felt invincible. Huberis eclipsed the importance of maintenance in self care. So, I grew lax about my self care routine, and when struggles hit me, there was no shield to protect me.
I wanted to die when I was 13, and I wanted to die when I was 25. It was so much easier to hang on at 25 because my life is bursting with love and support and good things. We can’t ensure that good events will happen to us, but we can ensure that we have good company when it gets rough. We can be our own advocates. We need to be our own advocates.
It all comes back to person-first language. I am not my mental illness. I am not my traumas. I don’t even think these are the biggest things to note about me. We define ourselves– choose the words, language, cadence. No one gets to do that for us. Even on the hardest days when depression is the iceberg and I am the Titanic, I am not the iceberg. I am not a burden, even if I’ve carried more than I needed to. I am not unlovable or unworthy because I have a hard time living in my own head.
Trauma rewires brain chemistry because the brain’s job isn’t to be happy but to keep us alive. When worse than you can imagine happens to you, imagination atrophies to panic. This is how my head says “I just wanna keep you safe”. There are times my memory doesn’t know it’s a memory– when my thoughts get breath and life and I can’t pull myself out of something I already survived. But I won’t be their victim twice. I won’t be a tragedy because circumstances tell me I should be. I will be myself– which is to say that I will be complicated and I will fail and I’ll get back up because this is what I do every time. I fight for myself because I am worth fighting for. The biggest lesson I can tell you about mental illness is that the severity of symptoms and condition is not as important as the caliber of our coping skills. The more you can cope with, the stronger your strategies are and the richer your support network is, the easier it is to bounce back.
Mental health is a shape-shifter. Some folks, like me, wrestle this demon from birth. For others, it hits later. The blow is always heavy, always humbling. But I assure you that you have what it takes to make it. You are capable and resilient and matter and are not wrong. Rock bottom doesn’t need to be the point when you seek self-care. It can be before that. You don’t need to have the most severe symptoms for your condition to be valid. You don’t need to over-diagnose yourself. It is enough to be sad or struggling and desire help. Crisis does not have to be the only signal reminding you that you are worthy of help.
I turn 26 this May. Every birthday is a glaring celebration because I genuinely didn’t think I’d live to see this much of my life. Yet, I’m here. I’m not ashamed for how I’ve kept myself together. I’m not ashamed to be high functioning. When I sit in those chairs, reviewing my “before” in an attempt to reach an after, sometimes, I catch myself. I catch what I’m saying and what those words mean. Each event is a medal, a trophy, a marker saying “Still, you are here– despite it all”.