He said I was the happiest sad person he’d ever meet. He said, “I see you and I understand. I am here.”
I like to compare my life with anxiety to living with a huge grizzly bear. She’s a beast, really. Powerful, particular, irrational. Sensitive, territorial, destructive. When provoked, she fills the whole room with fear. She’s a bully. She’s all-encompassing. She is my oldest friend and my biggest foe.
Every night I sleep with this grizzly bear. Sometimes she keeps me up until the wee hours of the morning, discussing past conversations and confrontations, throwing what-ifs into the air like they’ll somehow fix what we’d irrevocably broken. We dissect nonverbal cues sent from across the room that day or decipher the puzzling tone of an email. That smile from a superior. A fading friendship.
Sometimes our nighttime follies bleed into daylight, and before we know it, the outline of our fears begin to take shape. They disguise themselves as truths, so overwhelming and real you can all but touch and taste and smell them. Soon, Melancholy shows up, announcing that if we don’t settle down, she’ll have to stay for the foreseeable future. She takes the form of emptiness. She is everywhere and no where at all. She is a dull pain, a sleepy sedative, a growing black void where the happy and sad once wrestled. If she hangs around long enough, everything wonderful becomes terrible. Everything terrible becomes nothing at all.
My anxiety arrived first in the form of an eating disorder. I was 19 and relentlessly ambitious. I had big dreams and higher expectations. I expected will and grit to propel me forward in life, listing self-care at the very bottom of my priority list. I kept hustling after graduation and worked hard at my job. I started to travel more. I was becoming good at my craft and had work published in national journals. I started a blog, and a readership developed. With small successes, the anxiety began to dull. I was smiling again, but continued to self-medicate with alcohol and exercise and friends and shopping and parties. I met my ex-husband. Stable, brilliant, charming, he was. I latched on to him for dear life, quietly hoping he could shelter me from my internal shit storm. It was irresponsible and selfish. At the time, it was all I knew of love.
At our first session, the couple’s counselor said, “You really dislike yourself, don’t you, Kate.” And I cried. I cried because it was true, and I couldn’t imagine life any other way.
These things have a certain way of revealing themselves, slowly and deliberately. Even if you’ve successfully outrun them, denied them, buried them, they never go away. You will come to terms with who you are. The evidence had been mounting against me for years, all symptoms of a greater problem I’d have to confront. No matter how strong your relationship or resilient your family, the fight for self-love is a battle fought from within. In the end, you’re going to have to save yourself.
Living with a mental disorder is to live with stigma and secrets. It means you are expected to withhold a significant part of who you are from almost everyone. You wonder, “Do I tell him after six months of dating? Six years? Will he still look at me the same way? When do I become honest with the important people in my life and say, ‘Hey- this is me. I’m a little sensitive, a little spacey and a little anxious sometimes, but that’s what makes me awesome.’” Talking about mental disorders is still widely considered a faux pas. They are blemishes on an otherwise sparkling resume. To accept this is to accept the stereotypes as your own, to confirm a truth in someone else’s ignorance, to divert society’s lack understanding towards yourself. People say I’m brave for sharing my journey. I see it as my responsibility.
The World Health Organization estimates that 350 million people have some form of clinical depression– that’s half of one percent of everyone on Earth. 350 MILLION of us. And still, “the blues” only happen to people who lack mental grit. There are millions of people quietly losing their own battles because of a physical ailment. There are millions who are greatly misunderstood because of their genetic disposition. Can you imagine the impact we’d have by banishing the stigma of mental illness by replacing it with acknowledgment and acceptance? If we made it easier for people to get help at school and work? Acceptance is how we create a dialogue with those who are suffering. It’s how we empower people to get the help they need. It’s how we help prevent mass shootings. It’s how we save more lives.
The brain is still very much a mystery to scientists, and while we’ve made huge strides in understanding mental disorders, the only thing we can do right now is educate ourselves and our peers. We can be curious about the complexities of these uniquely special brains. We can understand that creative genius and mental illness are intrinsically linked, and remember that gifts often come in deceiving packages. We move mountains in one person’s life through acceptance and love. We can do so much by checking judgement at the door.
Some days, everything is wonderful. Some days, everything is terrible. It’s par for the course, even for those free of mental afflictions. Being human means riding these waves. If you have one or two bad days a week, you’re doing great. If you have one melt-down every few years, you’re doing spectacular. If you are having the worst year of your life, hold on to hope, because it does get better.
Humans are complicated, and I wouldn’t change that for the world. I’ve been lucky enough to manage my anxiety, depression, and ADHD with sleep, exercise, healthy habits, and a little help from a light dose of Adderall. For others, the stigma and physical journey is much more challenging. We all could use a little more practice accepting our own (and others) limitations and afflictions. Because once we make peace with our inner grizzly bear, we are free to open our hearts to those brave enough to stand by our side. It may not be the cure, but it’s a great place to start.
How Not To Be A Dick To Someone With Depression, by Mai Steinberg (xoJane)
“When you tell someone with depression that they should maybe try harder to be happy, it’s essentially like telling a diabetic that they could totally make an adequate amount of insulin if they just concentrated a little harder.”
Secrets of the Creative Brain, Nancy Andreasen (The Atlantic)
“A leading neuroscientist who has spent decades studying creativity shares her research on where genius comes from, whether it is dependent on high IQ—and why it is so often accompanied by mental illness.”
A Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success, by Alain de Botton (TED)
“Alain de Botton examines our ideas of success and failure — and questions the assumptions underlying these two judgments. Is success always earned? Is failure? He makes an eloquent, witty case to move beyond snobbery to find true pleasure in our work.”
Are You Lonely? Humans of New York (Facebook)
“One benefit to being big is that people don’t bother you. I’m shocked that you came up to me. Nobody’s ever done that. When I started to go to therapy, it took me several sessions before I even spoke a word.”
Hungover Bear and Friends: Not All There, by Ali Fitzgerald (McSweeny’s)
“Ali Fitzgerald lives in an urban bungalow on top of the former Berlin wall. She often draws Hungover Bear in bed while watching poorly dubbed episodes of the Golden Girls.”
Depression, The Secret We Share, Andrew Solomon (TED) – (Thank you, Molly!!)
“The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality, and it was vitality that seemed to seep away from me in that moment.”
(Photo: Drew Berrymore, by Ara Gallant, early 1980s)