“Would it help if I turned out the lights?”
My manager was trying to be helpful, so I squeaked out a “yes” between hyperventilating breaths.
I was in the midst of a flashback.
It was not set off by anything in particular — I was just going through a hard time, after finding out that my father was terminally ill.
I had clawed my way to the back room, after helping a customer whilst dissociating, and collapsed into the rolling chair. The hyperventilation was just the start — soon, the screaming would overtake me.
I know it’s hard to look at the picture I’ve just painted and not feel sorry for me. But I don’t want sympathy. I was just going through a hard time and needed a moment.
My manager at the time was one of those saintly people who seemed to understand that. He left me alone in that dark room for almost an hour, and when the screaming overtook me I locked myself in the bathroom, muffling my shouts against my arms.
One thing I always appreciated about working with Shawn was that he got things that most other people didn’t. Like the central thesis of this essay, which is:
I am more than this picture I’ve painted. I am more than my mental illness.
Just because I suffer from panic attacks, because I’m set off by things that may seem strange or silly to others, and just because I very rarely have a flashback and begin to go back to my most traumatic memories, people don’t see me as the person I am.
They only see my fear.
A Struggle, Not a Curse
Everyone has their own demons to fight.
My illness are those demons, but many don’t understand that I see it as a tremendous mountain I must climb, not a curse inflicted upon me.
The best example I have of this is my boyfriend. He’s a wonderful partner, supportive in almost every way I could hope for, but he doesn’t understand my struggle with PTSD.
And that’s okay. I don’t expect him, or anyone else who doesn’t suffer from this ridiculously intense illness, to get why I need to be alone to scream and dissociate every once in a blue moon. Or why any behavior would trigger me to do so.
But oftentimes, he tells me things like, “I don’t want to have to make you happy all the time. I don’t know how to help you or to fix what’s broken.”
I shake my head. “I am not broken, don’t you see? I am not some fragile doll who needs to be put back together! I am strong for my suffering. It makes me that much more able to carry the burden of life.”
I still don’t think he understands, well-intentioned as he may be. That what he sees as a flaw, I see as beauty.
That the struggle makes me strong.
The Burden I Carry Makes Me Strong
I get it. The illness is loud.
And even louder so because I, unlike almost everyone I know who suffers, have decided to forgo traditional medication.
Everything that I have tried has made me feel like a zombie, so I’d rather figure it out on my own. With meditation, with healthy eating habits, with exercise, with journaling, and with a lot of self-awareness. It’s not the path for everyone, but it’s my path, the one I’ve decided to be on.
But it’s not because I want to inflict myself upon people, or because I want attention, that I am mentally ill.
I am this way because of a traumatic childhood and an almost-equally traumatic adulthood, and I am in recovery.
I am regaining my love for humanity.
I do not see my mental illness as anything but a weight I must bear. A burden I must carry upon my shoulders, as anyone must carry their own burdens through this long and difficult road of life.
And to be honest, I see myself as stronger for my suffering and constant vulnerability, instead of pathetic.
There is more to me than just that suffering and that pain — there is a whole person full of artistic and creative endeavors hidden beneath those visible and anxious top layers, and few bother to look that deep.
Just because I suffer from mental illness does not mean I can’t hold down a job or keep myself together at critical moments — it means that I just have to work harder than most others to do so, and that I appreciate my accomplishments that much more deeply because I struggle so hard to achieve them.
I appreciate when others try to accommodate me, but often their empathy turns into them coddling me. However weak-willed and pathetic I may appear, I am also an adult. I can deal with positive pain or constructive criticism, as long as it’s not aimed at my insecurities.
I am so much more than what I appear on the surface. I am so much more than my mental illness.
Stop Assuming, Stop Judging
No one has a choice in their childhood, or the way that genetics roll the dice. But we all have a choice to see others for who they are, not just who they appear to be on the surface.
I’ve taken a hard road, and many have tried to talk me off of it.
I appreciate the care and concern of those who have tried to look out for me, but I will find my way forward. There is no sense in judging my journey, for no one but I can see everything that has led me to this moment.
I am so much more than just the person this hard path — I am a dreamer, a lover, a feminist, a writer, a dancer, and one of the most bright and intense people you’ll ever meet.
My struggle is for a purpose: a better future, one where I am seen for more than just the illness I suffer from.
A future where I am seen for who I truly am.