The first week of October is Mental Illness Awareness Week. If you've read this blog for awhile, you're probably pretty aware that I'm pretty aware that I struggle with anxiety and depression. And it might seem that I'm pretty comfortable with it since I write about it a lot.
I thought I was, too. Not only do I tell people that I struggle with it, but I even will acknowledge that, contrary to what I thought when I first started counseling and taking antidepressants, my anxiety and depression will probably never really go away, and I'll need to manage them for the rest of my life.
It's only recently, through the help of a very insightful counselor, that I've come to realize that when I said I would need to "manage," my present-tense mental illness, I really meant "fix," as in "When I take my medication and do counseling and anything else that seems like a good idea (yoga, journaling, etc.), I should be able to act exactly as if my mental illness is all past-tense." After all, depression and anxiety don't define who I am, right? I'm more than just my depression and anxiety, aren't I?
Here's the thing: my identity may not be in my mental illness, but it can and does affect my life. As my friend Tes said, "People say, 'Labels don’t define you.' Yes, but they are part of me." And too often I have found myself trying to suppress that part of me instead of accepting it and adjusting my expectations for my life accordingly. Instead of viewing medication or counseling or yoga or journaling as ways to keep me functioning as best as I can with mental illness, I viewed them as ways to become, essentially, a fundamentally different person who didn't struggle at all. If I just wrote down the positive truths about myself, and did yoga, and x, y, and z, just right, all the effects of my mental illness on my life would be past tense. Specifically, I would become a person who had no longer had trouble getting up in the morning, who didn't get disproportionately nervous about reaching out and getting together with friends, who didn't often find regular chores overwhelming, who could plan an event or and pack for a camping trip without crying, who could handle having a regular full-time job without being completely and utterly spent at home. I would become energetic and fearless and live my best life. And until I was that person, I wasn't okay. Until I was that person, I needed to keep fighting, do more things, reconfigure my system, or else I was letting my depression and anxiety define me and not trying hard enough. Never mind that some days I barely had it in me to survive, much less work harder. Because until I was that person, I wasn't acceptable.
This, my friends, is not a great way to live your life.
I will cut myself a little slack for thinking this only because sometimes depression and anxiety seem to be more situational, and people do get "back to normal" after a while. They get off their meds permanently, they stop going to therapy, and they're great. But mine is looking pretty chronic. And while you can do things to make chronic illnesses less awful, they aren't going away. I should know, since I have a chronic disease called endometriosis, in which tissue grows places it's not supposed to and causes a lot of pain. I've learned a lot over the last year about things I can do to stunt the tissue's growth and feel less pain, like changing my diet and taking certain supplements. But I can't cure it, and not only it would be silly of me to expect that, it would also be silly of me to act as if the pain shouldn't affect how I live my life at all. Yet I do this all the time with depression and anxiety.
I even did it in the midst of writing this post. Dave and I are going camping this weekend, and while I love camping, I do not love packing for camping. It overwhelms me, a lot. I know this about myself. But instead of accepting it and say, asking for help from Dave earlier in the week, I once again hoped that I wouldn't feel that way and would be able to do it easily, all by myself, with no anxiety at all. Because if I'm honest, I'm embarrassed that it paralyzes me, and I hate that I can't just get my act together and not freak out about it. I hate that I need help and take up Dave's time with something that I feel any regular adult should be able to do. But that's where I'm at, and if I had asked for help sooner, I probably wouldn't have had to freak out about it all. Instead I procrastinated in anxiety, got more overwhelmed as a result, and melted down, and guess what? Dave still had to help me, but in a much less pleasant way for him. Not only does nobody win when I don't accept myself, but when I do, I ironically feel a lot better and struggle a whole lot less.
That's probably because I'm living according to the truth of who I am instead of pretending I'm someone I'm not, and Jesus knew what he was talking about when he said the truth will set you free. The truth is that I have anxiety and depression; I'm aware of that. Now I need to work on not getting rid of them, but accepting who I am with them and feeling comfortable with the fact that they affect my life in the present tense.