I'm too "normal" for mental illness

If you are a high-functioning person with an invisible illness, mental or physical, you’re probably familiar with the standard conversation that goes along with telling people. It starts with you saying it and applying a new label to yourself. “I have _____.” Next, comes a clarifying question — “What? What’s that? What do you mean?” – or, if it’s a more familiar illness, we skip right along to denial. It sounds like, “You?”  or “You don't look like it” or "You don't need therapy" and it’s almost always accompanied by a squint, a scrunching of the eyebrows, a tilt of the head and a frown. Reliably, the next part of the conversation goes like this: “I would never have guessed. You’re so… (insert your other labels here).”

I have this conversation a lot. In fact, each time I tell people I'm in therapy, that I have anxiety disorders, BPD, and an eating disorder, I sometimes even have the same conversation three times with one person. For me, the end part sounds like this: “But you’re so smart!  So funny and happy all the time!” Here’s the part we don’t hear: “I don’t believe you.” They may think you must be lying, exaggerating, something, as if mental illness is a choice, as if this is easy, as if this is trendy or fun, as if anyone wants a life where they wake up every morning and have to actively decide whether they will fight to be in the world that day.

It isn’t. It isn’t easy or trendy or fun and it definitely isn’t a choice. I don’t regret my decision to start being more open and honest about my mental health because it’s important for myself and others that I am —but I’m tired of having this conversation. I’m tired of having to prove my illness to people who don’t understand. Not that I ever necessarily want you to understand what it’s like to have a mental illness. I’m tired of working up the courage to say something, to ask for help, to do what our society tells us to do, only to be shot down by that same society. Most importantly, though, I’m tired of being quiet about it.
You are not “too smart” for mental illness. You are not “too ambitious” for mental illness. You are not “too successful” for mental illness. You are not “too normal” for mental illness. You aren’t too anything for mental illness because mental illness doesn’t have any of these requirements, nor does it discriminate. Being a high-functioning person with a good image doesn’t mean you aren’t struggling; sometimes it just means you’re just really good at telling people where to look.

I told you to look at how much better I am, instead of how much all day, every day I'm working hard on myself.
I told you to look at my good marks, instead of the perfectionism and need for control my anxiety creates.
I told you to look at my protein bar (they’re actually really good!) instead of the other thousand-some-hundred calories my body needs to function but that I won’t eat today.
I told you to look at the stairs (I’m so clumsy), not my fist when I used to get bruises daily.
I told you to look at my late night walk (aren’t I healthy?) instead of the anxiety attack that spurred it.
I told you to look at my new jeans (isn’t it cute?) instead of the hours I spent body shaming myself in the fitting room.
I told you to look at how much I was improving (see?) instead of  how much am struggling lately.
Time and time again, I told you to look here instead of there as I overworked, binged and punished myself. I won’t blame you for doing it. My mental illness makes me a very persuasive, manipulative person and it’s, of course, natural to want to believe the best about what I showed you. I won’t blame you for doing what I wanted you to do and denying the consequences alongside me. I will, however, blame you for refusing to see beyond it. I will blame you for not telling me the truth isn’t good enough on account of the fact I have told you such believable lies. I will blame you for making me feel ashamed and for minimizing mental illness. It’s time we realize we all have a responsibility to ask the uncomfortable questions when appropriate and embrace the difficult truth.

Please, let’s change the conversation. Let’s get rid of the surprise, the disbelief, the fear, the denial, and the underlying message that you are somehow less of a person if you have a mental illness. Let’s stop requiring people to be “sick enough” before they ask for help and somehow still being surprised when they don’t.
I’ll start: Thank you for telling me. What you’re going through is valid. I want to be here for you. And if that seems like too much, maybe just start here: I believe you. 

Not a diagnosis - just a human

If you see me in public, hands folded, head down, it doesn’t mean I’m unfriendly. If you approach me, stand a centimeter too close, and I back away slightly, I don’t mean to offend. If I distance myself from the noise or traffic or thick suffocation of a whirring crowd, it has nothing to do with you, I swear. I’ll do my best impression of a daughter and friend who has her life together. I’ll run the errands and do the grocery shopping and drive across town, and I’ll do it without so much as a flinch. But inside, where the dark, misunderstood parts hide, I’m screaming so loud.
Diagnosed with a laundry list of BPD, PTSD, Generalized Anxiety Disorder and an Eating Disorder, my rituals worsened, becoming more obvious to those around me. I could hide the fact that I rubbed my knuckles when anxious or lay on the floor when scared because I did those things in the comfort of my home. But when I walked outside my front door, it was different. Certain sounds, like thunder or someone speaking in a loud voice, made me panic. When confronted with very basic decisions like which cereal to choose, I’d waste so much time wading in indecision that I would miss things happening around me. I had to maintain a strict schedule, which forced me to bail early on plans. I always managed to explain my way out, but every time, I felt bits of me breaking apart into nothing.
For the longest time, I hid my anxiety for fear of judgment. Certainly no one would understand how utterly catatonic all the thoughts made me. There was no way anyone could see me as anything more than these disorders once I confessed. These are the things, the lies, I told myself to keep from reaching out. I kept this life secret, these truths hidden, so as not to expose myself even further. I didn’t want everyone thinking things about me, true or not, that changed the way they felt about the person I am. I kept telling myself it would be OK. I could get by pretending I wasn’t dying inside as long as everyone’s opinion of me remained unwavering, no matter the price I’d pay for it.
It wasn’t until I reached a place of reckless free falling—a place that nearly killed me—that I took the steps necessary to try and reign it all in. This meant recognizing that I couldn’t care about anyone’s opinion of me for one more brief moment. I needed help before I fell into a hole I couldn’t climb out of. It was that dreadful and yet, once I got to this point, I still didn’t grasp the gravity of how far I’d already fallen.
The first step, for me, was realizing all of these things I battle? They don’t define me—just like they don’t define you. You are not your diagnosis, and I am not mine.
We are human. We are flawed. We are learning. We are evolving. And we are broken, illuminating the cracks in order to fit the pieces back together. It’s humbling and humiliating to identify our weaknesses and to work on them day after day. But know this: Pretending everything is calm when a war has broken loose inside you means you’ll never live the life you were meant to live. So tell your truths. Scream them and don’t apologize for what you’re feeling.
You don’t have to hide anymore because you are not your diagnosis. What you are is human.

Giving myself credit

Prior to this year, if you had asked me who I was, I would have a laundry list of answers prepared: 
I was suicidal.
I was a self-injurer.
I was a lost cause.
I was helpless and hopeless.
I was broken.
Years of darkness had skewed my perception of myself. I could only see someone I hated, and I couldn’t find a way to change that. I allowed myself to find a strange solace in the loneliness, in the depression. And I stayed there.
I stayed up all night to avoid the days. I thought about suicide, which was comforting to me in ways nothing else was. The idea that I had a choice, that I had control, was important. Control was something I had lost in every other part of my life. Death was my choice, and no one could take that away from me. Attempt after attempt I wondered why I wasn’t dying. Looking back on it, I realize that a part of me didn’t want to die. But if you had asked me then, I couldn’t see the light that was waiting inside of me.
But everyone around me could see so much more. They saw the depression, they saw the suicidal thoughts, they saw my darkest moments, but they still saw me. I want to say I could see what they saw, that I could see the light inside of me. But that would be a lie. Depression blinded me. It stole my understanding of myself, and it stole my desire for life.
Things are different now. If you ask me to look back on the progress I have made, I would see changes I never thought possible. For so long I hoped tomorrow would never come, but as it did I grew stronger. I was able to pull myself out of the deepest hole I had ever been in. I would be lying to say I did this on my own. I have amazing friends who stood by me,  have a therapist who believes in me (even when I don’t believe in myself), and I have medications that help me.
While these things have played a large role in my life and have at times saved me from death, I could not have done this without myself.
Often I forget to give myself credit. I forget that I played the leading role in my recovery. Without my will to live, without my strength, I would not be here. I held myself down for many years, but this year I brought myself up. I survived in ways I never thought possible. I fought for my life.
Every time I wake up, I am fighting for something more, something better. I don’t always notice myself smiling as I wake up to a sunrise, crying tears of joy in my gym classes, laughing with friends, working on myself in therapy, or loving someone dear to me. But it’s those small changes that created this shift in my perspective. They brought me here.
I thought I had lost myself. But somewhere along this journey I gathered enough strength to find myself again.
Now I know who I am:
I am not a lost cause.
I am not hopeless or helpless.
I am not broken.
I have found myself again.

A Burden

I am exhausted.
I am exhausted of constantly contemplating the correct way to phrase my feelings so that peoplemight understand. I am exhausted of searching within myself to find words that accurately explain how I am feeling.
I am exhausted because I search for words that allow me to place depression and anxiety in a box I can then wrap up with shiny paper and tie with a big sparkly bow.
I am exhausted because my life is messy: It involves sentences that are broken from my sobbing. It involves me screaming into my pillow because I am afraid. It involves sitting on my bedroom floor in silence for hours, feeling numb. It involves anxiety attacks that leave my body feeling like I just ran a 5k. It involves me scrolling through my phone and starting a new message four different times before I decide that I shouldn’t reach out because I feel I would be a “burden.”
It involves me sobbing at my kitchen table because I spilled my coffee. It involves me calling my mother  to hang up on them 15 times in a row out of frustration, only to finally call her back to apologize for everything. It involves me gasping for breath in a crowded room because it feels like I am drowning. It involves negative thoughts running a marathon in my head.
I am exhausted because no matter how hard I try to use symbolism or metaphors I still never get it right.  I am always on the verge of falling apart and destroying everyone around me.
Whenever I cry, I fear that my tears might actually be the rain before a tsunami. I check the weather to see if it predicted showers, offering insight on my mood. Because I never know when it is coming. It takes everything I have, destroying me before it has finished.
When I have a bad day, I hypothesize I am a star that has never burned as brightly as it was intended to, before it started dying. My supporting data includes, but is not limited to, the fact that a majority of people think stars make the night sky pretty and wish upon them. Because we seem to forget that stars are decaying, deteriorating, right before our eyes

I am exhausted from pretending to be something I am not.

Lately, inside my head there's a tornado of thoughts. They fly back and forth faster than I can even process them. I find it hard to move, like my limbs have weights attached. Just getting into the shower requires monumental effort.
Everybody thinks you’re stupid, the thoughts shout. I am stupid. People are sick and tired of your bullshit, my brain asserts. I’m sick and tired of my bullshit. Nobody cares, nobody understands. Nobody wants to get close. Nobody should get close. It’s dark in here. Really, really dark. People prefer the light. I have none to offer.
These, and many, many other thoughts consume me.
I grasp for medication. I retreat, pull away, can't stop crying, can't sit still, dream about the sleep that never ends in miserable awakening.
I want to run away. Far, far away, so I stop hurting the people I love. They would be better off without me; this is what I feel is the truth.
Unfortunately, I can’t run away from my own brain.
This is life in my head.
And now I’m supposed to say something uplifting and hopeful, like it will pass and you am loved but I can’t. Not right now. The truth is, sometimes you just hold on. Sometimes you write a depressing essay just to get the thoughts out of your head.

"Me" time

I think I’m going to skip all my studying for  today because I need a “me” day. Despite having exams in a few days. The problem with “me” days is that I need them four times a week. The problem with me is that I’m very smart and very capable (or so I’ve been told) but my laziness hinders me. 
 They forgot to add procrastination, self-destruction, and the inability to leave my bed to the list. 

The problem with me is that I’ve dealt with this before but have no idea what to do next. I should email my past teachers and ask them what I did after I sent them messages excusing my week-long absences from class due to “personal reasons.” 

I should stop scratching my hand in case my mom asks me if I’m okay again. I am okay. I am doing fine. But I have an itch that I cannot place, an itch that changes locations when my fingers find it. The problem with me is that I will focus on it completely until it goes away. 

The problem with this feeling is that it never goes away. It has always been one large itch that I cannot place.

Because some days I can conquer the world; other days it takes me three hours to convince myself to shower. Nevertheless, studying psychology was the best decision i ever made.

Beanie Credits: Maria Prodromou
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an apology

I am sorry for filling you with medication and bad thoughts and then asking you why you shook.
I am sorry for pinching you, for hitting you, for bruising the thin-skinned parts of you.

I am sorry for the names I called you when we were fighting. 
You are not ugly. 
You are not useless. 
You would not be better off gone.
I’m sorry for almost throwing you out into the street because my sadness was too much for me.
I’m sorry for carving my fingernails into your thigh and then resenting the way people asked, “How’d that happen?” 
I’m sorry for plucking you and nicking your calves with drugstore razors. 
I’m sorry I let some people see you in the moonlight. They didn’t deserve to know the color of your hips like I do.
I’m sorry for leaving you convulsing over a toilet bowl after almost every meal. 

I’m sorry I did not thank you for simply trying to take me where I wanted to go.
 I’m sorry I screamed at you to shrink, shrink, shrink when all you could do was grow. 
I’m sorry that this apology is ten years too late. 
I’m sorry that it will probably come again. 
I’m sorry that I do not treat anybody else as poorly as I have treated you.
I’m sorry in ways I have not yet learned to communicate
I’m sorry that I am constantly learning how to love you, when you have never once doubted how you feel about me. 

a little longer

It has never been easy. 

When I was fourteen, I knew every potentially fatal thing in my house: Nail polish remover under the sink. Bottle of rubbing alcohol beside it. Hammer in the tool box. Bridge across the highway. Traffic beside my house.

I thought about slamming my own head against a counter until I lost feeling. I thought about punching myself in the face until I stopped breathing. I thought about running out into the street at two a.m. and waiting until a car came. 

I never thought I’d make it to twenty six. But I told myself to stay. Just for a little longer. Just to see.

So I did. I sat silent amongst my friends, searching for a way to speak. I stopped leaving my house. I swapped sleeping for staying up all night, staring at my bedroom walls. When someone came into my room to talk to me, I started crying. But I stayed. 

Because I thought, if I plan on dying in a few years anyway, what do I have to lose? And some days I didn’t feel like I was being swallowed whole. Some days I sat by my window and sang until the sun set. Some days I listened to a really great song and felt understood, if only for a second. 

I stayed. And still I think about bridges. And hammers to the head. And swallowing acetone to cleanse my insides. But slowly slowly slowly I begin to understand that it is okay to cry, and shake, and feel anything but okay. I realized that there would continue to be days that my fist would rise to my cheek. And still, my face would sometimes resemble a bruised peach.

But now I tear up my lists of potential ways to die before I complete them. I replace prescription pills, rubbing alcohol, and razors with memories of the few good days. 

If you feel the same way, stay. For the good days. And the sunsets. And the people out there who understand. Stay. Just for a little longer. Just to see.


The day I (realised that I've) changed...

Three years ago I would have cried.
Three years ago I would have kept asking and asking for a picture of us together every minute.
Three years ago I would have looked at that picture a million times.
Three years ago I would not be able to let you go.
Three years ago one hour together wouldn't be enough.
Three years ago I would have count the days, the hours, the minutes till the last time we will meet.
Three years ago I would have text you as soon as I left the typical "Please dont leave, along with some lyrics from -It will rain- from Boyce Avenue
Three years ago I would have cried and felt the rejection because our hug wasn't "long" enough;  because you didn't gave me a kiss; because you didn't ask for me to stay more.

As I was standing in the train on my way home i realised that I was smiling.
A quick selfie before we go just to remember the day, was enough.
A quick coffee and a chit chat was enough.
A rushed hug and a "good night, take care, we will talk soon" was enough.

As the time went by, it occurred to me, that this is all i need. We caught up the time we lost, like it never happened.
A lot has changed but actually... not that much.
You are still my dearest friend, one of the few people i trust, i deeply care and love.
But the fact that I didn't have a meltdown when we separated, tells me how much I've (or we) changed. And not in a bad way.

I'll be honest here, I do question myself  for stuff i say or do, in fear that i will slip into old behaviors.
But the fact that I can express my fears and concerns to you and we are walking in the middle path this time, where we are both happy and not suffocating each other, it is more than enough.

Still can't be sure of the term "health friendhsip" but if this is what it is, im up for it.


-Αθήνα,  4 Δεκέμβριου 2016

MEntal Health begins with ME!

I have a mental health disorder. You can often find me on the streets, shaking like a leaf, muttering to myself and pushing 18 cats in a pram.
That, of course, is a big fat lie.
If you bumped into me on street tomorrow, you wouldn’t even notice me. Sadly, I’m just not that interesting.
It’s 2016, and we do talk more openly about mental health but, if we’re all really honest, perhaps we’re still a bit frightened of it. Do we still conjure up these stereotypical images of mentally ill people?
So what do you think of when you imagine somebody with a mental illness? Somebody who is weak? Scary? Violent? I might have lived with mental disorders pretty much all my life, but even I can look back and remember times when I haven’t been so understanding of other people’s mental health problems. That's totally okay.
Not understanding mental illness doesn’t make you a bad person, however, the only way people can understand it is if we talk openly about it. Which is precisely why we should care about World Mental Health Day.
Imagine a world where there’s no need to suffer in silence or carry a “dirty secret” because you’re depressed, or anxious, or you have suffered with psychosis. Where you don’t need to assume somebody with a mental illness is scary. Where you don’t miss out on forming great friendships because of an in-built fear. Wouldn’t it be a good place?

Every single one of us has mental health. Sometimes, it just doesn’t work as well as it should.
A Reminder: You aren't expected to fully understand mental illness, but you are expected to be considerate and non-judgemental.
It's okay to ask for help! it doesn't make you weak or "crazy".
#WorldMentalHealthDay #wmhd16