I often wonder what life would be like without my mental illness. What it would feel like to wake up in the morning without already being exhausted. What it would be like to care for and nourish myself without effort. To think of food when you are hungry, and then to just eat like its no big deal. To have a stressful day and go home and take a hot bath and pet my cat and that be enough to be better. What would life be like without this invisible war I fight every single day? This fight is transparent to me; it blends with existence. Fighting is simply like breathing – It has to be when you are chronically mentally ill. If survival didn’t become a reflex you would simply parish.
So you learn. You learn how to battle through the daily drag of human existence in order to achieve a sense of functionality, even though every act of normalcy takes tremendous effort – taking out the trash, doing the dishes, taking a shower. You work hard to maintain the routine that for others is, if annoying, effortless. You plan your day around how far you can stretch yourself while still being able to bounce back for tomorrow. Sometimes that means just doing one thing in a day. “Tomorrow I will clean my house.” “Tomorrow I will do the laundry.” “Tomorrow I will see a friend.” Statements that, for those with the privilege of sanity, seem innocuous. Benign. Stops on a to-do list for a single day, and then some. But for the chronically mentally ill, doing that one thing can be exhausting. Because its not just the one thing. Its that one thing, on top of living. On top of hygiene and nourishment and hydration and taking out the trash and getting up in the morning and… Every one of those things takes effort. And maintaining the functionality of life is a fight.
I can now do two, sometimes three things in a day. Or do something and then go home and do homework. Or paint. Or write. This feels like such a huge accomplishment, and yet it’s such a basic level of functionality.
I feel like normative people tend not to realize this. They take for granted the effort required to maintain basic functionality. They don’t realize the effort and the strength it takes to maintain that each day. So when things get hard, and we start to slip on our ability to maintain those basic markers of functionality, they see it as a huge slip. Or worse, when the struggle really sets in, and we go from less functional to non-functional — from a messy house to behaviors popping up to no longer being able to force ourselves to eat, let alone keep up with our responsibilities. Our job, school, social lives. Suddenly, people are paying attention. “What happened?” They ask worriedly. All they see is a sudden surge of illness. A sudden relapse. They don’t understand when you explain you are so tired of fighting. They say but the fight has just begun! The rally around you, trying to help pull you up as you fall. That is when they see us as ill. That is when it finally clicks.
But in reality, we are just so exhausted from fighting day in and day out just to maintain what comes so naturally to them. We have been falling for months. But they can’t see that. Because it is easier to see us as normal and healthy as long as we are able to maintain functionality. So they only see the illness when we fall. When it can no longer be ignored. When it is making things messy.
The illness is always there, folks. We never stop fighting it. We never stop struggling. Every day is hard. Every. Day. Every stressor makes it more difficult. Everything is being added on top of the exhaustion that simply comes from living with chronic mental illness. It’s not this sudden drop. It’s not that the illness is ‘suddenly back’. It’s always been there. We just don’t talk about it. Because if we explained what a fight it is to work through every single day, you would see us as sick. We would have to make you feel better about it, help you cope with how hard our lives are. Because it’s not pretty, and it’s not nice.
We want those who are sick to get better. Period. Full stop. And sometimes they may relapse, but then they fight again. And then, again, they’re better. Better. Fin. The End.
What is better? What is recovery? I have spent a lot of time pondering this idea the last few weeks. I always thought that recovery meant ‘Better. Period. Full stop.’ It meant the illness was gone, and I would be done fighting. That I finally would be free. I have been fighting for freedom my entire life.
But apparently, that’s not what recovery is. All those I’ve asked have said recovery is defined by the sustainable management and tolerance of symptoms. But to me, all I hear in that statement is recovery means fighting forever. Fighting the invisible fight, with my struggle only being seen when I fuck up and fail.
How is that a worthwhile existence? To forever be in an invisible battle between my mind and my life? It seems an incredibly intolerable outcome. It feels like being trapped in a game I can’t win and I’m not good at.
My motivation for recovery is waning because I don’t know if what I am fighting for is enough anymore.
I wish I had a nice way to wrap up this post. I wish that there were easy answers in this battle. That this blog could show you a glimpse of suffering and then wipe it away with an accolade of relatable drivel to remind us that this is a war that can be won if we just keep our heads up. But that isn’t reality. The reality of recovery is ugly. It is painful and cutting and difficult to come to terms with. The truth is you don’t just enter recovery and then travel a linear path to the top of the mountain where you can bestow your sage advice on ‘better’ to those struggling beneath you. Recovery isn’t linear. It isn’t something finite. It isn’t something you may ever be able to concretely hold on to. And it will never be something you can control.
So I am falling. This is me falling. This is my darkness. This is my reality. This is the reality of the struggle for ‘better’. Everyday. Not just when it is bad enough for all to see. Everyday, we fight this war. Everyday we are Warriors.
I will continue to show the darkness. And I will continue to fight for the light.