When I explain that I am struggling with mental illness, I am often faced with people questioning why. I usually start off with a fairly terse and technical response about it being a combination of genetics and life experiences, but that answer rarely seems to appease anyone. Though I am not quite sure why so many people feel I owe them an explanation about my medical condition, more often than not, people continue probing, wanting to know what could have possibly happened in my life that could cause a lifelong mental illness.
It is at this point that I usually explain I grew up in a dysfunctional, often abusive, household. I have endured physical, mental, emotional and sexual abuse multiple times each over the years. I have been knocked down, stepped on, crushed to the core and had my very soul completely obliterated so many times I have lost count.
In response, I usually get the inevitable lecture about not holding onto the past, learning how to forgive, let go and move on. Sometimes, they even throw in an additional reminder that I shouldn’t allow myself to be a victim for the rest of my life.
What I cannot seem to get through to anyone is that my life experiences are only one small part of a bigger picture. The traumas in my life did not cause my mental illness but rather, they exacerbated it. They also contributed unhealthy and dysfunctional behaviors and thought patterns. Though they made a very difficult situation much worse, resolving the traumas I have endured would not magically make my mental illness disappear.
The truth is, I have come a very long way to resolving and coming to terms with many of the traumas of my past. I have gone through a lot of therapy over the years and have come to terms with many hard truths. For instance, I have accepted that my mother shooting my father was in great part due to her often untreated, always under-treated, mental illness. I have accepted that one of the main reasons I had tolerated repeated infidelity from my romantic partners in the past was due to the fact that I never was able to hold my own father accountable for his transgressions against my mother. I have accepted that everything in life is not clear-cut, black or white, good or bad, and have done my best to put myself in the shoes of others and accept the past as something that cannot be changed — letting go of the torment within myself and even forgiving in some instances.
I have even taken things a step further, systematically pulling apart many of my thought processes trying to root out any dysfunctional or unhealthy behaviors and patterns. I have put myself under the self-awareness microscope again and again, examining why I react like I do and making a conscious effort to change anything I believed to be self-destructive or unhealthy.
Most importantly, I have learned to forgive myself and to accept myself for who I am. I have accepted I did nothing to deserve any of the abuse I was subjected to over the years. I have even learned to like myself as a person and to identify different traits I possess as assets.
I don’t consider myself a victim. I consider myself a survivor. Though the traumas I have been through have greatly contributed to the person I am and they deserve acknowledgement for that fact, I refuse to let them control my life or dictate the person I am going to be. I am not looking for pity. I just want acceptance and understanding.
Though I have fought extremely hard to work through many of the traumas I have endured in my life and consider myself very self-aware, I still struggle with mental illness every single day. Why? Because it is a medical condition. Much like a person’s diabetes may be made worse by a large intake of sugary foods, removing those foods will not magically make their diabetes disappear any more than working through my traumas will make my mental illness disappear.
Part of my mental illness is genetic. Both my parents struggled with various mental illnesses over the years. My mother had bipolar disorder and my father struggled with depression throughout his life. Though a parent having a mental illness does not guarantee the diagnosis in their children, studies have shown many mental illnesses are influenced by genetics. So much like parents can pass along their eye or hair color, they can also pass along the predisposition for mental illness.
I struggle every single day with my mental illness. Regardless of whether the rational part of my brain tells me that today should be a good day, another large part of my brain is constantly sending out negative emotions and responses, which in turn sometimes presents itself in physical ways. I am in a constant battle with my own brain and body. Though difficult times might contribute to the severity of my downward spiral on a given day, the absence of bad days does not negate my mental illness. It is always there.
Yet that technical explanation is rarely enough to placate anyone looking for answers. Many people seem to believe that mental illnesses like depression occur when something bad happens and can be just as easily solved by resolving the underlying issue. They look for key life events to target, assuming the person struggling will magically be cured if they can just get past that traumatic event.
I can tell you it rarely is that easy. Yes, there are some cases of mental illness that are predominately situation-based when the person’s mental health greatly improves when the trauma is resolved, like increased depression caused by bullying, for example. But just as most physical illnesses, addressing lifestyle is not enough. People need ongoing treatment and monitoring in order to stay healthy. The same can be said for mental illness. The only difference is it is our brain that is malfunctioning.
Providing a detailed list of our traumas does not give a run down of how to magically cure our mental illnesses. Time and again, we throw out our trauma lists out of frustration because some people cannot seem to wrap their head around the fact that we have a medical condition that affects the way our brains work. It is approached as “mind over matter” — that if we just try hard enough to work through things and learn to let go, we’ll be happy again. Unfortunately, it does not work that way.
There is no shame in having a mental illness. It is a medical condition that statistics show now affects one in five people in the world to varying degrees. We need to stop the stigma surrounding mental illness and stop judging everyone who is struggling to live with one. Working through the traumas in my past will not magically make my mental illness disappear. No one should have to justify why they have a mental illness nor should they be met with accusations that they are just not trying hard enough to get past their medical condition. We don’t owe anyone an explanation nor do we deserve being blamed for our illness.