An Open Letter To My Teenage Self (Before You Try To End Your Life)

Dear Teenage Sam,

I want to tell you where I was this morning.

I woke up with the California sunshine peaking through the blinds, falling on my face, colliding with my eyes. You wouldn’t believe how beautiful it is, waking up like that. It’s my favorite way to wake up, and we get to wake up this way every day now.

While I was drinking my coffee, I was curled up on the couch crying. You and I don’t do much crying these days, because you fell in love, moved across the country, and found an antidepressant that helped you to understand what happiness actually feels like.

(We used to cry a lot. You never understood why – but I promise, you will one day.)

I have a brilliant friend who says that recovering from depression is kind of similar to wearing high heels for a long time – that moment when your feet touch the ground, and you remember what walking is supposed to feel like.

When you wiggle your toes, stretch your feet, and remember what solid ground is like underneath you.

This morning I was crying because I finally understood what that really meant.

Put another way:

Yesterday, I lit a lighter by myself for the first time.

We were always afraid of fire, you know, afraid of something catching fire or getting burned. 25 years old, and I’d never made a fire until last night.

(And I think this can account for, at least in part, why you’ve never taken up smoking cigarettes.)

When I held it in my hand, I knew at last what it was like to hold fire. What it was like to glow brightly without getting burned.

And I learned that it wasn’t fire that we were so afraid of – it was the belief that we could never be trusted with something like that. That, given the chance, we would always destroy something good. That we could come so close, and draw so near, but we could never control the fire.

(And I think this can account for, at least in part, why bonfires and fireplaces always frightened you a little.)

But last night, I held the light between my fingers. I watched the flame flickering and dancing in the dark, and I finally understood that I could trust myself again.

Sam, do you understand what I mean?

I mean that, one morning, you will wake up and know what it’s like to move through the world without aching feet, the ground reliable and solid and soft underneath you. And you’ll know joy not just as the absence of pain, but the PRESENCE of something.

Something ecstatic and whole and hopeful that you didn’t know you could feel.

I mean that, one night, you will know what it feels like to be bright and unstoppable and in motion, without fearing what might happen if you get carried away – if you love too hard, if you feel too much, if you trust yourself too deeply. You will love, you will feel, and you will trust with beautiful abandon.

You will know what it’s like to be in awe of yourself, startled but not afraid.

I promise, there will come a morning – tears sliding down like beautiful gems scattered across your cheeks – and you will say underneath your breath, “This is the way I was supposed to feel.”

This moment will be made possible only because you survived.

I can’t stop you from trying. I know that. I know this because I spent many years looking for you behind closed doors, flashbacks deceiving me, trying to spare you before you stopped breathing.

I know this because I remember how desperate you were to end your pain. There wasn’t a single force in the universe that could’ve intervened.

(When you’re older, you’ll become acquainted with emergency rooms, and meet the doctors that will ultimately diagnose and save you.)

I forgave you a long time ago – for this, and all the trauma to follow – from the moment you woke up, as the room spun and closed in all around you and I knew you needed someone to care for you.

You need to be brave. And you were brave, Sam, you have always been brave.

This is a remarkable thing you’ll learn about yourself soon – that you might always struggle with the impulse to hurt yourself, but you will never lose the instinct to care for yourself, stitching up your own wounds.

Surviving is what you do. You will survive this, too.

I know this now, having courageously and stubbornly picked myself up so many times, a lesson I learned from watching you.

***

If you or someone you know are thinking about suicide, you can always call:

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.

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.

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.

How Mental Illness Changed the Way I Feel About Birthdays

birthdaycake

In my mind, celebrating the day I was born didn’t seem like a huge priority. In a way, you could say I’m making up for lost time.

Today I turned 24 years old (this is the point where half of my readers are like, WHAT, since I don’t think I’ve posted my age publicly until now – you’re welcome).

I know a lot of people who don’t make a huge deal out of their birthdays. They see it as just another day of the year. They don’t go out of their way to tell anyone. They stay in, enjoy a glass of wine, watch a movie, and fall asleep with the television on.

More power to them – really, whatever floats your boat – but I am definitely not one of those people.

I savor all the well wishes, the cards, the hugs, the birthday cake emojis. I buy myself a cake and a present; one year, I even sent myself a couple of e-cards (at the bottom it read “Love, You” – yes, I realize how weird this sounds) so I would have something fun to wake up to.

I stalk my Facebook wall, starting right at midnight, and revel in the outpouring of love and affirmation. I loudly tell waitstaff at restaurants that it’s my birthday with the hopes that they’ll sing a song.

But contrary to what it seems, I’m not actually a brat.

In fact, I didn’t always behave this way on my birthday. My birthdays used to be quiet. When I was no longer a kid and I was expected to organize my own party, they largely slid by, mostly unnoticed.

In my mind, celebrating the day I was born didn’t seem like a huge priority. In a way, you could say that I’m making up for lost time.

The thing about being a teenager in the throes of mental illness is that it was difficult, if not impossible, to motivate me to care about the fact that I was a year older.

To me, it was just a reminder that I had spent yet another year struggling without making any progress. You could say it was a new year, and you could even put it on a card and wrap it in a “happy occasion” bow, but to me, it felt insignificant.

The years all blended together underneath this dark cloud of bipolar and anxiety and they were rendered meaningless in the fog.

My birthdays as a teen went something like this:

  1. Resenting how damn cold Michigan is in late November. Resenting not having an earlier birthday so I could at least enjoy some sunshine on what was supposed to be “my day.” Sometimes this also meant staring angrily out the window at the snow on the ground.
  2. Wondering if any of my friends would remember (mind you, this was before Facebook was so popular). Being amazed when a few actually did.
  3. Eating carrot cake with my family (my mother makes a carrot cake that is out of this world, so I requested it every year).
  4. Going to bed and imagining a parallel universe where I actually did something important on my birthday.

Truthfully, I think that when you’re in survival mode, the idea of celebrating the fact that you exist seems so asinine when you spend more days than not wishing you didn’t exist.

When my mental health started to rebound, though – therapy, meds, rinse, repeat – I started to feel differently about birthdays.

The first birthday I can remember feeling distinctly different about was my 20th birthday. I remember thinking about how, when I was younger and deeply depressed, I had never imagined myself getting any older than 18. Turning that corner and getting into my twenties felt like a huge accomplishment.

It was a revelation. It was like unlocking a bonus level or discovering a sequel when you thought the book series had ended. I felt like I had cheated death – like I was living when I wasn’t really supposed to be.

Looking at that number as it shifted from 19 to 20, I had this sense that my being alive was a tremendous accomplishment; my birthday stood as a reminder of the resilience it took to keep living, to keep fighting, to stay.

That year, I actually did celebrate for the first time in a long time. Mx. Justin Vivian Bond, radical faerie extraordinaire, had a show in Ann Arbor. I went with a new friend of mine – a new friend I would eventually start dating a couple months later. It was a magical evening.

I realized that night something that had never really occurred to me before: I had a future.

And if that future involved radical transgender performance artists and some cute queer who buys me coffee on my birthday, I suspected that my future might not be so bad (spoiler alert: the cute queer who bought me coffee that night was also the cute queer who I married three years later).

Life didn’t stop at 18. And if I could live to be 20, maybe I could live to be 25, or 30, or… wow, is there really life after 30? They tell you life is short and that you should never assume you have more time, but the thought that I could live another decade, another two decades, even more – that thought shook me to my core.

Finally reaching my twenties made me feel like I had a whole new lease on life – and that’s when my obsession with birthdays really began.

I’m a big believer in making a huge fuss out of your birthday, but it’s not because I’m self-absorbed (okay, I may be a little self-absorbed – I am a blogger, after all).

It’s because I love any and every excuse to celebrate the fact that we’re still here. When somebody says “Happy Birthday” to me, what this translates to in my mind is, “Hey, kid, you made it. You’re alive.”

Still being here – which, when I was younger, was never something I imagined – is a big fucking deal. There were times when I thought I wouldn’t make it another day, let alone another five, ten years.

This year is the most important year yet. I am 24, and my first major depressive episode happened when I was 14. I look back at where I was ten years ago – ten years, can you believe that? – and I’m amazed.

Ten years ago, I didn’t think I would make it through geometry class, let alone grow up to be an actual adult (another spoiler alert: taxes are terrible, paying rent is painful, but being an adult is, all in all, the best thing ever and totally worth the wait).

Ten years later, I did make it through geometry. And not only that, but I survived many depressive episodes (and manic ones, too). I graduated from high school – hell, I graduated from college. I came out as transgender. I moved across the country to California, I got married, I started my career as a writer-

Hold up, y’all, as a writer. Which is its own bucket of “what the actual fuck” because when I was 14, I refused to show my writing to anyone because I was embarrassed and afraid that I wasn’t good enough.

Can you imagine what teenage Sam would have to say about all this?

Birthdays, for me, are the one day of the year where I have an undeniable excuse to celebrate everything that I’ve overcome to reach this stage in my life.

And, yes, while I believe that we should dabble in self-love and affirmation every day of the year, there’s something magical about getting older that makes those affirmations feel so much more meaningful.

Ten years ago I never imagined that this was my future. Hell, what future, I never imagined a future! I didn’t know that, on the other side of all of that pain, there were was something worth waiting for.

I realize that birthday cake emojis or balloons are not remarkable in themselves. I know that to most people, cards and parties and waiters singing songs are all superficial things to care about.

But they all remind me of perhaps the most tremendous thing I’ve learned in my 24 years on this planet: You just never know.

Every single time I claimed to know what the future had in store, I was wrong. 

And never in my life have I been so happy, so glad to be wrong. It’s a kind of “wrong” that’s worth celebrating.

Walk, Don’t Run: 4 Things that Mental Illness Recovery Taught Me

The image features a road cutting through a forest of tall trees.

Sometimes the road is not as predictable as we’d hoped.

The first time I saw a psychologist was nearly a decade ago now. I was just fourteen years old, trapped under the fist of a heavy and unexpected depressive episode.

After bouncing around the mental health system for all of these years, I’m grateful to say that I emerged on the other side of all of this feeling whole and happy and fulfilled – all things that I never imagined were possible given the hand that I was dealt.

While not all neurodiverse people view their difference as an illness (which is 100% valid!), this framework has helped me personally in my healing; in this particular article, I am speaking to those who share that framework. However, everyone should use whatever language works best for them!

We have plenty of narratives about struggling with mental health, and while those are crucial stories to share, I think it’s also important to have conversations (often!) about recovery.

Because for many of us, we don’t know what to expect, what our recovery might look like, and how we can move forward with our lives after trauma that has often persisted for decades.

So in the spirit of shedding some light on this topic, I want to share some of the lessons I’ve learned throughout the process. Here are four lessons (of many) that mental illness recovery has taught me:

 

1. Honor your own pace.

Mental illness can make a person impatient. This shouldn’t be surprising – for many of us, our episodes have persisted for months, even years, and at the first sign of light we’re eager to reclaim our lives and finally begin living instead of being stuck in survival mode.

This can often lead to us feeling more overwhelmed, intimidated, and downright exhausted. Ugh!

This is where the phrase “walk, don’t run” is critical. Because while it would be fantastic to address all of the neglected aspects of our lives after trauma – wilting relationships, weak finances, failing grades, returning to work – recovery gives zero fucks about your ambitions and only concerns itself with your ability at any given time.

And while you may have the urge to hit the ground running, in reality the best you may be able to do is sit up. That’s okay! Mental illness is trauma and trauma takes time to heal.

Be mindful of the pace that you’re setting for recovery. Are you pushing too hard? Are you punishing yourself for not reaching impossible goals? Are you setting yourself up for failure?

Keep realistic expectations and be kind with yourself as you navigate the initial recovery steps. You don’t need to take on the world right now. It’s true that this stuff takes a lot of patience, but giving yourself the time and space that you need will help make your recovery a more sustainable one. Trust me.

 

2. There is no such thing as “square one.”

This scenario might sound familiar to you. A lot of us, when we find ourselves struggling again after a period of relative stability, lament being “back at square one” and beat ourselves up about it.

I vote that we eliminate that phrase from our vocabulary effective immediately.

What the hell is square one? I don’t think it really exists. Because even if we find ourselves struggling again – whether it’s having suicidal thoughts after years of not considering it, or having a huge panic attack after effectively coping with anxiety for some time – I’m not sure how that negates the amount of work we’ve put into our recovery since the last time we struggled.

I used to beat myself up every time bipolar disorder or anxiety made a “guest appearance” in my life after being booted off the cast. This is problematic on a few fronts. First off, it suggests that I’m somehow at fault. And two, it dismisses all the self-care, therapy, and emotional investment I’ve put into my healing. It basically says, “I am an identical copy of the person I was years ago.” Not true.

No panic attack or depressive episode can take away all the skills, reflections, epiphanies, support systems, and tools we’ve gained in our recovery. There can be setbacks, to be sure, but it’s impossible to be exactly where you started by virtue of the work you’ve been putting in, big or small.

As a famous fish once said, “Just keep swimming.”

 

3. You are allowed to be angry.

When I reflect on the amount of time bipolar disorder and anxiety have robbed me of – years of fighting just to stay alive – I feel a kind of rage and grief that I can’t say I’ve ever felt about anything else. The sheer injustice of it makes me angry. To this day, despite mental illness having a very diminished impact on my life, I still have to take a moment from time to time to let myself feel that rage.

Give yourself the space to feel angry. That anger is necessary in confronting trauma.

You don’t have to pretend that you’re some kind of reformed, respectable survivor. While I do consider myself a survivor, I am, in equal parts, a victim. There’s this false dichotomy that we’ve created – you’re either a survivor, who has overcome mental illness and you are an inspiration to all, OR you’re a victim, wallowing in your own suffering with no intention of moving past it.

Why is it that victims get so much shit while survivors are celebrated? Is it because they don’t make as exciting or inspiring of a story?

Trauma is real. And we all need to give ourselves permission to grieve. We need to give ourselves permission to acknowledge our own pain, and yes, to even sit in it and wallow in it and acquaint ourselves with it. Anger can be part of healing, but not if we suppress it. If that makes us victims, so be it.

 

4. Recovery, in some ways, is harder than any episode you’ll ever have.

Depression, while it gutted my soul completely, in many ways felt safe to me. I knew what the rules were. I often knew what to expect. It was consistent, reliable even. Everything was easier without hope – because there was never disappointment, never unpredictability, never ups and downs.

I was surprised by how much more difficult, in some ways, recovery really was. Physically, because all the medications I was trying came with a host of wild side effects that came and went with no warning. Emotionally, because just when I thought I was making progress, I came crashing back down.

And intrinsically, too, recovery was hard because so much of who I was depended on my episodes – and when I was stripped of that, I came to realize that I didn’t know myself as well as I’d thought. So much of what I came to associate with “me” was actually just depression or mania talking. When I was no longer in the midst of it, I realized I had to start over and evaluate the very core of who I was.

So much energy went into just maintaining myself – when did I have the luxury of figuring out who I was apart from that? But when the noise quieted down, it felt like I was a stranger to myself.

The predictability of sickness – the flat line that we never depart from – in many ways allowed me to revert to auto-pilot. That ultimately meant not dealing with the unknowable and unpredictable aspects of life.

Sometimes it’s actually harder when you’re just healthy enough to feel a full spectrum of emotions and be fully present for it, but not yet equipped with the tools to cope.

The emotional labor that goes into recovery is very different from the upkeep that goes into survival when you’re dealing with a mental health crisis. It creates its own challenges – many of which we’re unprepared for.

But I consider these challenges to be growing pains. These are muscles that, after being out of use, will be stronger with time. The best advice I can give? Take it day by day, keeping in mind that any major life change – good or bad – can still be disruptive and difficult in its own ways.

* * *

Recovery is a bit of a misnomer – because while mental illness is treatable, for better or for worse, it doesn’t just disappear.

Really, I think of it more like rehabilitation after an injury; we have to learn and relearn skills to help us get back on our feet and get back to the living we were meant to do. We aren’t trying to pretend the trauma didn’t happen – we’re trying to become more adaptable in the face of that trauma.

It starts slow, with small victories and of course, the setbacks, too. But with persistence, we can build a better foundation that allows us to become more resilient in the face of our struggles.

I believe that as we share our stories – not just those of struggle but of healing, too – we can ensure that those who are on this journey will never have to feel alone, no matter where in that journey they are.


 Sam Dylan Finch is a transgender activist and feminist writer, based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is the founder of Let’s Queer Things Up!, his blog and labor of love, as well as a writer at Everyday Feminism and Ravishly. With a passion for impacting change through personal narrative, Sam writes about his struggles and triumphs as genderqueer and bipolar with the hopes of teaching others about his identity and community.

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