You know, it’s possible that everything on this list is just me. But working in mental health advocacy for some time now, I’ve learned that it’s never really “just me” or “just you” – if we’re struggling, it’s almost guaranteed that someone out there knows that struggle.
Confession: I was hospitalized four months ago and I’ve been afraid – afraid of myself, afraid of my friends, afraid for my life – almost every minute since then.
Of course, I was scared to open up about it until I realized that it’s the fear that holds us back. If we never admit that we’re hurting, we can never find the support and reassurance that we need to pull through.
It’s true that I don’t know your story or your struggle. But I hope that, by knowing mine, you’ll feel less alone.
Because it’s okay to be scared – and you’d be surprised at just how many of us are putting on a brave face, hoping that no one sees just how afraid we really are.
Since I got out of the hospital, I’ve been faking it with the hopes that no one sees how much pain I’m in. But today, I’m letting my guard down – I’m hurting and I’m afraid, but I know I’m not alone.
1. I’m afraid that I don’t deserve to be happy.
I recently posted on the LQTU Facebook page about how many people with mental illness tend towards self-sabotage when they’re happy.
And, no surprise, many people responded with comments and messages about how they’ve sabotaged their own recovery – and at the root of it, it seems, is a conviction that they didn’t deserve their recovery to begin with.
Been there, still there. What I’m scared to admit sometimes is that I don’t feel like I deserve to be happy – so I push my happiness away.
Happiness scares me because I feel like I’m going to let everyone down. There’s so much pressure to be “recovered,” so much pressure to be “better,” so much pressure to have your shit together.
Sometimes I try to dismantle my own happiness because I don’t feel worthy or good enough – like I can’t live up to the expectations of being healthy – and it feels easier to relapse and let things fall apart with no room to disappoint myself or anyone else.
For me, alcohol is the quickest way to sabotage myself – and damn, I am a skilled self-saboteur when I’ve got a glass or a bottle in my hand. But before I pick up the drink, I try to remind myself that instead of fearing happiness, I should give myself permission to feel it.
Happiness is not a prize that you win or a reward reserved for the best or sanest people – it’s just a feeling to be enjoyed and a feeling that everyone is entitled to.
You don’t have to be “good enough.” You just have to let it in.
2. I’m afraid that if people see my illness, they’ll think less of me.
When I had my breakdown, I was lucky enough to have friends supporting me – in ways that were often to their own detriment. Much of it is gone from my memory, but I have flashbacks, and when I do I’m always gripped with one thought: they will never see me the same way again.
I’ve always been afraid that if people saw me during a breakdown, they would realize that I’m not perfect.
I don’t have it all figured out, I don’t always have it under control, I can hurt people, I can be selfish, I can be psychotic – and everything that I was up until that point is replaced with the memory of me at my worst.
I’ve believed that if I didn’t control my mental illness and package it in a way that was acceptable or inspiring, my value to other people would be diminished. And these days, I’m constantly afraid that I’m not worth enough – even if nothing anyone has said or done indicates otherwise.
I try to remind myself that my worth can’t depend on how others perceive me or my illness. When I’m obsessing over how others see me, I ask myself, “Well, how do I see myself?”
And if how I see myself is particularly negative, or I am noticing things about myself that are harmful or not good, I know that I have some self-work to do – and that’s not the responsibility of my friends or loved ones. That’s work only I can do.
3. I’m afraid that I’ll lose control.
Happiness is not a guarantee for anyone, but when you have a mental illness, you can sometimes become hypervigilant, convinced that at any moment an episode will grab you by the ankle and pull you down.
I’m tapering off of my anti-psychotic medication right now, and it’s felt like walking on eggshells, tracking my mood every day and searching for signs that something might be wrong.
Every time I see something out of the corner of my eye, I worry I might be seeing things again; every time I’m sad, I panic that it could be the beginning of a depressive episode.
It can feel like any particular thought or feeling is a sign of impending doom if you scrutinize it too much – and it starts to feel like you can’t trust yourself or your perception of reality.
Especially when you’ve just come off of a breakdown or traumatic experience, it can feel like the ground underneath you will never be solid. The instability can make you a little crazy (literally).
But it comforts me to know that as I work at my recovery, I’ll slowly get my footing again.
4. I’m afraid that my illness makes me a bad person.
It has taken a long, long time to be okay with saying, “Sometimes I act in really shitty ways when I’m struggling with my mental health.”
I’m not going to sugarcoat it: I have hurt people. Sometimes I’m a walking stereotype of borderline and it takes a lot to deal with my shit, be accountable for my mistakes, and reel it in.
What I’ve realized overtime is that being “good” or “bad” is not the point. I think it’s really a question of being responsible or irresponsible about the impact of our behaviors.
I spent a hell of a long time being more concerned with denying that I was hurting other people because I didn’t want to think of myself as being “bad.” It was about my ego; it was about preserving this image of myself as being “good.” It was irresponsible because I opted for denial instead of ownership of my behaviors.
But in recent years, I’ve worked on accepting that instead of being “good,” I should aspire to be responsible: recognizing when I’ve done harm, being accountable for it, and helping to facilitate healing between myself and my loved ones.
Whether or not you are good or bad isn’t important. But your choices will determine the kind of impact you have in the world – so commit to making the best choices that you can.
5. I’m afraid that I won’t survive it next time.
I can’t tell you how many mentally ill folks I’ve spoken to who have all said, “I won’t make it past [insert young age].” Episode after episode, it feels like we barely scrape by, and when we get to the other side we’re certain that we could never face it again.
Sometimes when I try to imagine battling another psychotic, depressive episode, I swear up and down that I could never survive it. And when I imagine trying to live with these illnesses for much longer, I despair about how it’s almost guaranteed that I won’t live a long life.
But when I’m convinced I won’t live to see 30, I remind myself that there was a time when I thought I wouldn’t live to see 20.
I also remind myself, like I explained in this article about depression (it’s one of my favorites, you should read it), that sometimes mental illness tricks us into thinking we can see the future – the simple truth, though, is that we never could and we never will.
Back when I was attending AA meetings (which was… interesting, to say the least), the thing that stuck out to me was the idea of taking it one day at a time. Sobriety, just like mental health recovery, feels huge when we look at the long term, the big picture.
But they both can feel a little more manageable when we keep our eyes on what’s in front of us, because that’s what’s within our power to control.
This seems (1) cliche and (2) laughably simple, I know. But even so, the only way we can move forward is one step at a time – so every day I remind myself that the only moment that’s relevant right now is the one I’m living in.
Believe me, I understand the fear. I don’t know how long I’ll live, and that scares me. I don’t know if I’ll be able to manage the next episode, and that terrifies me.
But what I do know is that the choices I make today – the ways I choose to take care of myself in the now and the support I put in place – can make a difference tomorrow, and even beyond that.
And really, for better or for worse, that’s the best I can do.
6. I’m afraid that this illness is all that I am.
Everyone likes to remind me that I’m more than my illnesses. But this struggle is my every day – if I’m not drowning in a depressive episode, I’m fighting hard to keep my head above water and my life intact. There isn’t a single moment that I’m not somehow impacted by these labels.
Sometimes I fear that this struggle is so central to my existence that it overshadows everything else that I am – if I am, indeed, anything else.
And sometimes I worry that it has consumed my life to the point where it’s the only thing anyone else can see.
Every day, I’m still trying to uncover who I am apart from all of this. Trying to get in touch with the joy and passion and thrill that is buried underneath all this, the part of me that lives for something and comes alive for something.
I want to know what that part of me is like, what it takes to bring it to life.
I’m never going to pretend that these illnesses aren’t ever-present in my day-to-day. I’m never going to pretend that my choices won’t always be informed or influenced by my struggles. And I’m never going to pretend that the impact this has had on me hasn’t touched every aspect of my life.
Just looking at this list of fears, I ask myself if mental illness will always have this kind of grip on me – if I’ll spend every day of my life afraid.
But all any of us can do, really, is try to cultivate something beautiful for ourselves. Something that makes us feel whole. Something that gives us a sense of purpose. Even if the garden is barren, even if it’s covered in snow, we find a way to make something – anything – grow.
We can have something more for ourselves, something that belongs to us. That may not define us or help us put the pieces of our identity back together – but it gives us a place to start.