Recently, a friend on Facebook posted about what depression and anxiety has cost her: the potential identity she always thought she'd grow into. It was a sentiment that resonated because mental illness has all kinds of intangible costs but one of the largest can be stability of identity.
I was seven when I started planning out the course of the rest of my life. It was an effort toward security, an attempt to remind myself that I would eventually have some control over myself. That was the idea anyway -- children have so little say in their own lives. When I pondered the future, the theme of my fantasies was independence.
While my classmates had no idea what they wanted to be when they grew up, my fantasies were incredibly detailed -- I knew what I wanted to do at school and as a career and, by the time I was eleven or twelve, even where I wanted to eventually retire (Arizona because it was a dry heat and I'd be able to ride horses there). And I didn't just fantasize; I started setting goals and working towards them because I was a determined -- and highly stressed out (and, well, mentally ill) -- kid.
It wasn't until I left home for college (I already had two full-time years of classes under my belt, taken during my junior and senior years of high school) that it all came crashing down. I was sort of functional but mostly I was numb and feeling trapped by my own expectations; I sat in the cafeteria one day at breakfast (or maybe it was lunch) and just stared, let everything move around me because I didn't have any momentum of my own.
I just didn't realize that was what was going on. A couple of people stopped by to ask me if I was OK (it was a small college and people looked out for each other); in hindsight, I probably looked very sad indeed if strangers were stopping by to make sure I wasn't on a literal ledge. That's actually how I met two of my best college friends -- they took me in and gave me things to look forward to. I didn't have my life plan anymore but I had actual human connection so it turned out to be a pretty good tradeoff.
The problem was that, without the plans I had driven myself with, I was pretty adrift. This was my first experience with the way mental illness -- depressive episodes in particular -- can completely derail all of the plans you might be making for who you want to be. I had an image of the person I was going to become and I knew the work it would take to become that person; I didn't have a chance in hell of becoming that person because I no longer could continue following my compulsive plan.
Are you familiar with the idea of multiple alternate realities? Sometimes I still think about what my life might be like in one of those alternate realities where I didn't hit a wall and realize that I wanted to do something that made me happy. In some of them, I think, I am probably still happy. In others, I am still numb because numb is better than miserable.
In all of them, hopefully, I retain whatever it is that makes me myself -- I don't know that I believe in souls but I do believe that people have fundamental qualities to their character. What I don't know is how much mental illness influences those qualities.
How much of my determined optimism comes from the way I have learned to deal with my own mental illness? How much of my compulsive creative work has fed into the cracks and weak points of my self-image?
There's no way to know. I will never be the person I thought I was going to be and there is no way to know who else I might have been if I hadn't had to deal with mental illness. Further, there's no telling who I will end up being because identity is so fluid; identity is never truly static.
Sometimes when I think about what mental illness has cost me, I mourn. We live in a world that measures folks in certain ways -- and when you're constantly adjusting your self-image away from an ideal you were invested in, there's no way to come up even with that measurement. It's easy to fall into self-loathing (especially since depression encourages that, too). So the mourning feels important -- feels like letting some of the expectations go.
Regardless of those mainstream measurements, if you're dealing with mental illness then sometimes getting out of bed is a triumph.
That's a hard thing for some people (people who don't struggle with mental illness, usually) to understand -- it's so easy for people to say, "Just send the email, just wash the dishes, just buy the groceries." But it's so hard to fight your own brain when your brain is in revolt. It's also hard to judge how much of it is maybe your own personality flaws versus mental health issues -- which is another way mental illness can steal your sense of identity but that's probably another topic.
On the other side of everything is accepting that no matter who and what we thought we were going to be, who and what we have become is pretty good, too. For me, that's the only option (see: determined optimism) because if I learned anything from not becoming who I was so working so hard to be, it is that I cannot live in despair. When those college friends rescued me with distractions and caring about me when I was so lost, I started to learn the trick of accepting who I am at any given time -- of course there's no reason to stop working toward self-improvement but it's possible to do that without being so invested in a static vision of identity that we make our own lives harder.
There may well be an infinite number of realities, where an infinite number of versions of each of us lead an infinite number of lives. But in this one, I am glad to be alive and working and making things. I am glad to be more concerned with connections than with holding myself apart. If that's something to be chalked up to mental illness, I can't entirely regret it.