I was diagnosed with depression when I was 15 years old. Just 15 years old. And while I experienced a wave of emotions when I received my diagnosis — I was both calm and ashamed; thankful, distressed, and relieved — the most overwhelming feeling I felt was one of irritation and humiliation.
I was embarrassed beyond belief.
Why? Well, because I was teenager: a “strange” teenager. An already “awkward” teenager. And now I was an awkward teenager with an illness. A mental, “crazy in the head” kind of disorder.
Make no mistake: I do not feel this way now. The stigma was very different when I was diagnosed 20 years ago — two decades and, seemingly, a lifetime ago. Now, instead of shying away from my mental health issues, I talk about them. I write about them, and I embrace them.
I am a mental health speaker, writer, and advocate. But there is still one thing I cannot embrace: the “I’m sorry; I feel so bad for you” response I often receive.
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this sentiment. There is nothing wrong with expressing sympathy or empathy; at least not on paper. At least not in theory. But in practice, these apologetic words come across as cold and hollow. They come across as crass and insensitive, and they imply I should regret my life circumstances.
“I’m sorry” implies there has been a mistake, a tragedy, or a loss — and nothing about my life is a mistake, or a loss.
That said, this canned response isn’t anything new. In fact, it’s the response I get every time I talk about my mental illness. (Every. Single. Time.) And while I do appreciate curiosity and sincerity — while I do want your compassion, your understanding, and your kindness — I do not want your pity or condolences.
It’s true, my life would be decidedly easier without depression and anxiety; but I rarely lament my position. And on most days, I don’t complain about the road I’ve had to walk or the path I’ve been forced to travel, because this is my life. Living it any other way would seem strange and different. Uninteresting and foreign. That said, while mental illness is a part of my life, it is not the story of my life.
Depression does not control me; anxiety does not define me; and I am so much more than a diagnosis. I am more than a “mental health patient.”
Of course, living with mental illness is hard. Very hard.
More often than not, tears are shed, smiles are forced, and trying to keep a level head is absurd. I find myself prone to crying and screaming at the same time, and I doubt others. I doubt myself. Hell, sometimes, I am downright scared of myself — or at least the thankless, worthless, and hopeless “voices” of depression that live inside my head.
But depressive episodes aren’t the norm, and on a typical day, I am loving. On a typical day, I am kind. On a typical day, I can see clearly: I enjoy taking my daughter to the playground, blowing bubbles, and lying on my stomach coloring.
I enjoy spending time with my family and friends because, on a normal day, I am the woman I want to be — and not the mom (and wife) I sometimes am.
Plus, there are actually pros to living with a mental illness, i.e. there are many things my experiences have taught me that I am grateful for. You see, because of my mental illness — because of the bad days, the bleak days, and the hella dark days — I am able to fully appreciate good ones. Completely, totally, and without question.
Because of my mental illness, I am able to love more deeply and empathize more sincerely. I treat others with understanding and compassion because I do not know what battles they may be fighting. I do not know what their life looks like behind closed doors.
And because of my mental illness, I am able to help others. My job, my work, and my life exists because of that “dreaded diagnosis.” Because of my struggles, my pain, and my suffering.
So please know that while I won’t be angry with you if you respond to my “confessions” with sadness and lamentation or with a simple I’m sorry, I am not grieving my situation. I do not mourn the “easy life,” or the life which I have lost; and while life may be tough right now — while things may be difficult, frustrating, and completely overwhelming — I am not sorry.
I will never feel sorry for myself. And you shouldn’t feel sorry for me, either.