[Content warning: self-harm, suicide, and mental illness]
Apparently, yesterday was World Mental Health Day — not that I could bother myself to give a shit.
Sorry, that was a bit harsh. Let me start over.
Every day is World Mental Health Day if you have a mental illness. Every waking moment is a reminder that my good days are the result of a constant, ongoing battle to make them so. On World Mental Health Day and every day, I’m forced to reckon with the fact that being in recovery is just that: recovery. It’s a process, not a single moment.
It seems impossible to articulate how events like World Mental Health Day make me feel — the simultaneous validation and dismissal that do not cancel each other out but instead serve to confound. I will never (even when I am six feet under) downplay the importance of parity, but as with anything chronic, I am wholeheartedly jealous of people who can treat mental illness with impartiality. From the defining day a little over a year ago when I woke up and, for once, did not feel disappointed for having done so, I have not shaken the nagging feeling that only a subset of people will ever really get it (not that I would wish getting it on my worst enemy).
On World Mental Health Day and every day, I’m forced to reckon with the fact that being in recovery is a process, not a single moment.
Someone I know said to me recently that mental illness forever changes you. It’s a simple statement, and one I have acknowledged but never internalized. Yes, there is recovery, but there is no erasing the musty college apartment, the razor blade, and the way that even the thought of going anywhere near that place still makes me feel physically ill.
As I reflect on how much I have talked about being in recovery over the past year, it is glaringly obvious that something is missing from my story. But what? I’m not entirely sure.
To be 100 percent honest, I have been trying to write this for weeks, months even. But until this point, none of my attempts have felt right. They’ve teetered somewhere between tacit endorsement and dismissal of my mental state. And in the midst of our current political hellscape where each revelation hurts more than the last, personal things can feel trivial — even indulgent.
Meanwhile, the mundanities of life continue to fuel my ongoing existential despair. Desensitization turns to anhedonia turns to anguish turns to desperation turns to escape. As I stand back and look at myself, precariously perched on the ledge of okay-ness, I see impulsivity re-emerge as my coping mechanism of choice. I jump from one temporary high to another. Sitting alone with my thoughts is still as maddeningly discomfiting as always.
I know my mental health is worth addressing. But for every renewed commitment to take action, I feel a creeping sense of futility.
This is why the saccharine “silver linings” of World Mental Health Day — the idea that some people are mentally ill, and others aren’t, and the line between those is bright and clear — plague me. They nauseate me. They make me feel helpless. I see — I empathize with — the stories of triumph, tribulation, and the tangled web the two weave on social media. I have fallen into the trap of preachiness myself. But, my god, there is something missing, and everyone knows it.
On World Mental Health Day, those of us coping with mental illness feel either plainly resentful or obligated to give an “authentic” account of our realities out of a sense of we’re-in-this-togetherness. It’s a double bind.
There is no way out. There is only a continual process of healing, and I am living proof. That doesn’t mean I don’t spend nights wondering whether my illness will be the thing for which I am remembered most — if everyone will always wonder which of my behaviors are a result of my illness and which are truly my own, as if there could ever be any meaningful disentanglement.
World Mental Health Day happens, and then it’s over. Yet I will spend my entire life treading water in the aftermath of acute suicidal ideation.
I don’t like World Mental Health Day not because I think eliminating the stigma of mental illness is unimportant or futile. I don’t like World Mental Health Day because it happens, and then it’s over. Yet I will spend my entire life treading water in the aftermath of acute suicidal ideation. Of self-harm. Of substance abuse. Of pure, utter, unadulterated nothingness. Of the indescribable fear accompanying the belief that the only escape is death.
I take a pill every day, and it reminds me of the brink. The only panic attacks I have now are borne out of a fear of going back to that place. And I think that is what we carry with us: the knowledge that we are unwell, the fear of relapse. We stare in the mirror and see the person who once said, “I can’t do this anymore,” bloodied and post-bender at 3 a.m. We know that person intimately. But we also see the person who is still, against all odds, doing it — whatever “it” may be — and we are strangely grateful for it. Or at least, I am.
I have never once thought I am out of the woods. I don’t take recovery for granted. Mental illness and mental health are not black and white, and the implication — however unwitting it may be — that they are bothers me endlessly. In terms of mental health advocacy, I am like an outsider looking in, and I will never be able to genuinely look at someone in the throes of mental illness and say “it gets better.” As with any chronic illness, how would I know what the future holds?
We have to stop viewing mental health advocacy with starry-eyed optimism. It delegitimizes the fact that mental illnesses are real illnesses. We can be validated and dismissed in the same breath. I am compelled to use a quotation from Bojack Horseman — decontextualized though it is — to aptly describe recovery from mental illness: “It gets easier. Every day, it gets a little easier. But you gotta do it every day. That’s the hard part. But it does get easier.”
I live in this contradiction. There is no way to speak authentically about mental illness without acknowledging it. Any attempt to gloss over how I continually wrestle with mental illness and its residuals is disingenuous. It would be hypocritical to say otherwise.