I often imagine what my life would have been like if mental illness didn’t show up and usually conclude it would have been like my life prior to mental illness. I was blessed with 12 years of clear time prior to my first breakdown and rely heavily on my recollections from this period as substitutes for felt hope. There is a difference between felt hope and known hope. My pre-depression recollections fall within the known hope category, which I define as knowing which thoughts or memories should elicit the feeling of hope, but for me, no longer do. Yet I continue to recall and fantasize, hoping to conjure up the elusive emotional experiences I no longer seem capable of. This conjuring leads me through an alternative universe where I’m OK, only to snap out of it and realize how much I’ve lost to mental illness. Rather than use the rest of this post to vent about the losses, however, I’m going to highlight three gains that came as a direct result of mental illness.
Just before mental illness struck (in such a way that there is now a clear distinction of my life pre and post depression), I was 12 years old and loaded with insecurities. I was socially awkward, confused, quiet, avoidant, and anxious: all things you could experience during mental illness. I experienced these things before I was really challenged, so how did mental illness help me overcome them?
It amplified them. It went beyond them as it ripped through my soul, finding much deeper issues to feed upon. Because of mental illness, though, I was compelled to tell anyone who would listen what I was experiencing, hoping in some way that honesty about my feelings was imperative to getting well. Fast forward two decades later: this type of introspection and honesty has done nothing to directly relieve the pain. I have found no hidden corner of my mind that contains the unresolved trauma we all hope to find and cope with. I have, however, developed an honest sense of self, which benefits my relationships and helps me make smarter decisions for my wellbeing. This doesn’t mean I’m inherently honest now. Rather, I err towards self-awareness as a means of navigating my upside down world, and in the process, feel OK with being honest about me.
There are people with mental illness who claim that fear does not play a part in their condition.
This is hard for me to grasp considering how terror is the common denominator of all of my mental health experiences. My condition has infected the fear center of my brain to the point where I have feared the strangest things to degrees I never imagined possible pre depression. So if mental illness (as I’ve experienced it) has set my brain on fire with fear, how has it helped me become fearless?
Rather, after being irrationally terrified for long stretches of time, garden-variety fears don’t carry much weight. I’m no longer afraid of humiliation. I don’t fear the opinions of others. I’m not afraid of sickness (despite a decade’s worth of hypochondria). I don’t fear common things all that much, but maybe this is just me. Many people with mental illness fear very common things and in a very loud way. I will not discount their fears by continuing to give the impression that I’m at a higher level of understanding of my condition. Stated simply, the terror experienced during my mental illness is far scarier than regular life fears. You could argue how this is possible when the end result of mental health terror is just me sitting around, stewing on what’s inside my head with very little happening externally. I would argue back that you haven’t experienced mental illness.
Mental illness can either kill you or make you stronger, right?
It can kill you. It can sometimes make you stronger. It can also turn you into your own best advocate. We’ve all heard the stories of people and their loved ones who turned over all the stones, constantly being reminded that they were crazy… that nothing was wrong with the person who was suffering. Then, years later, they found an answer. They knew all along they were right to suspect that something was amiss. They moved beyond doubt to find relief. That is my story because I am on that journey, and if you’re reading this, chances are we both struggle in the dark, looking for an answer to alleviate a suffering that doesn’t (yet) have a proper name.
I turn over stones when I can—it’s a habit I’ve picked up in the dark. In the least, it provides distraction, which is an effective tool during the storm of mental illness. I hope, though, that cultivating this habit will increase my chances of finding long-lasting relief. And maybe one day, a cure. It’s this advocacy that’s brought me to write for Actify Neurotherapies. Not because I personally advocate for Ketamine infusion. I can’t—I’ve yet to try it. But because Ketamine infusion, along with other recent discoveries in the mental health world, represent the type of scientific hope that we all need, even if we currently can’t feel it.