Meet My Mental Illness; Or: Coping With Happiness

For the first time in a long time (my whole life?) I feel sustainably happy. Not joyous- I was always capable of joy-but happy. Content. Grateful. While life has objectively thrown shit in my face over the years, the worst shit it threw was a brain that makes me feel like life is shittier than it’s actual shit level. You feel?

idiot
Real life footage of me and how I think. Source: http://heckifiknowcomics.com/

Anxiety and Depression are like the worst mirror ever. Everything is flipped and the worst parts are distorted beyond the scale of normal and the best parts become barely visible. I had always been a moody (though not necessarily unhappy) kid but my transition into to high school was really when shit started to hit the fan. (Shush, I’m seeing how far I can take this inarticulate metaphor).

I had panic attacks daily and reached a point of self loathing that is pretty much beyond the hate I could ever imagine feeling towards another human being. Another person can be given compassion and the benefit of the doubt, but you know every crevice of your own imperfections. Or, at least I did. This may sound absurd given my quite scholarly nature, but I truly believed I could not succeed in high school (spoiler alert: I could). I thought that all of the A’s I had received in middle school had come too easily to be sustainable and I worried constantly that I would be discovered as a fraud. I thought I had somehow deceived everyone into thinking I was intelligent and to me, my intelligence meant everything.

More specifically, moral excellence (which included intelligence for me) tyrannically determined my self-worth. I felt the weight of nations. I literally used those words in real conversations with actual human beings because #angst. I took the idea of activism to an extreme that I think many are still falling victim to today. I threw myself into causes without any concern for my own health. I expected and believed myself capable of being a Martin Luther King Jr. and hated myself when I fell short (at the age of fourteen, mind you). I felt responsible for everything and everyone’s happiness but my own.

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Me: Winning awards (this one’s for Drama and Arts) while simultaneously believing myself unworthy

After almost seven years of therapy my illness is not over or cured and it never will be. I think some people get confused about this, but I tend to think about it like diabetes. Some people get diabetes from life circumstances. They might be stuck with it forever but, if caught early enough they could go on with the rest of their lives not needing diabetes treatment. This is like situational or episodic mental illness. These types of illnesses only become a problem when exposed to certain trauma or stressors. They are more preventable. And, though they are not less real, I think they’re better understood.

However, some people are born with type 1 diabetes. It is not an illness that can be cured, just one that can be well treated. Someone born with type 1 diabetes will die with type 1 diabetes. All we can try to do is make sure that they don’t die because of it. Chronic or hereditary mental illnesses are like this. There will be no cure or finish line. Only growth and better coping strategies.*

For the first time in a long time (perhaps forever?) I feel happy. The happiness terrifies me like the thrilling belly flip you get on rollercoasters. I’m having fun but sense the inevitable drop awaiting me. The happiness terrifies me like a newborn baby. It can get lost or sick or die. It can get taken away unless I really take care of it and even then nothing is for certain. Babies stress me out tbh. Now that I am getting better at counteracting the ways I make my own life miserable, though, I start to worry about externally induced pain. Pain that I have even less control over. Death and illness and cruelty do not send “save the date”s in the mail six months to a year before they happen. You cannot prepare for them. You cannot be sure that you will be wearing the right dress on the day of the occasion.

I can only cope with being happy the way I cope with being scared or sad- one day/hour/moment at a time. I can only grasp at the good in life when it is in reach, and prepare for hibernation. I can do yoga and write and take my meds. I can shower and brush my teeth. I can tell the people I love how fucking awesome they are so they can subsist on that while I am too numb to love properly.

As one of my favorite authors, Jenny Lawson, puts it:

“When you come out of the grips of a depression there is an incredible relief, but not one you feel allowed to celebrate. Instead, the feeling of victory is replaced with anxiety that it will happen again, and with shame and vulnerability when you see how your illness affected your family, your work, everything left untouched while you struggled to survive. We come back to life thinner, paler, weaker … but as survivors. Survivors who don’t get pats on the back from coworkers who congratulate them on making it. Survivors who wake to more work than before because their friends and family are exhausted from helping them fight a battle they may not even understand….” and because of that “I AM GOING TO BE FURIOUSLY HAPPY, OUT OF SHEER SPITE.” -Quote from her book Furiously Happy

Ah yes furiously happy. An almost manic joy and gratitude that bursts through in moments when the fog lifts. Feeling more alive because you’ve finally remembered why you don’t want to die. The happiness that pops up before, during, and after mental illness episodes is almost indescribable. But it is tempered by this fear of recurrence and pain caused when trapped in your own mind. So I am not just happy for the first time in (forever?) a long time. I am furiously happy. Saying it out loud. Jinxing myself. Daring the world to spit in my face but enjoying myself until it does.

 

*Plz excuse me if I have messed up the science on this. It’s a metaphor. You get the idea.

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