We Are Not the Burden, We Carry the Burden

Me, circa 1992

I would like to share some personal things about myself that I have been experiencing as of late, just in case others can relate. First though, I want to provide some context for why I decided to share my recent experiences.

In June, I read a memorial tribute to a young Marine who died by suicide back in 2011. After reading it I wanted to learn more about who he was as a person, so I Googled his name and found his Facebook and YouTube accounts.

Through them I learned that he was a father and a lead vocalist in an alternative rock band who played local gigs where he was stationed at in California, but I also learned that he was struggling with family drama and his own mental health and substance use issues.

I found out that he was trying to get help for his mental health issues, but was being belittled and ostracized by people he was stationed with for seeking help. Basically being told by his superiors and peers that he was weak.

The pressures of all these experiences led him to make a choice that couldn’t be undone, impacting the lives of those closest to him, leaving them behind to pick up the pieces, and leaving behind his very young daughter who would only remember what her father’s voice sounded like because of old YouTube videos of him singing.

This was a prime example of stigma perpetuating the silence of suffering, and if you know me, then you know that few other things make me as angry as stigma and the dismissal of other people’s struggles and suffering.

So, I decided to share my own issues in the hopes that it would reassure others that they are not alone. For people struggling with a mental health condition or with a substance use disorder, it can often feel very isolating and those of us with these struggles can often convince ourselves that we are the only one in the trench. This is made worse when we are belittled or ostracized and convinced into believing that we are weak and unworthy.

In the lingering midst of this pandemic many people are suffering and struggling. The first nine months for me went relatively well, then I hit a bump in the road, then shit got real ugly real quick and it was a fucking climb to get back out of the pit I had fallen into.

April and May of 2021 finally saw me climb out of that pit. I also got myself into a more beneficial workout routine and physically I am in better shape than I’ve been in for almost the last 4 or 5 years. I doubled my workout time and my sets, and made it a daily priority.

There is not a moment where I regret quitting my job in February. Don’t get me wrong, I miss the income but I was immensely unhappy there and no amount of money was worth staying. My body and mind were suffering the consequences. I was eating sugary foods, drinking caffeinated drinks every single day just to feel a false sense of enthusiasm in order to make it through the day.

I have gone from 152 lbs in February down to 132 lbs as of August. Most of the weight I lost was belly fat that I had put on after my mom died. My workout routine had become a joke, and as stated my diet was not healthy. I had pretty much stopped cooking and was eating whatever was fast or easy.

So, that change is the positive bit but life is not always rainbows and butterflies, even though social media can make it feel that way. For instance, back in early April I posted a long article about my many up-and-down mental health struggles that played a role in me quitting my job. Even right now, I am still experiencing those ups and downs.

I’m always hesitant to log into my social media accounts because most people only ever post about their successes and joys. Few people I’m friends with will ever share anything not rosey and pleasant. That’s not to say people are being fake, I think there’s just the social expectation that people should only present themselves and their lives in the most appealing light possible. To do otherwise is seen as shameful or distasteful.

For those who do share a more complete picture of what their life is really like, I do greatly appreciate it. I want to see the good, with the bad and the ugly. I want to witness the full human experience because that’s what I live.

As someone with a mental illness, I need to know that I’m not the only one who suffers, struggles, faces obstacles and setbacks, makes mistakes, and fails at some challenges. The facade of perfection is part of the stigma that forces people like me into suffering in silence. People like me become hesitant and fearful of sharing the reality that we live because of how we believe others may see it as abnormal or unwanted.

When I’m about to experience a dip in my mental health, I can feel something approaching on the proverbial horizon, I can feel this impending thing lurking out of sight. This past spring and summer I have felt panicked and anxious, this often means that I’m about to have another episode.

At times I’ve felt productive, but other times I’ve struggled to get out of bed, feeling a sense of panic and fatigue. At times it’s taken everything I have to do my workout routine. I fight to get that daily workout in because I want to feel like I have at least accomplished one thing each day.

Sometimes I don’t feel like cooking because it requires too much effort, so I go to bed without eating, but then can’t sleep. So I lay in bed until the following afternoon, beating myself up over the fact that I haven’t eaten, showered, or even so much as brushed my teeth since the morning before. Why not? Because it all felt too hard, too heavy. When I’m like this, I will also refuse to answer my phone, respond to messages or reply to emails.

Eventually I manage to drag myself out of bed despite the weight I feel. Sometimes mental illness feels like you’re carrying a heavy backpack or have chains wrapped around you and everything that should be easy is hard to do. I want to get up earlier, but I can’t, my brain won’t let me.

This is what it’s like to have a mental illness. Some days or weeks are great, others are a total shit-show. For those of us with a more severe mental illness, the things we think, feel, say, and the very decisions that we make are all influenced by our “uniquely wired” brains. A decision I made yesterday may seem wildly absurd to me today.

I constantly question myself and what I’m thinking and feeling, and I have to ask myself if it’s a product of myself or a product of my mental illness. Who’s speaking, thinking, feeling, and making my decisions? What version of me is in control today? If not self-aware, you may not even realize that you’re under the control and influence of your mental illness.

If anyone else isn’t living the ideal life right now, just know that you aren’t the only one. While most people on social media share the pleasant things happening in their lives, most of us have all kinds of shit we deal with. If not mental illness, then family or marriage issues, financial issues, physical health issues, the list goes on. Life on social media is seen through a filter, one that blocks out the bad and the ugly, but I promise you it’s there. You’re not the only one.

Like other people with a mental health condition or substance use issue who post about their experiences on social media, I sometimes receive derogatory comments or messages that essentially belittle or dismiss the symptoms of my mental illness. As someone who has lived-experience, education, training, and volunteer experience in behavioral health and recovery, I know that such invalidating comments and messages are not helpful to me or others who happen to see them.

The individuals who post these things often mean well and don’t understand that it invalidates personal experiences or emotional states by comparing me or others to people who don’t have behavioral health issues. Invalidating people’s experiences is detrimental to their mental health and their recovery.

Sometimes I come across people who will attempt to suggest that I should distract myself with tasks or errands, to just stay busy and avoid the thoughts, but distractions are like slapping a bandaid over a wound, hiding it away from yourself and others, it does not force anything to actually heal, sometimes even causing it to fester and get worse. Distracting myself and focusing on external things is part of my problem, as compartmentalizing does not resolve my issues, it only conceals them and saves them for later. I’m focusing on me because I cannot assist and receive the struggles of others while my own cup is already full and overflowing.

I absolutely agree that doing something that gives you a sense of meaning, fulfillment, and purpose is an important factor for living well and I encourage it in the recovery process, but it’s not a fix-all. It takes support from the people around you, which cannot be manifested from someone who is degrading you for how you feel or what you are experiencing. The most important thing needed is hope, the hope that things can be different, that change is possible. Telling or suggesting to someone that they are weak will never give them hope.

Consider this post a little note etched into the walls of the trench, an act of kinship towards those of you in it alongside me. I see you, I hear you, I understand you. Without judgment, without demands, without expectation. You’re already dealing with enough. People with mental health conditions and substance use disorders are some of the strongest people I have ever met.

I won’t tell you to have a good day or a good night, just have a day or a night, and I’ll talk to you in the next one.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis, please access my immediate assistance resource page.  A comprehensive listing of online and phone resources and services is also available.

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