Permission to Pursue Happiness in the Face of Mental Illness
“Young Adolescents as Likely to Die From Suicide as From Traffic Accidents,” a November 3rd New York Times headline reports. The number of girls committing suicide has been increasing disproportionately by the year. I could have been a piece of this statistic: the slow, silent deterioration of my mental health began in adolescence. I decided to take a radical approach to the problem I viscerally knew yet had never challenged. Social Media infiltrates us with unrealistic ideals and exacerbates social hierarchies. It makes us feel perpetually inadequate and deepens our already harrowing insecurities. With this in mind, I publicly chronicled my experience with depression, from the everyday triumphs of making it from breakfast to dinner without crying, to living heavily medicated. I shared photos of my weathered face mid-breakdown, blogged about food, puppies, and perpetual sadness, and spoke at mental health events. Channeling my energy toward fighting this enormous weight that many face alone, I told the truth.
At one time, I expended great energy crafting the prototype I wished to present the world. But living a false narrative of perfection wasn’t sustainable. I grew up with privilege; nevertheless striving to be anything but what I was. To everyone’s surprise, I have since announced that I am in a lesbian relationship, that I have battled major depressive disorder from a young age, and that I have endured a lifelong fight with eating disorders. After I graduated from college I threw myself a public, I’m-super-depressed-party, and, once I was ready, Facebook was my medium. The words, the experiences and the pain all poured out of me in a fragmented novel about myself. I found it empowering to share my own disjointed memoir of the many years mental illness had control over me. Meanwhile, I have learned that many people are living with depression and never realize they are not alone.
44 million Americans face mental illness every year, and many are rendered voiceless by stigma. In my life, the positives of transparency have far outweighed the negatives. There is a certain power in vulnerability. Once you've tacked your darkest secrets on your chest for all to see, you gain a new layer and rend power from the things that once clawed you mercilessly from the inside. Occasionally, I dwell on the worst of what I went through. I allow the memory to burn its hole and then replenish it with the unconditional love I still have. I am here to bare all: to declare that I will still choose openness despite everything.
On June 24, 2016, following a routine post about my journey with depression, I was berated and verbally attacked by one of my most beloved family members. It was an event I now choose to call “the [insert person’s name] incident.” I was painted as “deranged” and treated as a threat simply for being honest.
The assault on my character and identity went well beyond the boundaries of criticism. It was a calculated act of hate, fear and ignorance that came with a slew of unfortunate consequences: the loss of treasured people in my life, many tears, and an unwelcome resurgence of old trust issues. I have had to claw myself out of a mental trench ever since.
There will always be that one person who couldn’t come through for you and, sadly, for those of us who have experienced depression, one critical person can have the impact of a crowd. But it’s a new day and I’m turning off that noise as I write this – because that’s all it is: noise. It’s one tiny voice of hate trying to worm its way into a space that is sacred, a space that is mine. In this case, winning is staying above it and growing in spite of, as well as because of, it.
Summing up a lifelong struggle with major depressive disorder in a few paragraphs is as difficult as it sounds. You see, until recently, insecurity and shame had commanded my life. I was hardly living at all; setting the bar low for myself, measuring my worth by every passing doubt. But I was unstoppable when I finally found my voice - when I first said “I am depressed, everybody.” I called my friends, shared my truth and hoped they'd still love me. Today, they cherish me more for it. We deserve to let even the hardest pieces we carry evolve into something rightfully whole, something meaningful.
In Vanity Fair, millions of readers were offered a window into Adele’s struggle with depression. The music icon did not feign impregnability to mental illness. Adele, the ultimate success story, has battled depression, a disease that chooses blindly. Within hours, Adele was “trending,” a principal marker of visibility and respect today.
Actress Lisa Lynn Masters “trended” after dying of an apparent suicide in November. As did Kristen Bell, popular actress urging sufferers to speak out. Mental illness is at the forefront of American consciousness. As more of us tell our stories, de-stigmatization and normalization of the mental health experience will happen. I have offered my story as one piece of a larger narrative, fighting to combat stigmas surrounding mental illness; today I am better for it. The proliferation of honest stories will start this movement, but more will be needed. We must demand policy and support. It is critical that we fight for the rigorous enforcement of parity laws for a more impartial future. Mental health professionals, who should most understand our plight but often exploit it, must be held accountable for the newly regulated co-pay policies they ignore. Access to mental health education and resources must become widespread and we must address the obvious link between mental illness and incarceration. We must recognize that lies, speculation and nasty gossip spread on social media play a destructive role for many struggling with self-esteem, body image and anxiety issues.
In this openness revolution, initiatives like President Obama’s recent mental health task force efforts may finally have the authority they deserve. We may debunk the misconceptions driving pseudo mental illness “attractions” like Fear VR 5150, and individuals who suffer from mental illness may be accorded agency and autonomy through self-determination initiatives. The more we participate in a normalization of the mental illness experience, the more obliged Donald Trump is to developing a stronger mental health agenda for a country that is currently reeling. Together, we must transform the mental health system.
Mail your stories in, post them on Facebook, do whatever you feel you can do. Social media platforms subsist on constant, interconnected expressions of human experience. We can shape them into more supportive spaces where the bravest voices, in pursuit of self-acceptance and positive social change, prevail. Resist the pervasive negative energy you encounter and support others instead. Even if you've never struggled personally, you can publicly express support for strangers, help raise awareness and create solidarity.
In a world muddled with conflict I hope my openness has made a small difference. As Ellie Krug, transgender woman and legal advocate said, “We are all survivors of the human condition.” Authenticity is a contagious state and is characterized as “living without reserve.” Do not let social pressures prevent you from shattering walls that reinforce an epidemic of silence. We will live from the inside out through an expression of radical self-respect.
I am just another 20-something in New York City, living as unapologetically as I should be after years of apology. The mirror is no enemy to me anymore and I’ve come to love my worn eyes. Hunger is no longer the absence that makes me whole. I have stopped hiding behind my old lacrosse jacket and I’m known for being the girl who is real, often featured in my hometown paper simply for finding my voice. I attribute these successes to radical openness.
Old friends, acquaintances, and strangers - ranging from 10 to 80 years old - have shared their stories with me. They’ve heard I’m a receptacle for the pieces we all try to hide and, ironically, those that make us human. I am astonished by the bravery of each individual because years ago, I was that brave one, and it was damn hard.
I challenge you to succumb to the discomfort of transparency with full intention; walk right through it in fearless opposition to a society that says living openly is reserved only for the failed and dejected. Driven by the sheer force of the most fiercely protective, selfless people I know, it is instead a prosperous space. Don’t ask for permission; freedom to be proud is a human right. Make a pact today to strive for life and happiness. The world will not remember you for your mental illness or for the moments you believe were your most reprehensible. You will be known as the one who became stronger, more perfect, by virtue of each adversity you embraced.