One of the greatest, ongoing struggles I face with my mental health is the recurrent guilt of feeling that I don’t have a good enough ‘reason’ to justify my illness. I am an incredibly privileged person. I have a loving family and small but close network of friends. I have a home and a partner who I love and who loves me. I have a job I enjoy and from which I earn enough money to do things I love and treat myself to things I want. I have hobbies I take joy in and get to do regularly. I have a wonderful life and have no real trauma to speak of from my past. And, for the most part, I am physically healthy. So what right do I have to feel anxious or depressed? Why on earth should I be periodically gripped with a sinking despair, a confusing disconnection, a heavy conviction that life is just too difficult and I cannot possibly survive it?
When I am struck by those recurrent periods of sadness or panic or emptiness, what inevitably follows is guilt, frustration and a kind of searing anger that causes my inner voice to roundly berate me for being ungrateful and pathetic. Even writing this blog feels like an exercise in self indulgence because surely there are other people’s stories more deserving of your time, more deserving of this space than mine? What even is the story I’m trying to tell here?
I know how very fortunate I am and I’m not sure I could ever find the words to express just how grateful I am for all I have. So why am I haunted by these periods of darkness? It makes no sense to me. I simply cannot understand it. And I feel a deep, deep shame about it.
But here’s the thing about mental illness: it doesn’t always have a reason.
Sometimes, for sure, mental illness is brought on or worsened by traumatic experiences. Sometimes it seems to appear without reason but a little digging uncovers a trigger. Sometimes, though, it just appears. Sometimes, there is no reason. And for those of you for whom this is the case I just want to say to you now that your experience of mental illness is 100% valid, even if it doesn’t seem to have a ‘reason’. Even as I type this I struggle to believe it myself. It is an unfortunate symptom of my particular experience of depression that there is a huge disconnect between what I ‘know’ and what I feel and believe.
My mental illness is valid even without a traumatic root cause. I know this to be true and I will fiercely advocate the point for others. But I struggle to believe it for myself.
I struggle to reconcile the richness of my life with the pain and hollowness that my periods of mental ill-health cause. It feels like the height of ingratitude for me to feel anything less than happy. It is this that made me ‘self-manage’ my mental illness for years (actually the opposite of managing – more like burying a bomb in gunpowder in the misguided belief that if I buried it deep enough it wouldn’t explode). It is this that has made me dishonest on the occasions when I have ventured into therapy – always beginning with the intention of being open and honest, with myself and the therapist, but never quite bringing myself to vocalise the full reality of what was happening in my head. Because to voice it out loud would feel like a complete betrayal of everyone who loves me and everything good in my life.
I don’t know what the answer is to tackling this.
But I do know that I have to keep trying.
And if any of this is familiar to you, if you ever find yourself ashamed to feel a sadness you don’t think you have the right to feel, just know that you are not alone. And, eventually, we’ll find a way out.