People have asked me before, what is it like to live with a mental illness? I’ve been thinking about this question a lot recently.
Until a few months ago, I would have given the answer that I thought they wanted to hear, or I would have shrugged my shoulders and not really known what to say. I didn’t really know what it was like to live with a mental illness, because my mental illness was my life; it was all I really knew, and I couldn’t imagine life without it.
I was first diagnosed with an eating disorder at sixteen
I had first been diagnosed with an eating disorder when I was sixteen, but the thoughts and behaviours that completely controlled me over the next four years - in the form of depression, anxiety and self-harm - had always been there. I didn’t know what it was like to live without feelings of self-hatred and a voice in my head that constantly told me why I was inadequate, disgusting, worthless and simply wrong in every way.
I didn’t know it was possible to live without constantly panicking about what I was eating and how much I weighed, or without having panic attacks and extended periods of time where I wanted nothing more than to fall asleep and never wake up. To ask me what it was like to live with a mental illness was to separate the illness from myself, from my life, as if it was some kind of additional thing. This wasn’t the case. The illness was my life; it seemed that to live without it was to stop living.
If you ask me now, my answer would be different. For me, living with a mental illness that controlled every thought and behaviour was not really living at all. On a good day, I was coping with a mental illness. On a bad day I was unable to cope. At no point was I fully living my life.
Having been controlled by illness for so long, the idea of living a life without it controlling you, is terrifying. It is unknown, unfamiliar and feels impossible. I remember counsellors and psychiatrists talking about recovery, and I remember being terrified of the prospect. I hated being ill, but I didn’t know who I was if I wasn’t ill. I didn’t believe it was possible not to be ill. Even as I went through the recovery process, I was waiting for the illness to come back, almost welcoming it back at times, because I didn’t know how to be without it.
But through this period of recovery, I have been extremely blessed with wonderfully patient counsellors who have helped me see that I deserve, and can have, a life that isn’t controlled by mental illness. I have learnt to express emotion and talk rather than burying everything and taking my anger and sadness out on myself. I am a Christian, and have learnt to lean on Jesus as my rock rather than running away from love and finding my security in the numbness that illness offered me. I have learnt that it is okay not to be okay. It is okay to have good days and bad days and make mistakes and not be perfect. I have learnt that Abby can have a life.
Recovery is challenging, but it’s worth it
Recovery is an ongoing process, and it is a hard one. But it is worth it. I am twenty years old, and I feel alive for the first time. There are things I can do now that I couldn’t have even imagined doing a few months ago. These things aren’t easy, but they are possible, and they are becoming less and less scary.
I can laugh and cry and express myself rather than being too scared to do so. I can eat a piece of cake with a friend without feeling guilty for days afterwards. I can make a mistake without needing to self-harm to numb the shame and fear that I felt. I can let people in, and be myself around them without constantly fearing that they are about to run away. I don’t have to suppress every emotion through fear that I might completely fall apart if I let anything out. I can talk about the things I am struggling with without feeling too much guilt, because I have learnt that I have a voice and that I am allowed to use it.
Recovery is painful and scary and full of bumps, but it is worth it. If you are struggling with a mental illness, you aren’t alone, and it doesn’t have to be like this forever. You deserve support. You deserve happiness. You deserve a life.