My Mental Illness Feels Like Living in Survival Mode Forever
A story about dreams and ambitions in the face of anxiety and depression
“Can you tell that I cried?” I text my friend and send her a photo of my face.
It is a windy day, and I am sitting on a wet park bench near my office. With every gust of wind leaves rain down around me. It is half-past eight in the morning.
“No, you look fine,” she texts back, so I get up and walk down the street to work. I hate going to work after therapy because I feel drained and exhausted after my therapist drilled my brain with questions for an hour. Usually, I don’t cry during the sessions. There are only a few topics that make me cry. One of them is my future.
Since childhood, I have lived with a mental illness, and for a long time, I have told myself that recovery is just around the corner. So I tend to lose it every time I remember how much work there is still ahead of me. It sucks to pull myself up from that bench, walk to the office, and be a functioning employee who goes to meetings and writes emails.
Living with a mental illness has many layers. There is a lot to unbox, from the social stigma that comes with a diagnosis to the obstacles of seeking treatment in flawed healthcare systems.
But there is one particular pain that keeps stinging now that I am in my mid-twenties. At this age, I feel eager to build the foundation of my future. But this endeavour comes with a constant power struggle between two strong forces: my dreams and ambitions on the one side and the disability created by mental illness on the other side.
My childhood world was small and predictable. I grew up in a village in southern Germany, where everything and everybody was within walking or biking distance — my primary school, my friends’ houses, the forest.
My world expanded when I had to take the bus to high school in town every day. New faces, places, and events flooded my life and mind. During my first year, I got sick. But I was not educated about mental illness and couldn’t grasp what was happening to me.
I could only tell that how I felt about my life was not how other kids felt about theirs. Everything scared me — taking the bus, walking around school, speaking in class, and merely existing in a space with other people. It seemed as if my world could fall apart at any second. My pulse would pound against my fingertips, cheeks, and chest from the inside. It was taxing, and all I wanted was to hide and withdraw from my existence.
Mental illness did not feel like a foreign body. I could not separate it from my personality. At the time, I assumed something was wrong with me as a person, which would leak and expose me if I was not careful.
Several years later, my parents took me to a therapist for a couple of sessions after I had developed an eating disorder. My problems were turned inside out and made painfully visible by my shifting weight and obsessive behaviours. But my parents were as helpless in the face of my illness as I was. We sat in the car without speaking whenever my mom drove me to therapy, and we kept this silence between us for years.
My high school and early college memories are deeply intertwined with memories of starving, binging, and vomiting. It took me around five painful years to recover from my compulsions around food. But the episodes that I now knew were caused by depression and anxiety never stopped. I was convinced I could fix myself and become “normal” if I understood the source of my problems. There had to be some twisted part inside of me that simply needed to be found and adjusted, put back in place.
I did not see a therapist for most of my young adult life, and I avoided talking about my problems with anyone.
Several positive forces make it worthwhile to keep going despite struggling with my mental health every day.
One of them has always been my love for creative work. When I am immersed in painting, writing, or designing, I experience a beautiful state of flow. These moments are like islands in a flood of overwhelming feelings and thoughts that need to be met with coping skills to be managed, dissected, and redirected. Since childhood, there has never been a time without a project or an exploration.
Still, since my mental health problems started, I had a hard time creating a positive vision for my future. Smelling like vomit for five years did not help. Beautiful things lost their appeal as soon as they entered my life. I wanted to go abroad, but as soon as I landed as an AuPair at the other end of the world, I felt painfully out of place. I would see a nice shirt in a store, but as soon I bought it, it looked just like everything else I owned. Whatever I touched seemed to melt and blend into the dull mass that was my life.
Things gradually changed after I applied for an undergraduate program in design. To make it through the evaluation process, I had to prioritise my ambition over my need to give in to anxiety and self-doubt: Take the train to town, hand in my portfolio, take entrance exams. When I got accepted into the program, I noticed a long gone feeling in my chest — a sense of being on the right path.
Adjusting to university and the move to a new city was challenging. During my first semesters, I was still in the process of recovering from my eating disorder. Social anxiety made me terrified of speaking up in class. Also, I struggled with mundane tasks like grocery shopping or taking the subway. There were plenty of breakdowns. But somehow, I pushed through it, slowly befriended other students, and truly enjoyed the program. Whenever I made it out of a low, I noticed that I was actually content.
My days at university did not feel purely exhausting — they created joy and new energy within me.
In my eyes, mental illness was no longer a defining part of who I was. It felt like an annoying, painful lump in the back of my mind. It was a chronic wound that flared up regularly and kept me from who I was supposed to be.
In my second year of university, I had to apply for a mandatory internship. The six months in an unknown place changed me further. I worked as a user experience design intern. In the mornings, I arrived early at the empty office full of excitement. I loved designing all day long while listening to Hamilton, creating concept variation after variation, running back and forth between my supervisor’s office and my desk. My team took me on business trips to Berlin, London, Cape Town. Looking out of the airplane window into the melting colours of the morning sky, it seemed I had entered an alternative universe, in which I suddenly was the protagonist in a beautiful adventure. Nothing, not even my crippling anxiety could stop me from enjoying it.
I experienced what it feels like to thrive.
About three years later, I hit my biggest low. After graduation, I started working full time as a user experience designer. But my first job was not the experience I had envisioned.
I was looking forward to continuing my learning and growth journey, improving my craft and learning how to become a leader — finding my place to be active and participate in our world. I wanted to contribute to making technology more human-centred, accessible, and inclusive for people.
But instead, my life became about surviving and making it from one day to the next.
I still loved design and technology. But the circumstances of my job were disabling for me. The truth is I could not keep up.
There was no longer any room and time to fall apart. In university, I could balance out my episodes by skipping classes and taking time to recover. Long breaks between the semesters and internships kept me from burning out. I had a remote, part-time job with flexible hours.
Now, I had to show up at the office every day and perform. I was supposed to have an impact and stay late for Christmas parties and meet-ups. Eight hours a day I was sitting in a noisy office space, going from meeting to meeting, making deadlines. Messages kept popping up in my inbox and Slack channels, and people interrupted me to ask “Do you have time for a meeting tomorrow at 09:30?”; “Can you update the latest file on Drive?”
I had to take noisy, scary lunches with multiple conversations buzzing all around me. People talked over each other in the hallway, next to my desk, and in the subway. And it just never stopped.
When I came home, my mind hurt, and my body was tense, flooded with stress. My heart kept racing for hours, and I could not calm down. My job was a perfectly normal office job in tech. This realisation made my dilemma even worse: I could not do this very ordinary thing, and I had no clue what to do about it.
So I finally went back to therapy. Getting at least 8 hours of sleep became my new religion, and I showed up at the office one hour before the rest of my team to have some quiet working time. Making space for recovery was now a priority. I tried meditation, muscle relaxation, and everything else my psychiatrist, my therapist, or Google recommended.
And yet nothing seemed enough. Slowly my mind infected my body. After one and a half years, I had developed constant headaches, back pain, and felt sick every time I ate. My depressive episodes got worse, and so did my anxiety. Even symptoms of my eating disorder flared up for the first time in years. The smell of vomit was back, and so was my shame.
I barely made it from weekend to weekend, from vacation to vacation. My doctor put me on sick leave for a few weeks, but after returning to work, I slowly started burning out again.
Was this the moment in life when I was no longer able to keep up with what “normal “people my age were doing? Was I unable to stay in a full-time job? How would I make rent?
My future started to terrify me. Every night I pictured my death in order to fall asleep. It was the only fantasy that made my heart calm down.
How did I get to this point? I did well in school, had student jobs and internships, maintained friendships and relationships to some degree. For one, I was able to function for so long because of my privilege as a white woman from a financially stable, working-class family. Thanks to public health insurance and my support network, I am still here and keep working on myself with therapy and medication.
But since starting full-time work, I exist on the edge of my abilities, always one step away from not being able to function.
As a designer, I learned about the relationship between design and disability. We can either look at disability as a problem or impairment of the individual or look at the environment of the disabled person and discover how it is not supporting their needs and abilities. If I design an interface with insufficient colour contrast, I create a barrier for people with low vision.
This perspective helped me understand that while therapy and medication are essential, it is also crucial to look at my environment and question it. Instead of optimising for seemingly “normal” conditions, that will never work for me, I can shift my focus to change my environment — at least to some degree.
For instance, during the Covid-19 pandemic, I started working from home like many other office workers. Now, several months later, I learned that this increases my quality of life a lot. Homeoffice allows me to withdraw from too much stimulation and prevents sensory overload and anxiety. Small improvements like this give me hope that I will find stability and that my life can revolve around more than my mental hygiene.
There is a persistent perception that meaningful achievement has to be stressful, exhausting. In our society, we pressure each other to be busy, hustle, and work harder, longer, and faster. But achievement is about more than working hard and much. Achievement can mean being brave, thinking in new ways, or empowering others. It can happen in our professional and personal lives.
Due to my mental illness, it might just take me a little bit longer to figure out how I can make a difference within my boundaries.
It is a privilege to dream of more than being able to provide for myself, and I am lucky to be capable of influencing my working conditions. There are many mentally ill people, with equally strong passions and ambitions, but without these privileges. Structural injustice like classicism, sexism, and racism makes living with mental illness even harder in many ways.
Mental illness puts a layer of difficulty on every one of your days. But I believe it should not be the reason why voices and contributions of mentally ill people get lost in our society.
Actively creating and shaping our world should not be a luxury that is only achievable for the most privileged, because the result will be a society that is not serving all of us. A majority of the leaders I see in my company, on TV, or in my government are highly privileged. Whenever people with mental illness or other disabilities make their voice heard, it is hugely empowering to me.
Creating enough stability to make space for my dreams and ambitions requires ongoing experimentation with numerous internal and external factors in my life.
Sharing my mental health story is a first step, however small, to do something that feels meaningful to me.