“So much of grief is learning how to integrate our shadow selves into the rest of us.“
In my six or so years of blogging, there was one consistent comment I’d get from naysayers: that by being so open about my mental health struggles, I was “playing the victim” and identifying too strongly with my mental illnesses.
The folks who react so strongly to these conversations are usually emotionally repressed themselves (and homophobic, which I’d venture to say is not a coincidence), so it’s taken with a grain of salt.
But I’ve been thinking a lot about what my recovery has looked like — and more specifically, how the struggles that once seemed to consume my entire life now take up less and less space in it.
And I have to admit… I really wasn’t prepared for that.
Four years ago, I wrote, “The simple truth is that I do not know who I am without mental illness because I’ve never lived a life without it.” I went on to describe my mental illness (back then, what I’d mistakenly been told was bipolar disorder) as being “as ubiquitous as the air around me.”
And that was true for me then.
I didn’t know who I was without my mental health struggles, because up until that point, I hadn’t accessed the healing that I needed.
Without the spaciousness to know and grow into myself, I was lost to the weeds.
But I’ve done the work. I’ve tangled with this unruly garden, and slowly but surely, I’ve made a life for myself worth living. A life that would be completely unrecognizable to the Sam of even just a year ago.
More and more, I’m able to be present for my life, instead of tethered to the struggles that had once defined me.
So were the naysayers right?
I still don’t think so.
I actually believe that claiming my mental illnesses was a necessary part of my healing, too.
I had spent my childhood with obsessive-compulsive disorder looming over me, and my most formative years grappling with trauma and an eating disorder. These are struggles that deeply impacted me. And in order to metabolize everything I’d been through? I needed to sit with it. I needed to be with my pain and tend to it.
That is work that takes time, support, and safety. And many of us don’t have the privilege of that kind of safety.
I’m lucky to have eventually gotten the right diagnoses, a therapist and dietitian who became my fiercest advocates, and a treatment program that helped restore me. I don’t know where I would be if I hadn’t had those things.
And now, in the beautiful space that was freed up for me through that work, I’m left stunned by the thought that I ever compared my mental illness to oxygen.
Not because I don’t believe that it was true for me at the time, but because I understand now how deeply unfair it is that I was ever in so much pain that it was ubiquitous and unremarkable to me.
I don’t blame myself for that, though. We have a mental health system that teaches us how to be patients, but doesn’t always set us up to live as whole human beings once we’ve stabilized. Who are we after recovery? After the depressive spell subsides, or the trauma is integrated, or the medication cocktail has finally given us a taste of hope?
Who prepares us for that? Who tells us that we even need to prepare for that?
When I was in treatment for my eating disorder, I remember an activity that illustrates this point exactly. We were told to draw a circle on a piece of paper.
“How much space in your brain does your eating disorder take up?” they asked us.
We folded the paper over to block out the space that our eating disorder takes up, and the sliver that remained was ours to write in whatever else occupied our thoughts. For me, a lot of what remained was thoughts about my cats, my plants, my partners, social media, my job — whatever fleeting concerns I had on a day-to-day basis.
Next, they asked us to unfold the paper. In that vast white space, we were then asked to draw what we hoped would replace the space that our eating disorder took up in our lives.
There were so many intense reactions that clients had to this exercise.
Some people struggled to imagine what could fill that space, because their eating disorder had given them a sort of tunnel vision that obscured the big picture. Some sat there in disbelief, not willing to entertain the idea that they would ever have that space available to them again.
“I don’t even know who I am without it,” one client shared. There was a chorus of affirmations and vigorous nodding in response.
Me? I dropped deeper into a state of grief. I became acutely aware of how much I’d lost in the process of trying to navigate my OCD, my trauma, my ED.
To be perfectly honest, it hadn’t really occurred to me that this space could ever be anything but my “neuroses.” That, because my brain was the way it was — because chemicals? because synapses? — I couldn’t expect much.
I thought that surely, with something as severe as anorexia, I was going to be fighting an uphill battle that I shouldn’t expect to win. We don’t cure mental illness, after all. We “manage” it.
I will admit that I don’t know how much of my past writing perpetuates the idea that mental illness is something we endeavor to accept, like an awful roommate we learn to cope with. But I think that’s how I pictured it for a long time, because when you’ve never lived without something, the narrative you construct is the one that best describes the experiences you’ve had thus far.
I’m having new experiences now.
I’m living a life that is so radically different from the one that I had before. And it feels important to acknowledge that while my journey in mental health will always be an important part of who I am, the process of integrating it into my story — first as an identity, now as an experience — has led me to some very different conclusions.
I think the difference between where I was then and now is that my neurodiversity is no longer just synonymous with pain, and it doesn’t eclipse my whole self.
When I was so deep into my own pain that I compared it to oxygen, that wasn’t a proud reclaiming of my struggles as I’d once thought.
That, instead, was a desperate attempt at normalizing what I could not cope with and could not see a way out of. That was a struggle eclipsing my whole self, rather than a part of my experience being integrated into that whole self.
I think, in some ways, that is an expected part of the healing process.
So much of grief is learning how to integrate our shadow selves into the rest of us.
So much of grief is taking the aching parts and finding a home for them. So much of grief is finding our way back to acceptance, not because what happened was okay, but because by allowing it to transform us, we honor it rather than rejecting it.
In grief, we find a beautiful way of honoring our pain without allowing it to overtake us. The momentary eclipse passes to reveal a shimmering full moon, bright as ever, guiding us home. This takes practice, though.
Identifying with my experience of mental illness was part of my process of integrating it into my story. But it is far from being the only part, or even the most important part, of the story I am still writing.
This is the next chapter of my life — one that I never saw coming. I can’t wait to write it along with all of you.
As someone who was never taught how to build a life “after recovery” — who, for too long, didn’t know that there would be any space to fill — I’ve become really passionate about sharing what it means to live a meaningful life.
That’s what I see ahead for this blog, for my social media platforms, and, well, for my life.
My career has grown alongside these internal changes, too. I’ve begun pursuing a certificate to become a Positive Psychology Practitioner, offering wellness coaching at the Queer Resilience Collective, helping LGBTQ+ people achieve greater psychological wellbeing in a world that seldom gives us the skillset to do so.
“Who are we when we finally have the space to become… us? “
That’s a question I’m still answering, and am finding joy in helping other queer and transgender people answer, too.
Because when the grief finally opens up a space for us to create a new life — a self that is no longer eclipsed by our pain and our attempts at surviving it — there is a beautiful opportunity right in front of us.
There comes a point when grief gives way to possibility, and we get to begin again, a little differently this time.
And I’ve found that my passion, my purpose is in illuminating those beginnings for others in my community.
While I’ll always be someone that has obsessive-compulsive disorder, an eating disorder, complex trauma — boy, did I win the mental health lottery or what? — I get to be so much more now.
You get to have that, too. It’s your birthright to become who you are, and to remove any barrier that stands in your way of embracing that fully.
I’m excited to share where I’ve been and where I’m going. And I’m so grateful to show you what’s possible for us all.
Sam Dylan Finch is a wellness coach, writer, and media strategist in the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s co-founder of Queer Resilience Collective, a wellness coaching cooperative for LGBTQ+ people, the blogger behind Let’s Queer Things Up!, and the lead editor of mental health and chronic conditions at Healthline.com. You can say hello on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or learn more at SamDylanFinch.com.