Mental Illness is Not a Fatal Flaw

Before leaving for school, my friend gave me the book "Furiously Happy" by Jenny Lawson. If you've never read it, you absolutely should. It's a hilarious woman's take on navigating life while dealing with the effects and struggles of mental illness, taking something usually ostracizing and scary and making it accessible, understandable, and relatable in a way that doesn't make you feel bad about yourself (a rare trait in the world of mental health literature). I read this book during my first few weeks of college, and, as it turns out, it was exactly what I needed to be reading.

This blog, and, in fact, my entire life as of now, is built upon the foundation of mental illness.

That's probably a surprising statement to some people. Mental illness is usually seen as a weakness, as a character flaw that sometimes proves to be fatal. It's because of this that mental illnesses are shoved in the closet and under the bed- rarely discussed in public, and if they are with the strong implication that having one is, quite possibly, the worst fate we could ever face. And while dealing with and struggling to overcome mental illness is a long, hard, brutally ugly struggle that I would never wish upon anyone, it is something that I've come to see as a large part of becoming who I am today.

I've struggled with an entire roll call of mental illness: anxiety, depression, disordered eating, and any multitude of subsets that falls under each umbrella. My life has been molded, shaped by the battle against my own mind, and in hindsight I can see how it's changed who I am. Dealing with an invisible disease that is so misunderstood and so impossible to perfectly "cure" led to the development of traits that I'm grateful for today: tenacity, dedication, hope, and, in the fight to pull the skeletons out of my closet, authenticity.

Simply put: I learned how to talk about the shit I don't want to talk about, and how to become a better person along the way.

But just because I'm aware of this and can see it now doesn't mean that I always believe it. There are times, just as Lawson describes in her book, where I define myself only by my diseases. Times where I see only the things my disorder has made me do and not what I choose in spite of it. Times where I categorize myself as a "bad person" because I've done bad things that were beyond my control. There's times where I have to live the shit I don't want to talk about- and those are scary, painful times.

I've reached a point in my journey with mental illness and recovery from anorexia where I feel largely freed from the chains that used to weigh heavily on me. I've reached a point of peace where- despite being perfect- I feel more liberated, peaceful, and in control than I ever though I would be capable of. And this time, it's true control, not the false sense of it my disorder gave me in the past. But the thing about disorders and mental illness is that there is no "cure." You can't take a test, get some blood work done, and have a doctor tell you, "Congrats! You're cured! Enjoy the rest of your life and never think about your mental health again!"

These things linger just beneath the surface, and they are predators of opportunity. They feed on insecurity, doubt, fear, and changes that are beyond our control. They prey on our desires for familiarity and structure. And when the inevitable times in life come where we are uncertain and insecure, they strike.

Even knowing this, I went into college hoping for the best. Every therapist and doctor I've ever seen has given me the warning that college is a prime time for eating disorders and anxiety to pop back up and reappear with a vengeance, but I couldn't help but hope I was going to be the exception. I wanted to be stronger than that, better than that. I wanted to prove that I wasn't like everyone else, and my disorder was a chapter in my life that had ended with a firm period. Not an ellipses. Not a "To Be Continued." Not a cliffhanger.

In my mind, there was no room for a sequel.

Because a sequel meant failure. It meant allowing a beast I'd fought so hard to defeat to strike me down. It meant being weak.

And so the first few weeks of college were a blow to my ego. I was uncomfortable. I was messing up left and right. I wasn't finding fast friends and I was missing my community back home. I felt useless here, where I had no job other than school, which felt far more like an obligation than the opportunity it really is. And it's no surprise that in the thick of that mess, I found myself feeling out of control- the very reason my life had spiraled into disorder four years ago.

It's this lack of control that I found myself calling a friend at midnight one night, crying and telling them I'd realized I was doing things I hadn't done in a long time.

"I'm doing bad things," I said desperately into the phone, "I'm being bad."

I'd noticed little habits that I'd thought I had banished long ago creeping back into my routine. I found myself feeling stressed if I wouldn't be able to practice or go to the gym, because in my mind it was an indication of a lack of self-discipline. I found myself obsessively dissecting every morsel of food that was put in front of me, even occasionally peering into the nutritional labels I'd fought so viciously to tear myself away from in the years before. I found myself laying awake at night, restless, wondering if the thoughts in my head would go away if I could just pace around a little, try to outrun the anxiety that was stirring up inside me.

"Am I relapsing?" I sobbed into the phone, "I don't want to go backwards. I'm so tired of this shit."

"No." They said, with patience I can't imagine having if someone woke me up in the middle of the night to barely decipherable sobbing noises, "You're not."

"You're not," he explained, "Because you noticed what's happening and you care this time. Last time you didn't care. Last time you kept it a secret. Last time you didn't ask for help."

Something about the way he said this cut into my fears like a knife. He was right: my struggles with anorexia had always been something that I'd kept a secret to be protected with my life. When I'd been truly struggling, I was in the deepest shade of denial: denying the fact that I had a problem right up until the moment I was laying in a hospital bed with a million wires sprouting from my body. The fact that I'd had the awareness, the bravery to pick up the phone and tell someone I saw negative patterns reforming meant that something was different this time.

It meant that this time, I wasn't relapsing: I was simply being human.

Imagine you have asthma. You've had it almost your entire life. When you were younger it was really bad, you'd have attacks so often that it impeded your ability to live a quality life. It isolated you from your friends, made you scared to play sports or run around. Eventually, though, you got help. You saw a doctor, got on medication, got an inhaler, and you were empowered to start living (and enjoying) your life again. You're "recovered."

Now imagine that a few years later, on a particularly hot and dry day at a dusty fairground, you have an asthma attack. It scares you for sure, and reminds you that you need to be aware of your surroundings and triggers for your attacks, but you simply use your inhaler, take some time to rest, and get back to living your life.

It's the same way with mental illness. Just like the asthma, it's a trait you'll always have, something that you'll always have to be aware of and something that you'll always have to be careful about triggering or setting off, but it doesn't define you. You don't introduce yourself first and foremost as an asthmatic, then a person, it's just something that runs in the background. And when something big comes up- like an asthma attack or a wakeup call to disordered habits reappearing- you don't berate yourself for it.

You get the help that you need. You get back on your feet. And you move forward.

And just like the asthmatic in this scenario would grab their inhaler and take a minute to breathe, I turned to my own form of treatment. I slowed down. I got back into the habit of meditation that I'd dropped. I forced myself to be honest about my motivations behind my food choices and my exercise habits. I took a step back, tried to see my situation through someone I loved's eyes, and simply got to work nipping bad habits in the bud before they could completely entangle me again.

I want to be very clear about something: this is what recovery looks like.

Recovery doesn't look like never having a disordered thought again. Recovery doesn't look like never feeling insecure or scared or out of control. Recovery doesn't look like never falling back into old habits or never making poor decisions. Recovery doesn't mean doing everything right.

Recovery means being willing to be honest. It means being willing to admit when things are slipping and being willing to ask for help when you need it. It means acknowledging that you've made some mistakes and slid backwards a little recently, but that it isn't an excuse to let everything just slide back down to the bottom of the hill. Recovery isn't always a pretty "happily ever after," but it sure as hell is better than being consumed by an eating disorder.

And I'll be honest, although I've written these words, they are still ones that I fight to believe every day. We are so often sent the message- from the media and from others in our lives- that mental illness is shameful and that if we aren't completely free of our demons then we shouldn't be happy with ourselves at all. Overcoming a lifetime of these messages takes time, and I struggled to write this piece and be honest about the fact that I've messed up recently.  

But I talk about the shit I don't want to talk about. That just how I live now- with fearless authenticity. 

Someone recently asked me my advice for finding your passion and your purpose in life. Without really even having to think about it, I wrote back:

"I've found most people find purpose in the wake of tragedy, pain, or trail. It pulls it out of you. Rock bottom is a firm foundation."

Rock bottom is a firm foundation. I've hit rock bottom- I've been there, as so many others who've dealt with mental illness have. It used to be a point of shame for me, something that I wanted to keep hidden, but now I see it for what it truly is. It was pulling myself to a point of true vulnerability so that I would be forced to face who I am and who I want to be. It gave me perspective. It made me humble. And, most importantly, it gave me the power to take back my story and make it my own.

Mental illness is not a fatal flaw. Messing up is not the end. Hitting rock bottom is not failure.

Any moment can be a new beginning.


Photo by Jennifer Skog for Just Be Yoga.