I have depression and anxiety, conditions that I was diagnosed with in college and remember suffering from the symptoms of as early as middle school. While there’s some talk of mental health in the media and most people are familiar with the basics, there’s still a lot of stigma.
Ignoring the worst stereotypes, which are flimsy to the point of transparent and are fortunately becoming less prevalent, there’s still many unfortunate and insidious messages about mental illness. A lot of it centers around the idea that it’s a failure of willpower moreso than a disease.
Thanks in large part to these negative messages, some people are resistant to mental illness diagnoses, or simply don’t want to think that they need help. For me, that part was easy. I never had much trouble admitting I had anxiety and depression. Treating my mental illness and working on getting better was challenging, but that was to be expected. After all, treating any illness can a tough process.
No, the hard part for me wasn’t knowing I was mentally ill, nor trying to get better. The hard part for me was realizing, years later, that my mental illness was chronic.
All the shame that society had fostered in me, that feeling that because I was mentally ill there was something wrong with me, rose up when my mental illness relapsed again, and again. I couldn’t comfort myself nearly as well when, “I’m just going through a tough time” was something I’d used before and knew I was going to use again.
I viewed mental illness like a monster. We sometimes see depictions of that in media, after all, and it doesn’t seem too far off. And for a while, that approach was helpful. If mental illness was a monster, then it might be big and scary and fierce, but it would also a concrete, attack-able issue. And more importantly, it would stay dead when slain.
But to get nerdy for a moment, if my mental illness is a monster, it’s definitely some sort of persistent undead. No matter how many times I stab my sword through its torso, it keeps coming back. If I get too cocky, it sneaks up behind me and plunges a dagger into my own heart.
The monster metaphor doesn’t actually work that great for me any more, as you can see.
Instead, I have to treat mental illness like the unglamorous thing it is: a chronic illness. It’s not something acute, like strep throat or a bout of the flu. Some people still view it that way: you get it, you go see a doctor, and then you get treatment to cure it for good. My dad, for example, scoffed at me last year when I made plans to do an outpatient mental health program for a month. His reasoning? “You’ve seen therapists before, so if you still have problems, it’s not working.”
Contrary to his understanding, mental illness is usually chronic. That doesn’t make it any less serious or valid, nor does necessarily it make it unmanageable, but it does take a different approach.
Some physical illnesses are chronic too, and that doesn’t make it less important to receive treatment. The fact that people with type I diabetes need to keep making adjustments to their insulin and treatment doesn’t mean their medical treatment is useless. It means that they’re getting the treatment they need to keep them as healthy as possible, and even still, they may occasionally slip into high or low blood sugar territory, which has negative effects. There’s not a single, easy, perfect treatment, and it requires lifelong management.
Similarly, the fact that I’ve been on medication on and off, and seen therapists for much of the last decade, doesn’t mean the treatment I receive is useless. It just means I have a chronic health condition. Seeing therapists helps me stay on top of my condition, lowering the frequency and severity of “breakouts” (which for me are periods of having my social, home, or work life noticeably impacted by my mental illness). In fact, if I’d recognized sooner that it was chronic, I would have had a lot less trouble staying on my low dose of medications for it. I treated it like a temporary measure, not wanting to consider that it might be a long-term, not short-term, solution for me.
I want to be functional, happy, and healthy. I don’t like that I’m mentally ill, but I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that my mental illness is a part of me. I just have to remember that my illness isn’t some demon I can vanquish once and for all, but a health condition I need to do my best to manage—and to not blame myself for having, even though it does flare up from time to time.