Being diagnosed with a mental illness is like finding out you have spent your whole life breathing through a straw. It’s like walking on stage preparing to sing and being handed a pair of tap shoes. It is what I believe the Americans would call, ‘a curve ball’.
I am a logical person, I like to have reasons and explanations, I like to know why. Something I have had to find out the hard way though is, with mental illness, sometimes there isn’t a reason. I mean sure, they can tell me what the physical reasons I feel the way I feel, they can tell me it’s most likely hereditary, but they can’t tell me why I’m like this and my brothers not. That’s just how it is.
Something that surprised me about mental illness is the amount of grieving I have had to do; the loss of jobs, friendships, part of my identity and the life I thought I would lead. If you had asked me when I finished school where I would be at the age of 23, I can almost guarantee you that my answer would not have been working casually in a home ware store and celebrating the fact that I got out of bed and did a load of washing this morning.
When I left school I expected that I would go to uni, graduate and get a job. I defined who I was by what I did. When I lost what I did, I lost who I was. That was hard. I have had to forge an entirely new identity for myself, and hold a memorial service in my mind for all the hopes and dreams that will, at the very least, need to be put on hold.
I have lost friends too. Friends who embraced me and accepted me for who I was and what I was dealing with, until it became too inconvenient. They were understanding and loving, until I couldn’t make it to every event. Until I left early or came late because I was too exhausted to function. Until I tried to be honest with them about how they were making me feel. Until I refused to be sorry for who I was anymore.
The betrayal I felt was far beyond that I felt for friends who straight up rejected me. I have had to mourn the loss of “friends” I have had for the last 10 years, because they measure friendship in physical time spent together, not the sheer amount of love and effort required for me to turn up on the rare occasions I could.
I had to give up what could have been a career. I had a well paying job at the bank, that I excelled at, but my anxiety didn’t let me see it. I constantly second guessed myself, took everything far too personally and in the end I couldn’t make it through the day without throwing up at least once.
When I told my boss I was resigning she was so sympathetic, arranged for me to see a counsellor (paid for by the company), and tried to find a way for me to stay; a more flexible work schedule or perhaps part time hours. I remember thinking “Why are you evening bothering? you should be so excited to be getting rid of me.” My anxiety clouded my judgement and I ended up giving away a career with an amazing company because that voice in my head told me I wasn’t good enough, that I would never be good enough. Now 3 years on, I still grieve for what may have been.
I sometimes wish I had never been diagnosed, I mean my mum lasted until her mid 40’s before she collapsed in a heap and was diagnosed with anxiety. That’s another 20 years of hardcore motivation to get stuff done. It’s almost like being aware of my mental health makes me more reluctant to push myself and more likely to give in to what my body and mind is telling me. And sometimes, that’s a great thing, but sometimes the anxiety is unjustified and if I could just MAKE myself do it, if I didn’t have that convenient excuse to opt out, then I would do so much more, I could BE so much more.
Then there is the flip side, where I can see what my anxiety is doing to my body and mind and I am young enough to cut the head off the snake. My psychologist got me to count how many breathes I take in a minute once, the result was almost 3 times what is considered normal. That means at the age of 23, I have potentially taken the same number of breaths as my grandmother. If I didn’t stop and do something now I would have literally run myself into the ground. I had to sit down before I fell down or I may never have gotten back up.
I always thought anxiety was an old persons disease, a disease that went hand in hand with a mid-life crisis or a nervous breakdown. I thought it was brought on by a life of hardships and working too hard, of not enough sleep and too much on your plate. But it’s not an old person disease, it’s a human disease. This realisation lead me to be as open and honest as I possibly can with the world about my experiences with anxiety. If I can help just one person to see that there is nothing wrong with needing help sometimes, then everything I go through will be worth it.
Sara. 23 years old. I come from a land down under. I love talking, writing, laughing and listening. I love show tunes and dancing. I am a crazy cat lady, and the youngest old person you will ever meet.
Thank you for your story Sara V.