When I Realized I Can’t ‘Outsmart’ Mental Illness
“I can prepare for the storm, and I know it will soon pass”
The late Carrie Fisher, who stopped trying to outsmart her bipolar disorder and instead worked to lift the stigma around it, speaking at the 2015 San Diego Comic Con International.
It’s the overthinking that gets me. I’m a self-reflective and analytical person with self-imposed impossibly high standards to begin with. So when it comes to mental health, I tend to pressure myself to always be coping better, fighting better—even hiding my illness better. And I often fall into the trap of thinking I can ultimately learn to control my mental illnesses if I analyze it enough and pay close enough attention to its patterns and triggers.
But mental illness is something you can manage—not something you can control.
[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]Mental illness is something you can manage—not something you can control.[/quote]
By most standards, I have a pretty great life. I have amazing family and friends and a wonderful boyfriend. I go to a prestigious university in beautiful Southern California, where I am one year away from completing my undergraduate degree. I had the opportunity to spend last summer doing the most rewarding internship that fills my entire being with joy and purpose. I get to travel often, and I have the ability to explore many of my passions and interests. I don’t know what I did to deserve this life, but I am thankful for every moment of it.
I try to remind myself of this often: You have a great life! You have so much going for you! You have been blessed in so many ways! And yet, my body and mind don’t seem to understand. I am consumed by depression and anxiety—on a good day. On a not-so-good day, some Post-traumatic stress disorder or chronic fatigue might get thrown into the mix. On a really bad day, my autoimmune disease might flare up and cause me unbearable physical pain, on top of everything else.
The physical symptoms don’t bother me too much, as they usually aren’t debilitating enough to interrupt my daily routine. I’m the type of person who pretty much always has something wrong with them (my friends and family can attest to this), so at this point, unless a major issue arises, physical pain and discomfort are like white noise to me. They may suck, but I’ve always liked the fact that I can adopt an attitude of “mind over matter.” As long as I’ve got my mind and spirit, I can grit my teeth and deal with the pain until the issue runs its course. If I rest and take care of myself, I know my body will heal soon enough.
It’s the mental illnesses that give me the most trouble. It’s tough to put “mind over matter” when the matter is in your mind. I’ve had depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember. I was having panic attacks as early as elementary school, and I think I was probably born with depression. It’s been with me forever—an old friend who constantly tempts me back into its dark, comfortable, and numbing embrace. It promises me a quick fix for complicated problems and offers me an escape from the harshness of reality. It’s deceptively dangerous, and it’s taken me a lifetime to gather the strength to turn my back on my oldest and most addicting friend.
After I realized I had depression back in high school, I was able to begin the long process of learning about this mental illness—getting to know it, identifying what triggered it, and trying out methods of coping to see what helped. For about six or seven years, I have been keeping a close eye on my depression: constantly monitoring it, studying it, and learning its patterns so I can ultimately defeat it. And I’ve come a long way since high school. I am now strong enough to (usually) resist depression’s tempting comfort and erasure of pain, and smart enough to avoid situations or people I know might trigger it. However, as a 20-year-old in college, this is probably one of the most turbulent periods of my life. Almost nothing is stable, and every few months my entire schedule, routine, and concept of “normal” changes. I’ve come to accept these constant changes, and I expect them to throw me off my game for a while. I know it will take some time for me to re-adjust and figure out new methods of coping, new ways to manage. These periods of depression are tough, but anticipated. Just as my body naturally heals itself when hurt, my mind naturally re-calibrates. I can prepare for the storm, and I know it will soon pass.
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]Instead of reacting to mental illness with self-loathing, I should react the same way I do to physical illness: with patience.[/quote]
But then there are the times when my life is relatively stable and I have an established routine and coping mechanisms, yet depression attacks in new and unexpected ways. And it just doesn’t make sense. My life may be going really well. I may be doing everything right. But depression still finds a way to sneak in.
When this happens, it’s devastating. I work so hard every single day to fight it off. When I can’t recall any triggers or situations that would cause an onslaught of depression to make sense, I become frustrated. After six or seven years of carefully observing and analyzing, I sometimes think I have it all figured out. I think I can outsmart the depression. But the humbling truth is I’m not smarter than my depression. I never will be. I can psychoanalyze myself to death, but I can’t use sheer smarts and willpower to defeat this illness. You can’t think your way out of cancer or an autoimmune disease, and mental illness is no different. It’s time I stop getting angry at myself and at my body and thinking, ‘What? How could this have happened? It makes no sense!’ Of course it makes no sense. Illness follows no rules. It doesn’t give a shit about what’s going on in your life. It will attack at random, without warning. Sure, there are ways people can learn to manage or minimize symptoms, but thinking it’s possible to control or entirely prevent them is foolish.
When my physical health declines, I stay home from work, curl up in bed, watch TV, and allow my body to rest and heal. I don’t get angry. I don’t blame myself. I don’t feel guilty about devoting all my energy to practicing self-care. Why can’t I treat myself with the same love and compassion when depression strikes?
Instead of getting angry and shaking my fists at the sky; instead of wondering how I could have screwed up so bad and missed the warning signs (which may not have even been there); instead of berating myself for being so stupid, instead of analyzing every moment of my life over and over again until my brain feels like it’s about to explode …
Instead of reacting to mental illness with shame and self-loathing, maybe I should start reacting the same way I do to physical illness: with patience and love.
It’s not your fault.
This is out of your control.
You are smart and strong and capable.
Take care of yourself.
Give yourself time to heal.
Everything will be OK.