A lot of the time, individuals who suffer with a mental illness feel like outcasts. They feel like since they can’t help themselves it is near impossible for them to help others.
I was on a mission to overthrow this feeling.
Throughout my youth I spent time in therapy and treatment centers trying to overcome an eating disorder, as well as my anxiety and depression. As you can imagine, being a 14-year-old girl trying to figure out the whole puberty thing is hard enough, but with more than my fair share of dark clouds floating over my head, I felt incredibly alone.
I can remember at my lowest point feeling like there was no return to “normal” – that negative thoughts would haunt me forever. I knew it wasn’t normal to feel this way, and yet, this was somehow my normal.
Still, entering treatment was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had.
Yes, I was being forced to do things I didn’t want to do, but I was no longer alone. I met such strong individuals who knew exactly what my “normal” felt like and didn’t make me feel like I was crazy. There was finally a safe place where I could sort through every scary thing what was going on in my head with people who got it. These people were my superheroes.
From there, the only thing I wanted to do with my life was to help others. I realized that if nothing else came out of all the pain of my mental illness besides being able to help others, I could be content with that.
For some reason or another, I’ve always found joy in helping others. At first, it started as a way of being able to escape my own problems and focus on someone else’s, but then it turned into much more. I started to realize that after helping people I got this feeling – this “I actually made a difference in the world” feeling.
I’ve always thought that if I can just find a way to preserve that feeling, even under the darkest clouds, everything would be okay.
This past semester I was a Learning Assistant for a University Experience class. When I accepted the position, I thought I’d be helping first year college with note-taking, test-taking skills, roommate challenges, adjusting to life without parents, and so on.
I know how challenging my first year in college was, especially still struggling with mental illness.
Being an out-of-state student only made this more challenging. I remember sitting in my dorm room, crying on the phone with my mom, begging her to let me come home. Other times, I would be sitting in class, and I’d get that chest-stabbing, hand-tingling, breathless feeling; my anxiety creeping up. Knowing these feelings so well, being a part of these students’ first year in college was extremely important to me.
When classes began, I didn’t know how much these students would impact me and how much I would impact them. Throughout the 16 weeks we spent together, I got to learn about their anxieties, struggles, fears, past, and goals. In return, I shared with them how my struggle with mental illness helped me become the strong, compassionate person I am today.
The result was better than I could have ever expected.
Sharing this part of my life opened a connection between my students and me that allowed them (especially those who also struggle with mental illness) to feel comfortable talking about aspects of their lives they didn’t talk about before, and this made me so incredibly happy.
They knew I was there for them. And they knew I understood.
Often people with mental illnesses get looked down on. We are looked at as crazy or dangerous rather than simply ill. An illness is defined simply as “a disease or period of sickness affected the body or mind.” Essentially, having an illness means you don’t always feel good. You don’t always feel like getting out of bed, or exercising, or going to work, or being vulnerable with people. You have good days, and you have debilitatingly, difficult days.
A diagnosed mental illness is obviously more severe than the occasional bout of sadness, but on the human to human level, we’ve all felt the overwhelming weight of hopelessness or fear at some point in our lives. Because of my own battles, I’m intimately acquainted with the struggle. I’ve also seen firsthand, over and over again, what it means to overcome.
Overcoming a mental illness doesn’t necessarily mean you wake up one morning and you suddenly feel normal again, or you don’t have any more days where you just can’t seem to lift your head from your pillow.
Overcoming a mental illness means that you no longer let it rule your life. Instead, you put one foot in front of the other and take life one day at a time.
I have been in recovery for about 3 years now. I still have my days where the voices in my head seem stronger than the amount of fight I have left, but at the end of the day, I choose to keep fighting, and that, my friends, is what overcoming looks like.
That feeling of overcoming is the feeling that I share with my students. I let them know that it’s not how many bad days you have that count; it’s the choice to overcome those bad days, and that requires the support of others. With a mental illness, it’s hard to focus on the good, so one of the most important things to do is surround yourself with people who are going to be there when you need them – people who will stop and listen when you need it, or hold you up when you feel like falling.
That’s the person I strive to be for my students. That’s what my mental illness has taught me.
That’s what I hope I can pass along to others so that they can be someone else’s superhero.