Every so often an inspirational quote appears on facebook saying, “Mental illness isn’t about being weak. It’s about being too strong for too long.”
I finally figured out why that always bothered me – because it contradicts itself. It makes you ask, “How strong is too strong? How long is too long?” when it really should say:
Mental illness isn’t about being strong or weak. It’s a disease. These things happen.
I first noticed something was wrong when I was twenty-three, and I didn’t want to do things I used to enjoy. When I had get-togethers with all my favourite people, I’d ask myself, “What do I normally act like at parties?” because I couldn’t remember what I used to like about being with my friends. I’d recently returned from two months overseas, and one of my friends later told me, “You came back wrong.” She wasn’t insulting me; she was showing that what I felt was real, and I wasn’t the only one who knew it.
I figured I’d been spending too much time writing novels, and everything would be fine soon. A year passed, and I worked as a schoolteacher – a job I had wanted since I was twelve. I had crazy nightmares about the job, and slowly realised that the nightmares were my favourite part of my life, because at least they made me feel something.
I figured I wasn’t spending enough time writing novels. I left the school and sold my car so I could write full-time. A year later my savings were gone and I looked for a job. It quickly became clear that even the most menial jobs were beyond me. When I filled my (redeemed) car with petrol, I couldn’t hold the pump number in my head from the car to the checkout, no matter how hard I tried. Wearing long sleeves made me twitchy and uncomfortable, because clothing was overwhelmingly complicated and difficult. Grocery shopping was a terrifying ordeal.
I began seeing a free psychologist, and taking zoloft. That helped a lot – I felt normal sometimes, and even happy sometimes. But if I worked more than six hours a week, my ability to focus was so impaired I couldn’t safely drive a car.
For seven years, I was unable to care for myself. I lost my independence and a large slice of my intelligence and general human decency. To this day, I am a fair-weather friend who asks for help often and rarely gives anything in return. Not everyone “believes” in mental illness – I don’t believe it’s real myself sometimes. The worst offenders are usually those who are mentally ill themselves or are infinitely patient with someone else who displays their symptoms in a more understandable way. So-and-so is sick but such-and-such is lazy.
I still tell myself constantly to get over it, and I'm freshly devastated when "trying harder" doesn’t work. It’s impossible to tell what minor thing will be perfectly fun and what will tip me over the edge into total panic or rage. There’s a grey line somewhere between the illness and my own flaws, and it’s impossible to know exactly where it is.
But something happened when my daughter was born – either because of some kind of hormonal reboot or because I finally had a purpose in life that I truly believed in.
I got better.
As a new mum I looked after a needy infant all day, every day, on my own. My mental health strengthened and I was able to do significantly more paid work than before. For the first time, I was a functional adult. I still had significant limitations, but my life was my own again.
Having a baby sends most women in the opposite direction – even me. As I write, my second baby is sleeping on my lap. He’s seven months old and my post-partum depression is so bad that most days I feel like I’m in a glass box, watching my family and pretending to love them. He’s a nice baby, relatively low-maintenance and fantastically cute – but when someone else is around to care for him I’ll go out of my way not to even touch him for days on end.
Some women stay mentally ill forever after having a child. I hope I’ll get better. It’s happened before, and it can happen again.
There are plenty of risk factors for mental illness – a stressful lifestyle, family background, major life events – but some people have breakdowns and some people thrive in the exact same circumstances. Some people get the flu every year no matter what; others never get sick.
Unfortunately this means that there isn’t a way to fully safeguard against mental illness – and that’s a scary thing. Often there isn’t a way to fix it either – and that’s even scarier.
The good news is that mental illness is just that – an illness. For most people, most of the time, illnesses get better – or there is at least something that can minimise symptoms. It is always worth trying to make your life better – through therapy, medication, lifestyle changes, and so on.
I know better than most why we need inspirational quotes telling us that people with a mental illness shouldn’t be punished for being sick. But it’s not about weakness or strength or innate goodness.