Living with mental illness is a struggle in every sense of the word. Not only are you dealing with your symptoms and side effects of medication (because many of us are taking something these days, let’s be real) but also negative self talk, shame for needing to seek treatment, and probably push back from members of your family or social circle that just don’t understand what living with mental illness entails. There’s a lot of work that goes into doing the everyday things that most people don’t think twice about, and a lot of subsequent acceptance and renegotiating of your capabilities.
I’ve struggled with mental illness since basically the onset of puberty. Starting with depression, and then the discovery of my bipolar disorder with my first manic episode at 16. Over the last nearly 15 years, I’ve gone through various stages of functionality, the majority of this time at a significantly lower level than most of my peers. I wasted years spending most of my days in bed. I’ve spent a fourth of July hospitalized, looking out at fireworks from an inpatient room at Evanston Hospital. I’ve been on disability. I’ve quit most of the jobs I’ve had because I couldn’t handle the panic attacks I would get daily. I did not push through my symptoms. I was not interested in doing the work that I needed to to get better. By my standards, I was not resilient.
Then, in August of 2016, I started to change my life. I moved out of my dad’s apartment. I switched therapists. I found a job… and I stuck with it. I wasn’t addressing a lot of issues in my life, but I was mostly taking care of myself financially. I built up enough confidence to apply to a “big girl” job in a field I had aspired to be in for five years. When I started that job, however, there was a lot of adjustment that had to be made. I wasn’t working in some low budget pizza place where I could spend the second half of my shift stoned (shoutout to Pete’s Pizza). I was getting up before 7:00 am every morning, arriving to an office on time, then planning out how to structure my work so that I met my quota. Adding in the pressure I put on myself to make a good impression and progress in the field, I started to see my symptoms come back.
Six months in, the panic attacks started to get a lot worse. I took off more and more days from work just to manage my mental illness. I was in a stressful relationship that started to affect my concentration and daily functioning. Ten months in, I was trying to hide my tears at my desk on a regular basis. I was, and am still, struggling. Big time. But over time, I’ve started to see a shift in how I think of myself. I’ve started to see strength. And bravery. And resilience. It’s been 15 months, and I’ve had some serious obstacles, but I’m still at my job. I’m making plans for school. I moved to a new part of the city with wonderful people I barely knew so I could get out of my comfort zone. I ended a relationship with someone I loved because it just wasn’t right for me. I have a long way to go, in treatment and in life, but I can see my strength now. I can own it.
Growth is not linear. Pain, like anxiety, ebbs and flows. I will have hard days, but if you ask me to describe myself, resilient is one of the first words that comes to mind. I hope in the next couple of years I make the adjustments I need to live life more comfortably. Right now though? Right now, I’m proud. Right now, I’m strong.