happy

Let’s Talk About Self-Sabotage.

Confession: When I’m happy, I freak out.

A blog-reader-turned-bestie (yes, sometimes I befriend y’all in real life because you are lovely human beings) and I were recently talking about this over milkshakes. Being happy is terrifying when you aren’t quite used to it.

You know, that dreaded sense that the other shoe will fall? Yeah. That. It’s the worst.

The pressure of trying to sustain something that we’re not used to can create a lot of stress for us. And we might feel the impulse to self-sabotage, especially when we don’t have the support we need to cope.

Sometimes I even have suicidal thoughts when I’m happy. Do you?

The idea that I’ve peaked, and that I might as well die now while things are still good. It seems like the perfect time. Then I fall down the rabbit hole of, “Am I actually happy if I’m having thoughts like these?” (Save yourself the time: Yes. Suicidal thoughts aren’t exclusively the domain of depression.)

And of course, I don’t know how to explain this to the folks I love – that joy is triggering, because I am so used to that joy being taken away from me.

Mental illness has taught me that happiness is inherently unstable and temporary, that I shouldn’t trust it. That mistrust is the product of repeated trauma. It can make me impulsive, hypersensitive, and fearful. It makes it difficult to be grounded.

And worst of all? It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I start to act out because of that fear, which reinforces the fear itself.

I thought it was just me, until I started talking about it. I actually found that lots of people with mental illness or experiences of trauma have this same mistrust of joy. It can lead us to making some lousy choices – in an attempt to regain control and cope with the fear, we make some misguided decisions and push away the very happiness we’ve so desperately wanted for ourselves.

Sound familiar?

Being happy makes me a little crazy. And if you’ve ever thought you were the only one, I assure you – it’s actually a really common thing.

When you’ve spent years associating happiness with the calm before the storm, it’s no surprise that you might associate joy with a lack of safety. In fact, maybe you find depression or anxiety to be a little safer – because it’s more predictable, something more known to you.

I’m here to tell you, friend, that this is totally understandable. Brains are very malleable things – and trauma can lead us to develop some pretty maladaptive impulses, including the impulse to self-sabotage.

I am the Prince of Self-Sabotage. Happiness absolutely terrifies me. It terrifies me because  it feels like it’s only ever betrayed me. Just when I think that I’ve gotten into a good rhythm, life throws me a curveball and I’m not only depressed again, but also grieving the loss of the stability I thought I’d finally had.

Has happiness betrayed you? If so, it’s no surprise that your first instinct is to push it away.

Recently, I’ve gotten to a good place again. Courtesy of Wellbutrin (quickly becoming a favorite of mine), the most sarcastic/excellent psychiatrist on the planet, the love and support of community, new job prospects that leave me totally ecstatic about what’s to come, and personal growth that surprises and delights me every day.

And of course, cue the terrible thoughts like, “Okay, what gives? When does the other shoe drop?” and even, “I kind of feel like taking a chainsaw and splitting myself in half” (to which my psychiatrist asks me, “Um, do you have access to a chainsaw?” Fear not, Doc. No, I do not).

What’s a kid to do? Well, in my opinion, it starts with just acknowledging that happiness is scary, and that’s 100% okay.

Sounds deceptively simple. But you and I both know this is easier said than done. I have to remind myself of this fifty times a day – that there isn’t a disaster waiting for me around every corner. I have to remind myself that I’ve been conditioned overtime to believe that happiness isn’t safe, but that doesn’t make it true.

It’s also good to check in with myself about how I’m dealing with that stress. Am I reaching out for support from a therapist and/or friend? Am I talking about my fears or ignoring them? Am I staying busy? Am I taking care of myself?

I’m a big fan lately of guided meditation when I’m not feeling so grounded. More specifically, there’s this app that I can’t shut up about called Stop, Breathe & Think, which recommends a few meditations (and even yoga videos!) based on your emotions (imagine, like, a self-care mood ring).

You tell it how you’re feeling, and it makes custom recommendations for you. When I find myself freaking out – like my skin is crawling or I’m claustrophobic in my own body – it’s the perfect thing. (Nope, they didn’t ask for the plug – I just love and appreciate them that much.)

A lot of people believe that self-care is only crucial when you’re in a bad place. But I’ve found that self-care is absolutely critical when I’m happy – because the moment I’ve stopped prioritizing my mental health is when I’m actually most vulnerable.

Let me repeat that, because it’s super important: The moment I’ve stopped prioritizing my mental health is when I’m most vulnerable.

Got it?

I know it might seem counterintuitive to reach out for help when you’re happy, of all things, but it can be very necessary if your happiness is a stressor.

And this is a process, of course, one that I know will be ongoing throughout my life. But it helps to know that I’m not alone. And I hope that this reminder can be helpful to you, too.

When we start seeing happiness as a completely understandable trigger and learn to be gentle with ourselves, instead of letting trauma dictate how we should respond, we can start to do the really important work of recovery and healing – which is absolutely something each and every one of us deserves. Yourself included.

brunch

Please Keep Inviting Me To Brunch

I don’t know, in actuality, what it’s like to be set on fire.

The closest thing I have – which I am convinced must be similar to burning alive – is my most recent bout of depression, in which I was in such agonizing and relentless pain that I became the emotional equivalent of a rotisserie chicken.

I felt certain that this would be the episode that pushed me to end my life. And then before I knew it, I was in the emergency room (again).

I had spent the weeks leading up to my hospitalization confined to my bed, promising my friends that tomorrow would be the day I found the strength to stand up – responding to Facebook invitations with a “maybe” and the determination that, yes, I would be at that brunch, I would bring orange juice, I would get better.

But I couldn’t.

Movie nights and picnics and parties flew by without me, the photos popping up on my news feed as a reminder that being mentally ill sometimes meant being trapped, no matter how desperately I wanted to see people, to make connections. Each passing day became a struggle to remember what it felt like to have fun, much less to be seen.

I sent the same message in various permutations: “I’m sorry I can’t make it – I’m just too depressed.” “I’m sorry to bail at the last second, I just don’t have it in me.” “I’m sorry I’m such a flake, my anxiety is just bananas right now.”

I always hoped they could read between the lines, knowing that what I was really saying was, “Please don’t give up on me.”

Every invitation I rejected came with a silent, desperate plea of, “Please don’t let this be the last time you invite me.”

Because the truth is, even though I’d missed ten brunches and six birthday parties and countless invitations for drinks, I didn’t want them to stop inviting me. Their invitation meant that they knew I was still alive, that they still cared about me, that they wanted me to be there, that they were thinking of me.

And what depressed person – or any person, really – doesn’t want to be thought of? Especially in their darkest, most frightening place.

“Maybe” to some is an annoyance or a cop-out when you don’t want to say “no,” but for me, when I RSVP’d with “maybe,” it was my way of saying, “I still have hope that things could get better.”

On the other side of all this, I needed to know there was a life filled with friends and laughter and waffles, and that everyone was just waiting for me, for whenever I was finally ready.

When I left the hospital, those invites were the only thing that reminded me that I could have a “normal” life again.

Those invites said to me that my mental illness didn’t make me less valuable as a friend, less wanted as a companion, and less worthy of support, love, and delicious breakfast foods. I was wanted – not in spite of my illnesses, but exactly as I was. No matter what my struggles looked like, I was still wanted.

I wasn’t damaged goods. I was still… me.

This past Sunday, I got out of bed, took a shower, got on the bus, and finally showed up for brunch. It took countless doctors, a complete overhaul of medication and hormones, and of course, the sweet encouragement of good friends (new and old) to get me there.

But I made it.

It was my first taste of the outside world in a long, long time – and I didn’t realize how much I needed it. The donuts, the video games, the orange juice, and the fluttery feeling in my heart when someone would say that they were glad that I was there, and I could feel how much they meant it.

Because while it’s true that psychiatric interventions have, more or less, put out the fire and tamed my depression, it was being surrounded by good friends that made me finally believe that I could heal.

And with every new invitation, I’m reminded that there are things (and people) worth showing up for.

As it turns out, there’s been no better combination for me than Zoloft and brunch.

wine

5 Signs It Was Time For Rehab (Regardless of How Much I Was Drinking)

In seven days, I went from being sober for eight months to sitting in a chemical dependency center after a relapse, being evaluated for a potential outpatient rehab program.

I remember the bitterness and resentment that I felt as I exhaled into a breathalyzer until it clicked, sitting motionless as the nurse asked me what I meant by a glass of wine – big glasses? Small glasses?

I remember saying repeatedly – to anyone that would listen – that I couldn’t be an alcoholic because comparatively, I didn’t drink as excessively as an alcoholic should (whatever that means).

And no matter how many times I was diagnosed with a substance use disorder or gently told I needed help, I’d stamp my foot and insist that getting drunk with some regularity didn’t make it a problem.

And maybe it doesn’t. But there were a hell of a lot of other red flags that did make it a problem.

Substance abuse exists on a wide spectrum, and I’m a big believer that no two people struggling with it will look exactly alike.

But some narratives perpetuate the idea that substance abuse is simply using excessively and using often – and while these can be indicators of a problem, they are by no means the be-all and end-all of substance abuse.

I certainly got drunk and maybe more often than I should have, but that’s not why I made the decision to enter rehab. Here are five signs that helped me realize I needed support – regardless of how many drinks I had in a night.

1. My Drinking Became More Important Than The Consequences

In a single week of relapsing, I’d managed to jeopardize my employment, my relationships, my health and my sanity (including stopping my psychiatric medications because they didn’t mix well with booze).

And at the end of a night, sobering up, I was absolutely ready to do it the next day – even as I watched my job crumble, grieved as the people I loved distanced themselves from me, risked legal troubles (drinking in public, FYI, is a terrible idea), and lost my mind as my bipolar disorder started to seize hold of me again.

I had rapidly gotten to a point with my drinking where the potential consequences didn’t matter, even if it might kill me. Somehow, drinking had become more important – and I started to wonder why this substance had so much control over me.

When I talked about this with a therapist specializing in substance use, she simply looked at me and said, “I see what you’ve lost. What else are you willing to lose?”

2. I Repeatedly Compromised My Values

I’m not a liar. At least, when I’m sober I’m not a liar. When I’m not sober, I’m willing to lie straight to my partner’s face as I’m walking out of the door to the liquor store.

I try to be fair, caring, considerate. I love my friends to pieces and would never want to hurt them. But like a tornado, I willingly create chaos and fear for my loved ones when I binge. Everyone in my path has to endure a lot of pain as they try to protect me or push me away.

I put them in an impossible position again, and again, and again.

I love my job. At least, sober Sam does. But drinking Sam will miss entire days of work and blow past deadlines with complete and total numbness, leaving others to clean up the mess.

I think about who I am when I’m sober, and I think about who I am when I’m drinking, and I see all the ways my values don’t line up. The ways in which I can be selfish, hurtful, and deceptive.

And even knowing all this, I desperately still want to drink.

That sounds like a problem to me.

3. I Dehumanized Other Addicts (Because I Wasn’t ‘Like Them’)

The stigma around addiction is so real, and I found that even as someone with social justice values and ideals, I treated other addicts like shit.

I may not have the healthiest relationship with alcohol, but I’m not like them.

I don’t belong in rehab, I won’t be able to relate to these people.

This place is for addicts, not for someone like me.

I continually employed an “us versus them” mentality, othering people who struggle with substance abuse in an attempt to elevate myself as being better than, above, or more enlightened.

In my denial, I treated addicts as categorically subhuman – people I could never relate to, understand, or have empathy for. The further I distanced myself from them, the more secure I felt in my substance use.

Ever heard the phrase “thou doth protest too much”? I spent so much time and energy defending myself as a “not addict” – and no time cultivating any kind of empathy for those who were.

Why did I feel the need to do that?

4. I Wasn’t A Social Drinker – I Was An Emotional Drinker

I remember going to my first AA meeting and explaining to someone that I didn’t really think I was an alcoholic. She asked me casually, “Do you ever have just one drink?” To which I blurted out, “What’s the point of that?”

“You tell me what the point is,” she replied. And then I realized I’d never really asked myself why I was drinking in the first place.

I drink for a lot of reasons, some of which I’m still working on understanding. I use it to cope with my mental illnesses. To self-sabotage when I can’t handle the pressures or stress of my life. To put me in another headspace when I don’t want to be in my own. To slow down time when I’m dreading something.

I drink to take the immense avalanche of emotions I deal with on any given day and subdue it so that I might survive it all.

Notice nowhere on my list does it say “to have fun with my friends” or “to get a good buzz.”

Alcoholic or not, addict or not – I don’t think these terms are necessarily useful for everyone – nothing screams red flag like “I use alcohol to deal with my emotional problems.”

5. Everyone Around Me Could See It But Me

This. Is. So. Common.

And it is no exaggeration when I say that I felt like I was losing my mind. Here I thought I didn’t have a problem, and an abundance of therapists, psychiatrists, friends, and loved ones told me numerous times that I did.

For my short time in AA, I refused to call myself an alcoholic and sat bitterly in the back row, murmuring about how none of this resonated with me because I wasn’t like them.

Instead of being open to recovery and community, I left AA, and tried to do sobriety alone, much to the dismay of everyone around me. It worked, until it didn’t work at all. And here we are.

I believe that only you can ultimately decide to take on a label like “alcoholic” or “addict,” but I also believe that when there’s writing on the wall – and on literally every inch of that wall – it might be time for a conversation.

About nine or so months ago, when people were trying to tell me I needed help, I wish I would’ve taken the initiative to find a therapist and talk through it. It didn’t mean I had to go to rehab, or AA, or commit to any kind of substance abuse support group or program.

It meant I would’ve gotten some support from a professional as I decided, for myself, what my substance use meant in the scheme of my life – and what I might want it to mean moving forward.

It can be hard to hear folks when they’re trying to impose a terrifying and life-changing label. Take it from someone who knows. The word “alcoholic” still makes me cringe (forever unpacking that stigma, even now). But these days I’m willing to accept that if everyone sees something except me, it might mean that I have something I need to work through.

***

It can be hard to see your own substance abuse when you’re in the midst of it, especially when the narratives around it can be confusing and limited.

I by no means drink heavily. And for varying reasons, I don’t drink every day. And I’m still working to admit to myself that I can be an alcoholic despite that.

When I took the time to honestly evaluate how drinking operates in my life, I finally started to see the red flags I had been missing while I was too busy counting the number of drinks I had.

It doesn’t always matter how much or how often. It never did. For me, so much of it was about the kind of person drinking made me, and the consequences waiting on the other side.

And that’s a good enough reason for rehab as any.

waves

Mental Illness Doesn’t Care How Good You Are

It is six o’clock in the morning and I wake up suddenly. My body is trembling. My thoughts are beginning to spiral and my breath is shortening – every inhale becomes smaller, and smaller, and smaller until I fear that the oxygen in the room might run out.

I try to remember what my psychiatrist told me, about how breathing through a straw never killed anyone. I swear that this time it might.

When I fall asleep, I dream that I live in a house on the beach. I am staring out at the ocean until I see the waves grow taller, and bigger, and louder. The tide is creeping up on me now. I run inside, waiting for the first floor to flood, then the second. I keep climbing the stairs, trying to get away.

I know that I need to get to higher ground. I abandon the house and start running up a hill. No matter how high I climb, there’s always water on my heels. Sometimes it’s up to my ankles. No matter how fast I run, it’s always at my feet. All I can do is wait for the water to recede and hope that it doesn’t take me with it.

I tell myself, “No one ever drowned in an inch of water, Sam.” I swear that this time I might.

When I wake up again, my partner is next to me. I tell them about my panic attack, and about my dream. “I think I know what it means,” I explain. “That sometimes all you can do is keep searching for higher ground.”

Neither of us needs to acknowledge out loud that we’re talking about my mental illness.

About how, for the last eight months since I was hospitalized, I have watched the waves come in and out, chasing me uphill and luring me back down. I have known the kind of grief of being small in the face of something that could eclipse you, could make you disappear effortlessly.

When I see my psychiatrist later that week, I tell him that I have something to say, and that it isn’t nice. He tells me that I don’t have to be nice, that I should say how I feel. I tell him that I feel broken. I tell him that I feel irredeemable. I tell him that I am ashamed. I tell him that I am tired. I tell him that six medications is too much and too little. I want to know –

“Why you are the way you are,” he says quietly. This is a tender wound that I try to avoid. 

I nod, choking back words – words like, this isn’t fair, I don’t deserve this, I only ever tried to be good, I only ever tried to be kind, I shouldn’t be here, I should never have been here, fuck this and fuck you.

I know that maybe he has asked himself this before, about me, about the others. Because when I look at him, I don’t see pity – I see pain.

The unspoken truth: There is a particular kind of agony that comes with the realization that you could be good in every way, and mental illness will still chew you up and spit you back out.

You can do everything right – take all of your pills, go to all of your therapy appointments, read every bit of literature, do all your self-care – and still be trapped between the incisors, gnawed to pieces in the aftermath of another episode.

Some days, I can be standing on the platform waiting for a train, or cleaning up my apartment, or having lunch with a friend – and like a sudden, unexpected punch in the gut, I want to weep because I know I’ve been good, I want to weep because I know I’ve tried, and here we are.

I’ve tried so hard.

When I tell a friend about my dream, I quietly comment, “The ocean doesn’t care about how good you are.”

They tell me, “I know.”

I keep looking for someplace safe, somewhere high enough, somewhere untouched. And when I think I’ve found it, all I can do is wait. All I can do is wait, overcome with bitterness, overcome with rage, weeping with the force of a hurricane, breathing through a straw.

pills

How Many Mental Disorders Is Too Many?

How many is too many? This is what I asked myself when a psychiatrist – who I was seeing temporarily while my usual was on paternity leave – looked up from a stack of books and a database on his computer and said to me, “This is really complicated.”

When I asked him what he meant, he seemed a little worried when he said, “Your diagnoses and your medications are very… complex.”

I knew that. Every clinician that opened up my file knew that. Every pharmacist that ever filled my prescriptions. Every friend that finally realized how much energy goes into being a mostly-assembled Sam Dylan Finch.

With my bipolar diagnosis reinstated after a hypomanic episode triggered by Zoloft, it could now rejoin my growing list of neuroses: borderline personality disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, agoraphobia, substance use disorder, and generalized anxiety and/or ADHD depending on which clinician you ask.

This doesn’t even capture the psychotic and dissociative features of a few of the illnesses I deal with.

Some people would call these “co-occurring diagnoses” on a good day but I would actually just call these a straight up clusterfuck.

People like to tell me that “it’s all just labels” and that the words are ultimately unimportant. But they weren’t there ten years ago,  when I was a teenager that fantasized about ending my life, tormented by obsessive thoughts and deep depression. Back then, the only thing I wanted was to understand what was wrong.

My psychiatric diagnoses have given me that understanding, and affirmed that it wasn’t just in my head, that it wasn’t made up, that I wasn’t alone.

People can tell me that my diagnoses are just words at the end of the day, but those words are important to me, and that’s what makes them important. And the impact of these disorders is something that I have to live with every minute of every day – so why wouldn’t it be critical to name something that’s so pervasive in my life?

(Honestly, when people tell me it’s just words, I laugh. If you woke up to the sound of a chainsaw every morning with no explanation, would you ignore it altogether in favor of just saying, “Well, it’s just noise”?)

But I would be lying if I said my psychiatric diagnoses always make me feel empowered. The truth is that while I am glad to have a name for a once invisible battle, I’m also afraid.

I’m very afraid. I’m afraid because, like many clinicians have told me, this is complicated. Complicated to understand. Complicated to treat. Complicated to manage. I’m afraid that maybe there’s such a thing as “too mentally ill” or “too many mental disorders,” and that there will never be a “normal” for me – that I’ll always be swimming upstream.

I’m afraid of being hospitalized again. I’m afraid of being hospitalized again and again, because statistically this is likely. I’m afraid of attempting suicide again. I’m afraid of attempting again and again, because this, too, is possible and maybe even likely.

People often tell me that I’m not a statistic. I know this is true. But we can’t also pretend that statistics have no bearing on what my future might look like. I can’t ignore the fact that I am vulnerable. And I go to bed every night knowing this – knowing that I have a lot of good reasons to feel unsafe, even on my best day.

The more diagnoses I’m given, the more overwhelmed I feel.

I am mistrustful and fearful of my own mind – how it seems to always be working against me, how even my best efforts are sometimes not enough to stay in control. I never seem to know what’s real and what’s part of an illness.

I don’t know where each illness stops and I begin. I’ve spent a lot of the last two months confused, feeling claustrophobic in my own head, like I need to get out of here because there’s no room for me, like the wind is constantly being knocked out of me.

In conversations about mental health, we often talk about people who have one or two disorders. And I’m usually somewhere on the sidelines, wishing people like me were more visible – people who have so many diagnoses, they sometimes lose track of themselves, sometimes lose themselves to the fear of what they’ve become and could become.

I am an optimistic and determined person on the whole, and I still lose myself to that fear from time to time. When my psychiatrist quietly acknowledged the complexity of my trauma, I wondered if it’s possible to be so mentally ill that you become impossible to care for, impossible to help, impossible to love.

I spend a lot of time worrying that I can’t be loved.

In a society that tells us we’re broken if we have one mental illness, what happens when you have six?

Can you ever really be honest about who you are and what you’re going through without seeming too crazy? Too hopeless? Too much? This is the perpetual question for me, as someone who is both a person offline (go figure) but also an activist and writer online, who wants to create the space for people to be authentically themselves, but has to navigate the same stigma, too.

I think with all of the fear that I’m experiencing lately, I’ve finally gotten to a point where I’m tired of being isolated like this. I want to create a space for all of us to own how terrifying it is to be told we’re “complicated.”

Being complicated sucks. Being complicated hurts.

I remember that when I was initially diagnosed with just depression as a teenager, I was told by clinicians that my depression was very treatable, always emphasizing a positive prognosis and long term goals.

At this point in my life, when I meet clinicians, we only ever talk about today – we never talk about the future in any capacity. I think because neither of us knows what to say.

And that’s what my psychiatric journey has looked like: a lot of subtle ways in which it was communicated to me, with each new doctor and each new name, that being “complex” means difficulty – difficulty treating, much less supporting or affirming.

But I’m tired of apologizing to clinicians, to friends, and even to readers for being messy. For having more issues than National Geographic. For giving “certifiably insane” a whole new spokesperson. And I know so many mentally ill people with countless diagnoses who are equally exhausted, trying to package things in a more presentable way so people will accept them.

Sometimes people have three, four, five, six, seven, eight, you-name-it diagnoses and if we aren’t making room for those people to show up authentically, we are failing the mental health community as a whole.

This work isn’t about making spaces for some of us. It’s about making room for all of us.

Having co-occurring diagnoses is a scary place to be. Sometimes it’s a hopeless place to be, especially when your clinicians seem a little defeated themselves and the people in your life don’t know how to help you.

Sometimes (often) people don’t even believe me. Sometimes they see it as a chance to write me off as beyond repair. Sometimes my mental illnesses go from being a concern to being a joke. Sometimes I’m dehumanized and pathologized to the point where I’m seen exclusively as a case study. In my life, I’m consistently reminded of how people have no idea how to treat other people with co-occurring diagnoses, especially as they increase in number.

If we can’t create support for folks like me, where else are they going to go? When else can they be themselves?

Psychiatric labels can be important to us, scary to us, even empowering to us – for me, it’s been all three. But one thing they’ll never be is the sole determiner of our worth. We are whole people with value, no matter how few or how many diagnoses we have.

That’s the truth. And it’s a truth we need to make sure everyone – especially mentally ill folks – know.

TRANSS

Mental Illness Has Impacted My Transgender Identity

Once upon a time, I wrote an article about how I wasn’t completely happy with my hormonal transition. Unsurprisingly, I got a lot of shit for it – because dog forbid I have complicated feelings about my body completely changing.

One commenter, I guess in an attempt to insult me, told me to get a therapist and that I was INSANE (emphasis theirs). What they didn’t realize was that they were correct about one thing – my feelings about my transition were absolutely informed by mental illness.

Frankly, I’m annoyed with neurotypical trans people judging my experience of transition – because comparing our experiences completely ignores the reality that I struggle in a way they never will.

What I didn’t mention in that article is that I was diagnosed with OCD after a spiral of obsession that all but drove me to the edge. And what was I obsessing about? My gender identity.

Some folks with OCD – particularly those with the pure obsessional form – find themselves obsessing about sexual orientation or gender identity. Imagine a straight person completely tormented by the idea of being gay (or a gay person obsessed with being straight), or a transgender person, like me, spending hours and hours in a panic, obsessed with the idea of being cisgender (and, yes, vice versa).

The thing about these obsessions is that there’s no concrete evidence that the obsession is grounded in reality.

I’d identified as transgender for four years, and up until the obsession started, felt secure and happy in my identity. I didn’t want to detransition – the thought of doing so horrified me. I was unbelievably opposed to living as a cis woman, which had never felt right in the first place. And my dysphoria was improving slowly but surely with my transition.

The obsession didn’t make any sense. It was just a track on loop that said, “What if, what if, what if?” But it felt like I couldn’t stop thinking about it, no matter what I did.

My therapist said that the obsession was triggered when I was supporting a friend through detransition (which I was happy to do – I love this person, and I support folks making whatever decisions they need to, including detransition!).

The fear that I might experience the despair that they were experiencing had set off an obsession – and it’s an obsession I still battle with months and months later.

When the obsession started, I was initially afraid to disclose to anyone that it was happening. I was afraid that they would invalidate my transgender identity, question the sincerity of my gender, or ostracize me from the community.

And I felt like I couldn’t tell clinicians, because I was afraid they would impede my access to top surgery, which I badly needed.

But imagine my relief when my therapist, who specialized in caring for the transgender population, recognized that my OCD was impacting my transition. I was able to access medication to help manage it – and from there, I connected with another transgender person with OCD, who had endured the same kind of obsessive spiral that I had.

Nowadays, the obsession comes and goes, and I feel more secure knowing that it isn’t a reflection of my identity but rather, an aspect of a disorder.

To be honest, when people commented on that previous article, telling me that I was less of a trans person because I had mixed feelings about my hormonal transition, I was angry. Angry because they had no idea the kind of hell that OCD put me through, making me irrationally obsess about the most fundamental part of who I am for nearly every waking hour of my day.

Lucky you, I wanted to say, that you’ve had nothing but positive transition experiences. Good for you?

The reality is that mentally ill trans people like me have a distinctly different experience of transition.

I’ve talked to trans people with generalized anxiety, who overthink and worry about every aspect of their transitions. I’ve talked to (and personally experienced) the detached, unstable sense of identity that trans people with borderline have coped with. I’ve talked to trans people with depression who, in the midst of an episode, felt too empty to connect with their transness. I’ve talked to mentally ill trans people who have had their gender identities completely written off as a delusion.

And I’ve written about survivors of trauma and mental illness who don’t even realize they are transgender until much later in life, because survival was their first priority – and because trauma can delay many aspects of self-actualization.

To be clear, being transgender is not a mental illness. But I absolutely believe that mental illness can impact our experiences of being transgender.

When neurotypical transgender people judge my experience of transition, I can only roll my eyes. What a privilege, to not live through the complexities, the complications, and the anguish of trying to manifest your truth through the trauma of mental illness, not to mention the actual barriers that prevent us from accessing care.

If we are acknowledging that things like race, class, and gender impact the oppression that transgender people have been dealt, I’m asking that neurotypical transgender people recognize that perhaps their experiences are different from mentally ill trans people – and that mental illness does not invalidate our identities, or make us less valid as transgender people.

I’m just going to say it, straight up: I think it’s ableist and fucked up to tell mentally ill transgender people like me that if they aren’t happy about transition or secure in themselves, they aren’t transgender at all.

I believe that we need to hold space for mentally ill trans people to navigate their identities. To stop saying that questioning, doubting, or fearing their transness makes them inherently less than – because that experience is not only normal for any and all trans people, but especially real for many trans people with mental illness.

We need to make room for mentally ill trans people (and really, all trans people) to be stressed about transition, fed up with transition, exhausted by transition – because we don’t always have the capacity to deal with these kinds of changes when we’re just trying to survive.

We also need to recognize that mentally ill trans people are some of the most vulnerable in our community, because struggling with any kind of dysphoria (emotional, social, physical), transphobia, or erasure only jeopardizes our health even further, endangering us.

And we absolutely need to acknowledge that there are mentally ill trans people who can’t transition or don’t want to – full stop.

So yes, irritating commenter, I’m insane. Har har, you got me. Mental illness has undoubtedly shaped my sense of self and my experience of transition, as it has for many trans people.

Chances are, with the prevalence of mental health struggles in our community, if you aren’t struggling with mental illness yourself, you know and love a trans person who is.

But if we continue to marginalize mentally ill trans people, I’d venture to say that we aren’t much better than the cisgender people who marginalize us.

afraid

6 Things People With Mental Illness Might Be Scared To Admit

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.