Since my mental illnesses presented 12 years ago, I haven’t been able to do much. This website is the largest thing I’ve accomplished since I was 19, and I’ve only been able to do this by building it slowly, little by little. It has taken me over a year. There are whole weeks when I make no progress. The past year has been more productive than I’ve been in a long time and has been the easiest year to handle since I was diagnosed. For that, I am incredibly grateful. Living well with mental illness takes skills, and I’m working on mine every day. I am making progress.
In college, I abandoned school in the middle of spring semester four out of four years. Springtime always makes my symptoms more intense and sometimes even unbearable. Most of my time at Oberlin I couldn’t do simple self-care tasks like laundry, or go to class or parties; I basically could do nothing but stay in my room, sit, and try to cope. Sometimes I’d use an episode to make a painting, and god, those paintings born of episodes are the darkest ones I’ve made. None of them are on this site yet, and I burned many of them one night during a manic episode. I thought it would be cleansing. It was just destructive. I get a lot of “great” ideas when I’m manic, and I only realize afterward that they were terribly misguided.
Not being able to function like a normal person or tolerate normal amounts of stress is debilitating. I live on disability because I don’t function. I can’t hold a job because any amount of stress will send me into an episode, and surprisingly, people don’t appreciate me hallucinating or weeping in their workplace. Even without a job, living with mental illnesses can be very difficult. I have to pride myself on staying alive this long because that is a big accomplishment for me. If you don’t identify with this, you might think I’m a lazy bum. If you do identify with this, you’re not alone.
We’re told that people should pull themselves up by their bootstraps and that accepting help is shameful. If you need help and someone is offering, for god’s sake, take it! Humans weren’t built to survive alone. We have families, cities, and societies so that we can all rely on each other. Everyone has to accept help sometimes, even you. If you’re suicidal, tell someone. If you need to take time off from your job, ask someone for financial help. If you think you need medicine, find a psychiatrist. If you hurt and need to provide yourself with some tools for relief, find a therapist. There is nothing shameful in asking for help. We all have to do it sometimes in order to stay alive. There are no exceptions.
If you live with a mental illness, you know how hard it is to rely on other people. You can feel like a parasite or a burden. I struggle so much with the fear that I’m a burden to my loved ones. It often falls on them to keep me safe when I am psychotic or dissociating. There are many things I cannot do safely in those states, and I have to rely on my loved ones, which makes me feel very guilty, as if I’m putting them through something even more terrible than what I’m experiencing at the time. The truth is that they love me very much and would do anything to help me. They show me this in their behavior and their words. They remind me often that I’m not going to lose them, and I need to hear that. Unfortunately, I only know those things are true when I’m not in an episode. As soon as I start to spiral, I don’t want to tell anyone. I’m afraid that my episode will upset them and be an enormous inconvenience. And of course, those times are when I most need to know I’m loved and supported. The brain is tricky like that.
There are many aspects of the mentally ill life that are not relatable to neurotypical people, leading to mischaracterizations of people living with mental illness. This results in a negative view of the mentally ill, as well as a negative view of self among mentally ill people. The depressed or mentally ill are often thought of as weak or lazy because many people don’t understand why we can’t function the way they can. A foundational lack of empathy leads to an easy misunderstanding of the reality of our lives. In my world, sometimes something as easy as eating is not going to happen because I just don’t have the capacity. Most neurotypical people do not understand that level of dysfunction. They might think I didn’t eat because I was too lazy when really, I was just not able. Laziness has nothing to do with it. I was probably frozen inside, unable to do more than sit, maybe use the bathroom, and go back to sitting. That scenario is pretty standard for a bad day with depression or bipolar. By the way, when I’m sitting and appear to be doing nothing, I am working on handling my hallucinations, sensations, thoughts, and feelings. It’s not boring to sit like this. It’s the equivalent of stopping to breathe after running an eight-minute mile. You stand and breathe, and that’s exactly what you need at that moment. Sitting quietly through a depressive episode is like that. It’s not boring; it’s crucial.
Lack of function touches everything in my life. I have to make reasonable expectations so that I can parcel out my energy and ability frugally, and not overtax myself and spark an episode. If you’re sick, I recommend you do the same. If you shut down completely, you won’t be getting anything done, which is way worse than only getting some things done. Ration your energy so that you can live your fullest life without losing yourself.
Ask for help. Accept help. Know your limits. Mental illness sucks, and you need lots of help to get better or maintain. Please, please acknowledge when you’re trying as hard as you can. You deserve to love yourself as much as anyone else does. If you can love yourself even a little, it will help you ask for the help you need.
By Emily Harrington, The Goldfish Painter