As children, we are told to eat our vegetables, brush our teeth, bathe, sleep regularly and, if we fall or get injured, to ask for help. But, when we fall or get hurt by feelings such as loneliness or hopelessness, we hesitate asking for the same care as we would for a physical injury.
The illnesses I have been diagnosed with are not curable, and have major potential of relapse. However, they are treatable and can be well-managed. The most exhausting days within my recovery were spent in bed; breathing to stay alive when my mind convinced me to stop. My illness thrived on isolation which challenged my ability to communicate.
Stigma is resulted by basing judgment off little information and acceptance. When stigma is involved, it creates a barrier for people to ask questions or come forward with honest concern due to the fear of discrimination, rejection, and ridicule from others. Unfortunately, stigma of mental illness continues to be active in politics, families, schools, organizations, work, and much more.
While learning about my diagnoses, I noticed I placed significant value and practice toward physical health and hygiene, but less effort and value toward mental wellbeing. It is no surprise that the topic of mental illness has been poorly addressed, since we are not taught to take care of our brain the same way we take care of the rest of our body. Likewise, when television broadcasts mass terrorist attacks stating the root cause as mental illness, it is easy to believe the myth that those who have mental illness are doomed to be dangerous and unpredictable.
With the brain being the most complex yet crucial organ of the body, a diagnosis of mental illness can present debilitating symptoms both mentally and physically. Despite proof of physical evidence, overall health is diminished along with quality of life. We would not let a broken leg fix itself, or hope that heart disease magically heals on its own. If the severity of mental illness is discredited, the value of a person’s wellbeing becomes limited. Signs and symptoms are often ignored or poorly communicated, increasing the risk of suicide and other catastrophic events of those affected by untreated or unknown mental illness.
As a child, I myself trusted the myths surrounding mental illness. I believed those who committed suicide were selfish, that depression meant a person was lazy, and anxiety was an attention-seeking tactic. But as I grew older, I became victim to the world of mental illness. During my most severe symptoms, I often became frustrated with feelings of failure. Tasks that seemed to flow so smoothly for others were my most challenging achievements. Lifting my body out of bed had been a daily struggle that lead me to question my purpose of living. I battled endless thoughts of unworthiness, blame, guilt, and shame starting at the young age of 8.
Growing up, I lived in a wealthy and religious community where my feelings were held in silence. I did not understand why I felt the way I did, which lead me to conclude that I was ungrateful and selfish. Since I appeared healthy, it was hard to vocalize and gain support for something I could not show. As I tried to use my voice to express what felt wrong, it became paralyzed by the overwhelming stigma attached to mental illness. Many of my friends, family, and other individuals would press for answers, looking for an explanation, only to blame my character as being flawed. Instead of my illness, I was frequently viewed as an inconvenience and burden to others. This lead to a dangerous cycle of self-abuse which was used to soothe intense emotions I was unable to speak about.
Over time, my mind became crippled by crushing loneliness. I controlled my tiring thoughts by numbing the feelings I was ashamed of having. Through punishment such as starvation, purging, or puncturing my skin, I found temporary relief that reflected the way I felt inside. In order to repress my emotions, my mind flooded with obsessive thoughts, behaviors, and rituals that devoted my life to a world of numbers.
I was driven by the bathroom floor scale which determined my worth. Calories, weight, inches, clothing sizes, and the number of protruding bones I could count on my body were all methods to escape the misery of my mind. I thought that if I was able to feel pain physically, then it would be valid and real and people would be able to see the suffering I was in. However, I never got to that point and continued to appear healthy, despite my body weakening within. This influenced my behavior to escalate; drowning my head with toxic beliefs.
Unhealthy brain signals convinced me that I deserved punishment; virtually dying from a slow and painful suicide. After years of damage to my body, I began to lose power in my ability to function. At 19 years old, I attempted to take my own life. I did not believe I would ever get better or that the pain would end. I was desperate for a way to disconnect from excruciating torture I put myself through. I was living a life of pure blame and failure that sunk heavy in my chest. Until I was hospitalized, I was unaware of any other option.
I was later diagnosed with major depression, panic disorder, and bulimia nervosa. An absence of understanding and compassion was considerably high from those who were in my life. I was often told by family to try harder, as they were frustrated with my episodes of relapse. I was told I was not doing enough, desperately seeking attention and did not appreciate life which is why I was not getting better. Over and over again, I was told other people have “real” problems, but that did not make my illness go away.
I began to notice the lack of knowledge and education people had about mental illness, including myself. Once I started to learn about the illnesses I was diagnosed with, I quickly discovered that I was not alone in the battle I was fighting. Through various treatments of medication and therapy I learned that my mental illness did not identify me as a person; my symptoms were simply symptoms – not an expression of my character. I also learned that having a support system was vital to recovery, though that was not as easy to find as I thought.
Though I lost support from my family, I was able to find the help and care I deserved. In the most unexpected ways, I gained hope through school, work, and volunteering. From long friendships to new ones, I was provided unconditional love and promise of my worthiness to live. My number one supporter had to be me; vowing to take care of my wellbeing from the inside out. This meant doctor and therapy appointments, meal plans, medications, and the courage to be unapologetically myself.
What I know for certain about life is that it changes constantly.
The success I have built through recovery has been discovered as a journey rather than a destination. At first, I was clueless on how to take care of myself. Lab results and hospitalization confirmed that I was at risk of losing my life. I had to change my behaviors, thoughts, and the way I felt about myself.
Recovery meant letting go of the life I was living to begin the life that was waiting for me. To begin my journey, I first had to believe I was worthy of the trip. I had to persist through all the crummy parts that manipulated my opportunities to succeed. With nutrition I was provided in the course of treatment, my body began to heal years of damage. I started to break free from an abusive long-term relationship with my illness and understand what happiness meant to me.
Actions I took leading me to the path of recovery were never right, nor wrong, but simply another step forward. I did not have to do it alone. The heaviness that sunk in my chest started to become lighter, allowing me to breathe a little better and speak a little louder. When my illness first developed, I thought strength came from the ability to hide emotions and handle them completely on one’s own. However, when I showed vulnerability, allowing my feelings to pour into words, I seized a strength that many people run away from.
The way we view and talk about those who have a mental illness needs to be addressed. There is no “getting over it” or “calming down;” it is an illness of the brain with life altering repercussions. Living with mental illness did not make me a stronger person, but it let me wonder, learn, and fight for a cause needing further recognition.
Not enough credit is given to those fighting, supporting, and conquering mental illness. In a country so advanced with social media and communication, it is sad that mental illness is still kept in the dark. With more awareness, education, curiosity, and acceptance; we have the power to illuminate the message of speaking up over giving up.
I learned that happiness is not located on a magical land or end of a race track; it is a continuing feeling I get with experiences I dare to explore. Without my illness holding me back, I am able to internalize the joy and acceptance I have wondered about since I was a child.
To connect with those around us I believe we must value the human mind with the same care and diligence that we do our physical health. I share my story to fight the stigma against mental illness and let others take comfort in knowing they are not alone. I no longer let debilitating thoughts deplete my power to thrive, but vocalize them to shed light on a grim and dark reality. In turn, I have found that mental illness (such as depression) is a common secret shared by many.
Recovery is possible, proven, and promising. The battle may be difficult, but it is one worth fighting. For so long, I wondered what was wrong with me only to realize there is something wrong with the way we treat others. We all have the ability to change what we least desire with a foundation of self-love. Though I have shared my story thus far, it is nowhere close to over, as I continue to keep myself safe and healthy.