What I Want You to Know If Your Mental Illness Story Doesn't Have a Happy Ending

silhouette of woman with umbrella standing at window with bright light from outside,illustration painting
silhouette of woman with umbrella standing at window with bright light from outside,illustration painting

Almost all stories about mental illness are told with a beginning, a middle and an end. They usually start with the changes that occurred as the author’s mental illness began. The middle is the juicy part: the explanation of the illness, often with indulgent details of what it is like to struggle with their mental health problem. But these stories never stay in the middle. Ultimately, the author usually comes out on top and defeats mental illness, leaving a nice, pretty resolution. These stories often include good and realistic notes about how life is still hard, and despite how much work it takes, the work is always worth it. These stories are strong and powerful and teach us we can conquer our demons. They give us hope and show us there is a light at the end of the tunnel. They are incredibly important.

However, when I was living in a middle that felt like it would go on forever, I needed to know that not only was there a light at the end of the tunnel, but also that I could fight for myself that day. I fought for myself in different ways, many of them small methods of “self-care” that felt more like attempting to not fall further into a dark hole rather than practicing self-love. Even these small things were hard.

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Activities as simple as trying to eat enough, fighting back against dangerously dark thoughts, not cutting myself, and even staying alive were scarily difficult. While I managed to stay alive, I failed so many of these other basic parts of daily life. These failures fueled my mental illness in many ways. Not only were they negative coping mechanisms, but not being able to achieve such basic aspects of life also made me feel like I was eternally broken. It felt like I was never going to be OK. This was exacerbated by my tendency to assume I will always feel the way I am in the moment. Even though everyone said life will get better, there was a nagging thought in my head asking me, “What if I am the outlier? What if I never get better?” and “How long is this going to take? What if it takes too long?

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The world was jagged and painful and I had a hard time thinking about the end of my story. I could barely make future plans because I didn’t even want to think about the next week. I was scared of myself and scared for myself. The thought that fighting might be too hard one day was always in the back of my mind. Giving up felt so easy, but I knew that fighting was worth it. I knew I was loved and could not stand the thought of so deeply hurting the people who loved me and who I loved.

The call I made to my parents while in the hospital for self-harm and suicidal ideation was one of the hardest and most heartbreaking things I have ever had to do. I wanted to keep my pain a secret to not hurt the people who cared for me, but I now recognize that being honest with what you feel can be a freeing experience and allows for people to better support you. I have also had to learn that fighting solely for myself is enough. I don’t just have to do this for other people.

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Feeling like I am also worth fighting for has been a hard, but important, process. I have had to find ways to stay; ways to attempt doing the little things that mattered so much. One of these was trying to always try to fight small battles. I took life one day at a time and dealt with my mental illness in small parts, because that was what felt doable. However, this played into the feeling that my depression would never end. As one moment felt like the next and I wasn’t thinking of the happy end to my story, I wondered if the happy end would ever exist.

In the end, I was able to push through my middle. However, as in many of the other stories that are told, I still have bad days and weeks and sometimes even months. From feeling depression in different ways, to flare-up urges to self-harm, I am still navigating what being mentally ill means in the present.

While I now have more evidence to show that these feelings do not last forever, that worry still occupies the back of my mind, especially with regards to self-harm. I have recently had the urge to self-harm at all times, even when I am feeling good and happy. This has manifested itself in different ways and means that I have to be more careful about what I do in my everyday life.

When I got a tattoo of a band aid over my most prominent self-harm scar, I worried it would fuel these urges. I got this tattoo to make my scar — something that represents the hard times I went through — into something restorative. The thought that something I was doing as an act of self-love could bring up negative emotions was scary, but I knew it was worth it and I could take care of myself if my self-harm urges flared up.

When I feel depressed or have the desire to cut myself, I have to put a lot of effort and care into loving myself in soft ways instead of just trying to push through the pain. To combat these urges, I also use my previous coping mechanism of breaking things into small parts. If only I can not cut myself today, today will be OK. I know that doing this everyday can be hard, but it will always be worth it.

My current middles feel different, but recovery can be cyclic and sometimes I still worry this is how I will always feel. Will my urges to self harm ever fade? I honestly don’t know. I simply try to believe that I can get through this every time and, now, try to be open that sometimes it feels like I can’t.

Throughout the middle of my story, I felt as if I could only share my experiences after I got through the darkness that was my everyday life. That was what all of the stories I read told me. These stories simultaneously gave me hope and made me feel that my experiences weren’t yet valid. Stories and emotions could only be told to close friends until I had pushed through my middle. I am still trying to rid myself of this belief today. While I am now able to tell my past stories with ease, it is still hard to share my bad days, especially when they last for longer periods of time and feel as if they will go on indefinitely.

Being vulnerable and saying I am not always OK is terrifying and takes work. I am still learning that stories are important to share at all times, especially when they have no neat ending. When I was in my middle, I grasped onto a writer at Vice called So Sad Today. She described her constant and current battle with depression and anxiety and how she made her life more livable. She made me feel that, even if I never felt fully better, I could find ways to make things slightly better; to make life slightly more bearable. This story gave me just as much hope as those that end in complete healing. It told me that I was worth more than overcoming my mental illness and conquering of my demons.

This is a love letter to me during my middle and to everyone who is in the middle of their story. This is me saying that simply getting through the day is enough of an accomplishment to rejoice in. When you feel like you are falling backwards and are doing the best you can to tread water, you are doing well. There will be light at the end of the tunnel, but you are also a light right now. You may picture yourself as a dark ball of energy sucking the life out of everything and everyone around you — but you are a person, and every person has light, always. Even when you are feeling your worst, you are worth every ounce of effort. You are fighting and trying and that is good. Your fighting is enough and you will always be enough. People love you for a reason. They stay with you and help you for a reason. You are and will always be worth love.

I am also recognizing that sharing anything while in the middle of a story is an act of great courage and, often, great self-care. Showing that you are a flawed and vulnerable human being is hard, especially if you feel that if you share, you will be defined only by your flaws. I know it is hypocritical to write this in a moment of resolution in my story, when nothing is perfect (or even good at times), but everything is at least a little bit brighter. Even after the brunt of my middle, things can still be hard and while I now feel that I can get through these times, some of these battles still feel big and scary and immeasurably hard to win. These bumps in recovery are also important to share, especially when they feel more like mountains than hills. Sharing is important in times before resolution, times of resolution, or times containing a resolution that is more complicated than a simple happy ending. All stories deserve to be told and heard, with or without an ending.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

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Getty image via Grandfailure

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