The Harsh Reality of Mental Illness: The Darkness that Exists in the Light

In the past year, I have gone from the darkest depths of despair to some of the highest points of my life. My life had collapsed entirely but I miraculously was able to rise from the ashes and have a second chance at life. I have found my true calling in advocacy and have found my voice to speak out about all I have been through. I have written a couple books and have an ongoing blog that has proved to be very cathartic for me. I finally found a group of doctors and a treatment plan that works for me and has given me genuine hope for the future. After forty years of running, I have finally begun to make peace with my past, rebuilding bridges believed long ago abandoned and demolished and have healed my heart enough to once again reopen it to the possibility of love.

With so many high points, you’d think I’d be on cloud nine without a care in the world. In a lot of ways, I am honestly happier than I ever remember being before. I have a renewed sense of purpose. Goals that once would have felt impossible now feel obtainable. For the first time in my life, I have a sincere faith that I will be okay and I am hopeful for my future. All things considered, I am in a much better place in my life than I have ever been before.

However, despite all the wonderful milestones of this past year, I am still treading water when it comes to my mental illness. By all expectations, I know I should be beyond happy. Ecstatic even. And truthfully, I am smiling more and have even experienced moments of genuine happiness. But my depression still reigns supreme. My anxiety still has me on constant edge. My PTSD still leaves me feeling irrationally unsafe and in fear.

From the outside looking in, others may only see the blue sky above, feel the gentle warm breezes in the air and the coolness of the water that surrounds me, but the story does not end with what others can see. Because others can only see the above the surface, they cannot fully fathom the whole picture. My depression is like heavy weights strapped to my ankles as I tread water, constantly threatening to pull me under. That heaviness is a constant pull, a terminal threat and reminder to be vigilant. I cannot stop treading water, stop fighting for even a moment or I will sink and drown. As exhausting as it is, I can never stop, never catch my breath.

My anxiety and PTSD are like creatures lurking below the water. I don’t always know what they are or how much threat they pose, but I can feel their constant presence, brushing against me, bumping into me, biting into me here and there. There is no way to ignore or avoid them, no way to scare them away. They are often distorted shadows beneath the ripples of the surface, not quite fully visible, so that I never feel safe. Periodically, they reopen old scars and cause phantom pains that remind me of the traumas of my past, making them feel real again, catching me in the moment.

Every single day, despite how beautiful the day might seem, that lingering voice revisits me, trying to talk me into giving up, giving in, and let the waves carry me away. I’m not suicidal. I don’t want to die. I am just utterly exhausted from treading these waves for years. I am weary straight down to the bone and just want to rest. I want the pain, the struggling and the constant fear to end. That lingering voice knows all my insecurities and plays upon every one. It whispers into the wind that I’m not strong enough, that it’s only a matter of time until either I go under and drown or the monsters below consume me. It tells me I’ll never reach the shore, never be able to rest or catch my breath, that my only choices are to either give up and go under or to spend my entire life struggling and fighting.

I am in treatment. I see both a therapist and a meds doctor regularly. Every week, I attend multiple groups and classes to help acquire new tools for coping, including tai chi, yoga, meditation and art. I am focused on healing my mind, body and spirit so that I can be in a better place in every way. All my efforts little by little are bringing me closer to that beach I long to stretch out upon, enjoying the sunshine and the beautiful day. I can see that far off shore but right now it is still beyond my reach.

It is not a matter of just not trying hard enough to be happy or holding too tightly to the negative. I have so much that I am both happy and grateful for in my life. I know I have been blessed in so many ways. I would love to relish in everything and just be okay. After all, the sun is shining, the sky is blue, the breezes are soft and warm. On the surface, my days would be perfect. Yet I am forever one moment away from going under, drowning and becoming a statistic.

I have been told that I am the sweetest and happiest depressed person that some people have ever met. Despite all I have been through, I am the eternal optimist, always looking for something positive in even the worst situations. I have a true joie de vivre and appreciation for the simple things in life. I want to be happy and healthy. I want to be functional and okay. Yet I’m deadlocked in a constant battle, constant struggle just to keep going and survive.

Mental illness isn’t about being weak or lazy. It is a medical condition that leaves me with little control over my own mind and emotions. No matter how hard I try to be happy and healthy, it has a tight grasp on my mind, body an soul. Just because others cannot see everything beneath the surface does not mean it is not there or that I am not in constant torment from the monsters that lurk in the darkness.

As much as I know I should be over the moon ecstatic over so many of the blessings I’ve had over the last year, I keep finding myself yanked downward against my will. I still have many days I lay in bed, in the darkness, unable to pull myself up or function for hours on end. I still have many days that I roll into a ball and cry because I’ve spiraled down and that irrational despair is so great that the world feels hopeless to me. I still have many nights where I lay in bed for hours restlessly as my mind races and my fears fester or where I bolt awake because the nightmares of my past have materialized in my present. I know I should be happy, life should feel perfect. Yet my mind refuses to listen. My mental illness is steering the car. I’m just along for the ride.

I want to get better, to be healthy and happy. If curing my depression was as simple as just trying harder to be happy, this past year would have cured me without a doubt. But mental illness is not so easily beaten or controlled. You cannot let even the most beautiful, serene days deceive you because beneath the surface, in the darkness of the depths, my monsters still loom, continuously threatening to drag me under and devour me alive.

mightylogoRepublished on The Mighty on 7/31/17.

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Love Come Full Circle

I have struggled for years with love on many levels.

At my core, I have always been torn between contradictory beliefs.  I am forever the hopeless romantic that wants desperately to believe in happily ever afters, yet I am also very much the realist that weighs the odds and finds it highly improbable that two like souls could not only find each other but also somehow defy the odds and make it work.

Looking back at my life only added to the improbability that I would never have a chance when it came to matters of the heart.  I grew up in a dysfunctional battlefield, never really understanding what love even was let alone where to find it or how to tend to it and make it grow.

My parents were of no assistance.  Their marriage was in many ways a manual of what not to do.  My own relationships in the past were not much better, though I am proud to say that none of my exes have bullet wounds by my hand – a boast my mother could not make.

(Please note that I joke not because I find any of it even mildly hysterical but rather because I’ve learned over the years that it is often easier to laugh than to cry and that, when discussing deeper traumas, a joke helps lift that uncomfortable weight of the situation.)

To complicate matters more, I struggle with depression, anxiety and PTSD.  Making a relationship work is hard enough when both people are fully functional.  When you factor in mental illness that pulls me in many directions against my will, it creates a volatile concoction that is almost guaranteed to implode upon itself given enough time.

Again and again, I found myself heartbroken and alone, searching for answers of where everything went wrong.  I believed in love on a fundamental level.  Yet as the failed relationships continued to pile up, I found myself questioning whether love was even attainable for me or if it truly only existed in fairy tales.

Along my journey, I began to see the red flags of repeated dysfunction.  I spent an inordinate amount of time examining and reexamining situations from my past, trying to determine where everything had gone wrong.  I also began to reconsider my own personal views of myself.  After all, how could anyone ever truly love or accept me until I learned to love and accept myself?

I found myself at an impasse.  It wasn’t that I had given up entirely on love but rather I needed to focus on myself before I would ever be ready to let anyone else into my life again.  I had chains to break and long-standing belief systems to shatter and rebuild.  I still very much wanted my happily ever after but finally understood I would never be able to build anything lasting until I was able to fix many of the cracks in the foundation that my life was built upon.  I needed to put my love life on hold and work on myself.

A funny thing happened during my hiatus to rebuild – I not only discovered myself again but I also found my first crush again, or shall I say he found me.

He had remained with me as a fond memory of my childhood, one of the brighter spots during a time when the darkness had begun to creep in.  He was a few years older than me and a friend of my brother’s so the cards had been stacked against us from the start, yet we still managed to create a few sweetly innocent memories together before we eventually faded out of each other’s lives.

Fast-forward twenty five years.  My life had collapsed yet again but I was in the process of rebuilding.  Though my struggles are far from over, I am in a healthier place now than I have ever been before.  I have begun talking and writing about all I have been through.  More importantly, though, I’ve been healing.  I am no longer running from my past and I am beginning to slowly reopen doors that had been long-closed for no other reason than they existed in close proximity to the worst experiences of my life.

One of these doors happened to be my first crush.  He reentered my life through a simple friend request, not even sure if I would remember him.  I was dumbfounded by that assumption because he had been that sweet boy next door who had ushered me into puppy-love and had been the standard by which all other boys had been measured for years.

As we began talking, it became clear that, though we had been worlds apart for many years, we had been walking along the same path in so many ways.  Without going into details because his story is his alone to share, he understood me completely on so many levels that no one else ever has.  From that first moment we reconnected, we have been drawn together in this whirlwind beyond our control.

There is a safety and serenity with him on so many levels.  My history did not scare him because he understood my childhood, if not the full extent of it all.  My diagnosis and struggles do not intimidate him, either, because he understands better than most what it has been like for me over the years.

We’ve found ourselves connecting to one another in this free fall, accelerating as we go while the rest of the world passes by in a blur.  I imagine us caught within the eye of the storm, in that peaceful quiet stillness that is unaffected by the chaos that whirls around us.  From the outside, I imagine it seems insanely chaotic and nonsensical but from in here, it is the first thing in a long time in my life that makes sense.

In each other, we have found the compassion, understanding and solace we had been searching for elsewhere in vain.  We have rekindled old sparks that had begun in innocence and fanned them into a genuine passion for each other.  For the first time, I am able to fully embrace and express all that I am without fear of judgment or ridicule because I am still very much that silly, adorkable girl he knew me as all those years ago.  Likewise, he knows he can put all of himself out there without fear because he is still very much himself.

We are not blind to each other’s scars.  We are respectfully cautious of each scar because neither of us wishes to reopen old battle wounds and we understand that they are a part of who we have become over the years. But we are also able to see one another for who we are underneath and cherish that innocence beneath it all because we had been there before those wounds were made.

I used to wonder whether love and happily ever afters existed only in fairy tales.  As much as the hopeless romantic in me wanted to believe anything was possible, the realist in me always pondered whether some people were just beyond hope when it came to love.  Over the years, my journey has taken me through a lifetime of heartache and heartbreak.  I have come through the other end, though, a stronger and healthier person.  I have also come around full circle as the first person to ever capture my heart has once again won it.