Recently, I was having a conversation with my therapist about the importance of being able to separate my identity from my mental illnesses. At the end of the conversation, I concluded that this act is impossible to do because struggling with mental illness for the majority of my life has shaped every aspect of who I am as a person: the music I listen to, the movies I find interesting, my academic interest in psychology, the poetry I read, the photographs I take, my sense of humor, my career path, and how I relate to others. Even my personality characteristics and worldviews, which I believe to be the core of someone’s identity, have been influenced by my ongoing battle with mental illness. I am accepting the fact that I have been largely shaped by mental illness, both positively and negatively. Most days, this is a daunting thought because it is incredibly easy to focus on how mental illness gives me limitations and hinders me from accomplishing things. However, the purpose of this post is to reflect on how mental illness has contributed to some amazing aspects of myself, which I hope encourages you to do the same.
- I can understand the rationale behind irrational behaviors. Struggling with mental illness allows for me to have incredible insight into the experiences of others with mental health issues. This is especially important when you have loved ones or clients who have mental health diagnoses, because it allows you to understand odd behaviors that don’t logically make sense. A recent example: I was working with a teen in foster care who is notorious for moving from home to home, as she demands being placed into another foster home every few months. When the social worker(s) doesn’t meet this demand, this teen will find ways to get kicked out of the home (e.g. running away, breaking property, breaking rules). The teen will often complain that she feels unloved and unwelcome in the home; that a deteriorating connection with the foster parent is motivating her to leave. After working with her for a few months, I realized that these behaviors are in attempt to do what many people with depression do: attribute their depressive symptoms to their environment and thereby change their environment in attempt to get rid of the depression. When I asked if she was in a depressive episode, she responded by saying that she was. I then explained to her that when people get depressed, they feel like nobody loves them and often have trouble feeling connected to people they once felt connected to. See, she wasn’t abandoned or unloved by the foster parent, but felt that way because that’s how she interpreted her depressive symptoms: by projecting them onto the environment. I can’t tell you how many times I have redecorated my room or cut someone out of my life for this exact reason. If it wasn’t for my own experience with this, I would have never understood why she wanted to leave a home where she was dearly loved.
- I constantly consider how my actions affect others. Because of social anxiety disorder, I constantly feel uncomfortable when I am with other people and am very easily embarrassed. Because of this, I always try to make people feel comfortable and find ways to prevent them from ever feeling embarrassed around me. An older example: When I was walking to class, I watched a fellow student slip on a large body of mud. Because she had twisted her ankle, she wasn’t able to stand up and continue walking to where she needed to go. I immediately thought about how embarrassed she may feel, as she was sitting in the middle of swarms of people walking to and from class, some asking her why she was sitting in the mud. I thought about how I probably would have had a panic attack because my mind would have convinced me that people were making fun of me, thinking that I fell because I’m fat and clumsy. I immediately introduced myself, sat in the mud next to her, and called for assistance to get her ankle looked at. When people asked why we were sitting on the ground, I just explained to them that we were hanging out. It’s possible that she didn’t feel embarrassed by the incident at all, but my social anxiety was going to make absolute sure she didn’t.
- Human beings connect through pain. This is one of the most prominent worldviews I have and serves as the basis for most of my relationships. With every friend I consider family and every budding romantic relationship I’ve had, there has been a foundation of empathy that was provoked by the shared experience of pain. Whether this was sharing our past sufferings with one another or sharing the journey of current adversity, these are the situations that deeply connect people. Having this worldview contributes to the fact that I have such deep connections with those I surround myself with. I allow myself to be vulnerable with others because I don’t view pain as shameful; it’s normal. Platonic example: My best friend was the first person I called when having my very first almost-psychotic OCD episode. Although we had been friends for years, her showing unconditional love for me while I was fighting the strongest demons I’ve ever had to fight brought us closer together than I could have ever imagined. Now, some people can’t handle seeing me on my darkest and most irrational days. That doesn’t mean they don’t connect with others through pain; it’s just that people can handle different variations of pain. When people mourn the loss of a friendship or relationship, something they often say is “we have been through so much together.” While this can include good times, it often involves the bad times that brought two people closer together.
Isn’t it wonderful how our sufferings can contribute to the most amazing parts of ourselves? I would love to hear how your mental illness has made you the wonderful person you are today.