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On doing better, not being done

Every now and then, a new article makes the round with the same narrative:

  • Person writing it was diagnosed with OCD. Or ADD. Or anxiety, or depression…the list goes on.
  • After deep, deep thought, they had an epiphany.
  • Because of said epiphany, they decided not to take medication, made some minor lifestyle changes, but mostly just reframed the diagnosis and stopped thinking of it as a downside.
  • Now: the acronym that could have been a huge burden is their strongest gift.

*cue inspirational music*

Everyone has the right to deal with their struggles in their own way.

And of course, share those struggles and triumphs in the way of their choosing. I know that my biggest struggles are almost certainly caused by the same brain quirks that give me my natural freakishly good inclinations for certain things. And maybe the writers don’t want to talk about the downsides publicly, and that’s fine and their right, too. But these articles and stories tend to get framed as “I used to struggle with it and now I don’t,” or as “this is an inspiring reframe of a diagnosis.” And that’s not okay.

Our culture of relentless positive thinking & “if I try hard enough, it’ll happen” intersects here in a shitty-bordering-on-deadly way.

I used to expect, in large part because of reading stories like that, that someday I would have all of my coping mechanisms totally locked down and I would just be better. “Better”, of course, here meaning “normal”, instead of better actually meaning “doing better.”

It’d look like this: I’d sleep well all the time and never feel neurotic and cherubs would sing and, of course, I’d still have all of those freakish talents.

And then when that didn’t happen? Those narratives made it worse, when it was already bad. There I was, in the depths of anxiety and/or depression, not only feeling incredibly awful because, hi, that’s what that shit does to your brain, but beating myself up for feeling so awful because “I had been doing so much better” and “I thought I was fixed” and “I thought this was over.”

(If I had a nickel for every time I said to myself, “I thought I was fixed,” I would never have to worry about food again.)

That’s what these myths – that everyone is one day going to be miraculously, totally, 110% cured by some mixture of medication and meditation and organic foods and then they’ll have a great story with a happy ending – do.

These stories that only talk about the “happy ending” and gloss over the daily struggle and act like everyone else can have that happy ending if we just try hard enough? They leave those of us who don’t have a shiny triumph story living in the dark. My triumph is being alive and functioning. Anything past that is icing on the cake.

We talk about self-sabotage and upper limit problems and those are real things, sure. But mental illness is a real thing, too, and it doesn’t just go away if you spray it soaking wet with relentless faux-positivity.

Just like we shouldn’t berate someone with carpal tunnel or Celiac’s or any other chronic health issue for being “self defeating,” or for working within the actual reality of the situation, people need to realize that when it comes to anxiety and depression (and ADD/ADHD, and OCD, and so on), pretending it’s not real won’t make it go away, and neither will pressuring us towards some artificial normal.

A person with Celiac’s accepts the situation and they work around it. They don’t pretend that someday they’re going to be able to scarf down gluten-licious snacks and that their body chemistry/physiology will have magically retrained itself to cope a-okay.

But that’s what we expect people with mental illness to do.

Let me make this abundantly clear: I’m not normal-better. I’m better than when I couldn’t eat for stress, and better than when I was spending hours on the couch trying to will myself into not existing, but I don’t think I will ever be normal-better, if I’m perfectly honest. I think that to fit my brain chemistry into the normal-better mold would require an ungodly amount of medication, very possibly some black magic, and would almost certainly turn me into someone I wouldn’t recognize. And I don’t want that. I can accept the bad with the good without trying to pretend that the bad doesn’t exist. I don’t think this will ever be a non-struggle for me.

This is part of who I am.

And I’ve accepted it. Loving it is going to take a while and work and, full disclosure, I don’t know if I’ll ever get there. But for me, I’d rather aim for high-functioning – which is at least a target I’m actually capable of hitting and do hit on a regular basis – instead of this bullshit idea that one day I will never have any anxiety ridden sleepless nights, I will never struggle with feeling hopeless, and yet at the same time, I will still have all of the “positive” traits and everything will be hunky-fucking-dory. That idea is unattainable for me. It’s unhealthy to compare myself to. And when I have aimed for it, I just wind up falling even harder because the gulf between where I am and where I “should” be is so big it becomes another weapon to beat the shit out of myself with.

For me, high functioning is the best it’s going to get, and you might think that that sounds depressing and fatalist, but you know what? It’s not your life. I’m not your inspirational story and I have no urge to be.

All I want to do is get by the best I can, and for me?

That’s doing better. Not being done.

Original inspiration for this post via, big thanks to Caitlín and Elinor for discussing this with me on Facebook a long while ago and being willing to let me quote them in the original draft of this.

12 Comments

  1. Yep. This.

    The “funny” thing about this topic of invisible disability is that people used to have this take on my mental illness when it wasn’t a form of schizophrenia. Now that it is, I’ve actually experienced interactions that are… well, discriminatory. Even though I’m essentially the same person.

    Kudos for speaking out.

    E

    Reply

    • Thank you Esmé. I’m sorry you’ve experienced discrimination…ugh. It’s all tricky stuff to navigate and some illnesses are definitely stigmatized way more than others. Lots of love.

      Reply

  2. Thank you SO MUCH for writing publicly about this. It is a vital conversation.

    “My triumph is being alive and functioning. Anything past that is icing on the cake.”

    As someone who has lived with chronic depression and fibromyalgia since I was a pre-teen*, I cheered on the inside throughout reading this, but I non-metaphorically cheered and whooped when I read that part.

    Being alive and functioning is ENOUGH. I am ENOUGH. Just as I am, with all my symptoms and shitty days and all my brilliance and fight. And so are you <3

    *Although I wasn't diagnosed properly with either until my late 30s/early 40s, but that's a whole 'nother story.

    Reply

    • YES. It’s funny how the same people who throw around “enoughness” as a feel-good concept don’t really want to talk about it in THIS context >_< And something that I didn't mention in the post because I didn't want to get too off track, but that I also think is really interesting/worth talking about, is that almost as SOON as I was willing to stop fighting so damn hard against the reality of the situation, and just accept it/work with it, my day-to-day reality/symptoms got a lot better. Thank you for the kind comment Elinor!

      Reply

  3. Found this through Grace’s site and so glad I did. I have an anxiety/panic disorder (have for most of my life) and I’m depressed due to this and multiple deaths in my family over the past eight years. It is so true what you are saying here. And the other part is that you feel like if you can’t “cure” yourself and be all better, you have failed, done something wrong, not done it right, etc…
    I know exactly what you mean when you say , “high functioning is the best it’s going to get”, as I feel the same way.
    Thanks for such an honest and realistic article on this topic!

    Reply

    • The failure thing is what I think is particularly messed up about the whole scenario – like, the last thing you need to feel like when you’re in that position is that you’ve gone and f-ed something else up, but that’s exactly how these attitudes make us feel. Thanks for the comment – glad you liked the post!

      Reply

  4. Yes, yes, YES! The struggle is real and so is the fight to have brighter days. I get pissed when people natter on about the depression only being in my head and hoe I can snap out of it if I really try. I’m like honestly? What a fucking joke.

    I hear you on making the most of it when yoy can. Anxiety can be a bitch, particularly when you can’t sleep. It’s 3:33 am for me right now and I’m not inclined to take any pills cause then I’ll just slrep half the day away. Talk about a catch-22.

    I’m happy to see more real coversations about the reality of living with depression and anxiety. May we always be as brave.

    Reply

    • Somehow I didn’t realize I never replied to this! Thank you, Otiti. I’m really glad it resonated with you and YES I’m so tired of the “it’s only in your head, if you just TRY HARDER you can fix it!” shit. Boo hiss.

      Reply

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  6. Yes!

    This whole ‘think it all better’ and ‘if you only align with your higher self you will be healed’ bullshit is just that… Bullshit.

    I actually had a person look me in the eye a couple of weeks ago and tell me that if I do have M.S. then it is because I’m embracing being ill. As he tried to go on tell me how if I read more Louise Hay and learned about the Law of Attraction I would be able to heal my brain.

    I cut him off mid-sentence and said:

    “No, that is not true. If I have holes in my brain thinking them gone isn’t going to make them go away and you’re saying that only victimizes me as someone who ‘chooses’ to be chronically ill.”

    It inspired me to write this post: http://www.katelove.cc/everything-doesnt-happen-for-a-reason/

    People need to step back and be kinder.

    Reply

    • I’m sorry you had to deal with that, Kate – that’s ignorance on a level that’s just straight-up offensive. I’m glad you liked the post though (and I’ll definitely have to read your’s because we can’t talk about this stuff enough!), thank you for commenting and sharing <3

      Reply

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