I grew up in self-preservation mode. I was closed off, shut down, and mostly withdrawn because as long as I kept everyone out I was much less likely to get hurt. What I was doing was holding my true self down and it caused me to be very un-self-aware. I would just kind of do and say and act with no real regard for anyone else because the only one I knew how to think about was myself given that I was always in protect & defend mode. It was a very superficial, surface-of-life existence.

But underneath was some sort of light; a heart, a spirit that lived in constant battle with my brain, muted underneath all these layers of armor and pain. The innocent, happy little girl full of love inside was screaming, begging, clawing to get out, to be seen and heard, to shine as she was meant to. Little did I know that the fight for my life through mental illness was also the fight for my spirit, for the being I was truly meant to be and the life I was meant to live.

Looking back on the literal hell mental illness dragged me through by the hair, you’d think I’d wish that my life had gone differently. I don’t. It might sound backwards but that battle has taught me so much. It’s given me so much and it’s made me who I am today. It’s given me purpose. It’s why I’m here writing now, and why I’m working toward my social work degree, trying to turn my good fight into hope for others. I found my life’s purpose thanks to mental illness and I can’t turn a blind eye to that fact no matter how rough it was getting there.

The biggest, most important lesson it taught me was that I’m a highly sensitive being and I run deep. The extent to which I previously had no idea. I don’t know how else to put it, and now I don’t know any other way. It can be a high maintenance temperament but it’s who I truly am at my core and it took me most of my life to uncover and understand it. Deeply empathetic, passionate, free spirited, energetic, loving. I don’t just wear it all on my sleeve either, I wear it on my face, and on my entire being. I’m a terrible liar/actor which means I’m hard pressed to try and hide it, so I accept it for what it is and I’ve loved watching these latent qualities flourish. It’s opened up a whole new reality for me that has given me so much. My experience is so incredibly rich these days.

What it also means is that I feel pain, sadness, and heartbreak that much deeper. I’ve known deep dark days, feeling all of the aforementioned so strongly and deeply I’d lie in bed for hours or days and wish over and over that I could just get up an walk away from my body, mind, and emotions. They were really doing me a disservice then and the situation felt so helpless. But somehow I knew it wasn’t me, it was just my humanness that was severely malfunctioning which meant there HAD to be some light at the end of the tunnel. Except that tunnel was essentially located at the center of the earth, and I was going to have to dig my way there with a spoon and slog through magma to begin to touch the source. Then I could start the excavation process, building this tunnel to the light. Alone. Eventually it became a challenge that I’d unwillfully committed to but I knew that if I chose not to, I wouldn’t just lose a challenge, I’d lose myself.

I tried my hardest to intellectualize mental illness and it’s place in my life which helped me to understand the concept of illness as not truly being a part of who I am at my core, but simply as part of my human condition. That helped me begin to dissociate from the pain, anger, guilt, sadness, that I called ‘my demons’. It was a rough process laden with two steps forward and one step back. Demons don’t want to let go, they’re too busy working tightly allied with our ego to take over our minds and emotions, thereby exploiting our innate human fragility and making us sick, destroying our lives. It’s a confederation of mind-f*ckery, and it’s as real as the sun rising every day. But I was just too determined in heading toward that light to give up on myself by that point. I’d already learned so much, I had to keep going.

Now here I am today having made it through the trenches to the other side. I still battle, almost daily. But I’ve also got all these incredible lessons from my journey that help me every single day. Tools and attributes I used to be totally devoid of. So when I look at it that way, I’m actually able to see my illness as having given me all these gifts that I can use to make mine and others’ lives better. Mental illness has taught me:

  • Grit (courage, bravery, spirit, strength of will, fortitude, resolve, determination, tenacity, perseverance, endurance)
  • Compassion/Empathy
  • Non-judgement
  • Love
  • Acceptance
  • Gratitude
  • Depth
  • Truth
  • Authenticity
  • Self reliance
  • Resilience
  • Crisis management
  • Open mindedness
  • Spirituality
  • Connection
  • Discernment
  • Decision making
  • Adaptability
  • Non-religious faith
  • Kindness
  • Humility
  • Problem solving
  • Forgiveness
  • Clarity

And I have to credit ADHD with keeping me consistently entertained 😉 All this having been said, these lessons have given me a whole new perspective on my illness and how I can use it for good. So once I accepted that and learned from it, it was kind of hard for me to look that gift horse in the mouth. Even in the times I’ve wanted nothing more than to take a sledgehammer to that gift horse’s face, I’m forced to stop and look at the beautiful world around me, look within, and recognize all that I’ve been given on my journey through mental illness.

Peace, love, and wellness.

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