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The Beauty of Mental Illness

I've wanted to write a blog about Anxiety for a while now. There are so many topics to write about, from the cringe-worthiness of listening to self-help books from authors who clearly haven't had anxiety, to trying to navigate what it means to have gotten anxiety for the 3rd time in my life when I thought it was something I had already 'gotten over'. But identities are constantly in flux. Part of getting better is learning to cope with those stinging words 'mental illness'.

It's that shift in identity, that understanding that maybe I'm not the person that is 'over' anxiety, that I most want to write about though. Not because I want to cry about how I want it to be gone (although, at times I certainly do), but because having to deal with anxiety and depression has caused me to learn a lot of things about myself, about people, and about love.

Learning to cope with anxiety is a story of acceptance. Accepting the racing feeling in your chest. Accepting the sadness. Accepting the person 'before' anxiety no longer exists. Sometimes when I'm in the shower, I'll draw a heart on my leg, and try to utter the words "I love you anxious pants". It sounds silly, but it's my attempt at trying to love and accept the part of myself that feels broken. Incompetent. That feels vulnerable. I cry almost every time as I feel the warring tension in my body-- between trying to love and between violently fighting this thing that sometimes feels it threatens my life.This third time I got anxiety, I had to admit to myself that nothing new happened, there seemed no lesson to be learned, and with it came the stinging prick of the words mental illness. Sometimes my body, my thoughts and my identity hurt so badly I want to shuck it at the doorstep and pretend it doesn't belong.

But it does. And the truth is, I would not have grown to the person I am if I had not had to deal with anxiety. And so this blog is dedicated to the reasons, despite the terrifying feelings, the tornadoes of negative thoughts, and the feeling of complete exhaustion that sometimes comes with it, the things I am utterly grateful for that I experienced because of my anxiety.

1. Learning how to help and be helped
I grew up on good ol' Anglo Saxon stoicism. I thought my lack of tears (or at least hidden away tears) was a sign of strength--and I wore it like a badge. Anxiety has made me learn how to reach out for help. And holy shit, is it a hard lesson to learn. It was only in my times of complete desperation that I found the courage to reach my hand out to others. The first time you do it, it feels awkward, weak, and terrible. But now I realize, like a synapse, reaching out opens up a space for human connection. There is a spark when a hand reaches back. I cannot describe the beauty of those moments when people have helped me through difficult times, or when I have been able to do the same for others. Human connection through difficulty, human compassion and human goodness, is now how I describe the meaning of life. So, in a way, anxiety showed me not only how much I didn't want to live at times, but showed me exactly what I loved about living on a far deeper level than ever before.

2. I've developed a better relationship with my mom.
I reached out to my mother first. For months of my first anxiety episode, she stood right by my side, held my head as I sobbed, and tried to coo my trembling body into some state of normalcy. She too is someone who suffers anxiety, and she knew it all too well. I saw compassion in my mother I had never understood before that. As a young child, I saw her tension and temper and sometimes forgot the side of her which was overwhelmingly empathetic. Having anxiety again made me realize that her temper was sometimes a result of the very same illness I deal with. Sometimes I fear my ability to take care of kids while I'm in an anxiety episode, because I can barely take care of myself. To think of taking care of two children as as single mother, while anxious, I understand better where that tension came from--even if my Anxiety manifests in different ways. And it's our shared anxiety that allows her to understand my irrational brain and trembling body in ways other people cannot, and I'm incredibly grateful to have her in my life.

3. The same brain that makes negative thought tornado circuits so easy, allows me intelligence by creating endless connections. 
Even when I'm not in anxiety, my brain is firing constant connections between things in the background of my thoughts. It's something I love about my brain. Without that constant connection, I don't think I'd be nearly as curious of a person, and as such, I don't think I would have learned about and come to understand so many things. This ability of my brain is something I readily accept as a core part of my identity. I love my curiosity and never ending connection making.

But it's this same restlessness of my brain, this constant activity, that makes me so vulnerable to anxiety. Put a few negative thoughts in that brain blender and they it can feel overwhelming pretty fast. Mindfulness has always been difficult for me, anxiety or not (but whoof, especially in anxiety). And to be honest, the idea of quieting my crazy mind is something I'm uneasy about. I love my crazy endlessly processing mind. And while it allows me to be more vulnerable to anxious thinking, it also allows me to be so curious about the world and create connections and understandings between things.

4. It has allowed me to learn to be okay with things as they are. And cope so much better with all kinds of pain. 
Let it be. That's the hardest lesson to learn with anxiety. You feel dread, hopelessness, a great sadness, and terror. Sometimes you can't eat, sometimes you can't sleep. Sometimes your body tries to uncork it's tension with a burst of tears in public places. And you're supposed to be okay with it. It's hard to learn to let things be, especially when those things feel so distressing. But anxiety feeds off of avoidance, and the only way to truly grow from it, is to accept your feelings exactly the way they are. It helps you deal with emotions and pain on a much greater level than ever before. Not by distracting, not by being in a pity party, but by being with it exactly for what it is.

5. It allowed me to understand that nothing lasts forever. Everything changes. And that is okay. 
The first time I recovered from anxiety, it was only in retrospect that I realized I had taken on Buddhist notions of being. When you recover, it's less of a straight line and more of a roller coaster that loses momentum over time. You still have good days, you still have shit days, and slowly, over time, your baseline average slowly goes up: from depression, to nullness, to contentededness. Those first few moments of happiness after over a year of anxiety and depression are exhilarating, but also terrifying.

What if this doesn't last.

What if I think myself out of this happiness?

What if. What if.

But happiness can't last. It won't last. And that's okay. You just roll with it for what it is and are grateful for the moment. It seems like that should be a depressing thought, but it's actually liberating. Anxious people struggle to control everything, including staying happy. And knowing that you can't control it is actually a weight off of your shoulders. It's the only way to truly enjoy these blissful moments as an anxious person.

It's also true for your shit days. I would write letters to myself on my good days to read to myself on my shit days. Because if you've ever had anxiety or depression, you know one thing. You always think your shit days are going to last forever. But they never do. Letters remind you that nothing stays the same. Learning to accept that I would feel good somedays, and bad others, allowed me to stop worrying what the future would bring. I didn't know. All I knew was the moment. All I knew was nothing lasts forever.

6. It has allowed me to empathize and help others with mental illness
Before anxiety, I didn't know my brain could work against me. I didn't know I could feel out of control of my own thoughts and feelings. I would have been that person to say 'well, just buck up'. and now I know how completely unreasonable and terrible that advice is. If you've never had your brain betray you, it's impossible to understand how terrifying it is. If you can bare with this analogy, it's like you're a rider, and your brain is the horse. You're going for a nice ride and think you are in control, then all of a sudden the horse has been spooked, and now is bucking and braying crazily as you try to hang on. The thing you thought you could direct and control is now an unstoppable force threatening your sanity and safety.

I never understood suicide, cutting, or other behaviors of people who struggle with mental illness until I had it. I've never done those things, but I understand them now. To be honest, it's an emotional burden even to understand them. To understand the want to make the pain stop on that level. It's scary to have pain that deteriorates your will power so strongly. I'm still coping with the fear of getting in that place. Because it's an awful, terrifying, and terribly sad place to be. I wouldn't wish it on my enemies.

Knowing these feelings though. The irrational thoughts. The lack of control. The intense emotional pain, has allowed me to have meaningful connection to other people who are suffering in the same way. Many of my friends suffer with anxiety and depression, and helping, and being helped by them have been the most beautiful moments in my life. Knowing, that I can help them by understanding makes going through anxiety feel more meaningful, and more worth it.

 7. It has made me so much more grateful for the little things and the big things. 
Normal people. Let me tell you something. You completely underestimate how grateful you should be for having a general contentedness day to day. It's not until that rug has been tugged from under you and you are stumbling to regain balance, that you realize how much you had to be grateful for. Even in the pits of anxiety, I would write down three things I was grateful for. Maybe it was having a laugh at a meeting, maybe it was being able to focus better that day, maybe it was how loving my boyfriend or family had been.

When you first start recovering from an anxiety episode the beauty of the world is awe-inspiring. The best I can describe it is that you're in a man-hole (bear with me), and there are little nasty critters tugging at your legs to fall back in. But you peak through the crack to the outside world and almost cry at it's beauty. The things (the thoughts) are still pulling at you, beckoning you to slip back under, but it doesn't stop you from being captivated by the beauty of the world that you haven't seen in so long. The first times you experience it, you feel like crying. It's in those moments that I am most grateful, because it's in those moments I realize exactly how much I have to lose--and how much I have to gain. Having anxiety allows you to appreciate things on a far deeper level. To appreciate the sunset, the sway of leaves on a tree, the embrace of a boyfriend, the call of a family member who loves you.

8. It has taken away limitations of things I didn't want to do because I was 'afraid'
Before 'Anxiety' I always thought anxiety signaled something I should avoid. But when you have it constantly, and are afraid of things like turning off the lights, or going to class, you have to do everything you are afraid of. It has taught me that just because I'm afraid of something doesn't mean I shouldn't do it, in fact, it means I should force myself to do it.

It teaches you to recognize that fear is just a feeling. It's not an alarm. It teaches you to gulp that heartbeat down your throat and march onward. It has taught a bravery and a courage I haven't experienced otherwise--even if it's something as dull as getting myself dressed and off to work.


  1. I've read this many times and still it makes tears stream down my face as I know how you have suffered and I also know how brave you have been through it all even when you didn't feel very brave. You are an incredible human being with so much to give. ♡


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