We talk a lot about breaking down the stigma of mental illness in our society, and rightfully so. Mental illness and the therapy, facilities, medications, and other treatments for it have long been shrouded in unnecessary shame. Thanks to strong activism and a rising tide of calls for change, we are thankfully living in the middle of a much needed cultural shift. But what happens when the very worst, most hateful messages you receive about living with mental illness are coming from inside your own head?
“I am broken.” “I am a burden.” “I am weak.” “I’m a fraud.” “I am lazy.” “It’s all my fault.”
Do these sound familiar to you? If they do, you’re not alone – these are ALL thoughts that I have on a regular basis. I live with two different anxiety disorders: panic disorder with agoraphobia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. I didn’t ask for them (I don’t imagine many people would) but I live with them just the same.
How My Mind Lies to Me
Often my anxiety tells me that I am simply not trying hard enough. This is perhaps the most ironic and ludicrous lie of them all, considering how much MORE effort it takes for those of us living with anxiety (or any other mental health struggle) to accomplish basic daily tasks. Living with panic disorder, I have to carry a heavy toolbox of tricks everywhere I go (from practiced breathing exercises to the medication I carry with me in my purse). I have to be my own first responder, ready at any moment to jump into action because my panic attacks sometimes strike without warning. Many days I feel crippling exhaustion from fighting this fight all day, every day, without any breaks. And yet I soldier on, whether that means accomplishing a simple task like brushing my teeth, or (as I often do) getting up in the morning and carrying on as if everything is fine. My anxiety ignores these triumphs and tells me the fact that I wasn’t able to check off every item on my to-do list means I’m just not trying hard enough. It tells me that the dishes in the sink and my unwashed hair aren’t products of a difficult day or the limitations of the human body, but rather indications that I’ve failed at the most basic of tasks. In moments of pure cruelty, sometimes it even tells me that it’s my own fault that I live with anxiety in the first place, that if I tried hard enough I could make it go away. Mental illness isn’t something that you can make go away (and it took me a LOT of therapy to come to terms with that). It’s something you manage. It’s always there, but with support and treatment and a TON of hard work, I’m finally able to thrive in spite of it. There’s a reason we in this community refer to ourselves as warriors. We fight internal battles every single day. The resiliency and bravery each and every one of us exhibits in the face of incredible pressure, the private battles we wage every day, the strength and grit it takes to rise up and carry on after moments of pain and defeat mean we truly are warriors.
This. Is. A. Lie
So here’s what I ask of each of you: If your brain seems to fight against you like mine often does, make SURE you become your own biggest cheerleader. That may sound cliche, but only you know the full extent of the pain you have personally suffered, and so only you can give yourself the proper acknowledgment for overcoming it.
Neuroscientists estimate the average person has over 6,000 individual thoughts per day. You get to choose which ones are worth your time. So throw your own parade! Celebrate every victory. Respond to the lies by reminding yourself of what they are. Speak kindly to yourself, because your illness will not. And never forget that your struggles do not define you; your spirit does.