The Story of Being Mentally Ill
Hi, I’m Lou, and I had a great childhood!
No, really. I grew up in the idyllic Highlands of Scotland, with two adventurous, intelligent, and utterly supportive parents and a big brother who did everything he could to look after me, even when I was being an obnoxious little twerp. I had great friends, a house full of animals, and I didn’t have any notable trouble at school, apart from being brutally overlooked for the lead in school musicals for the simple and irrelevant fact that I can’t sing.
Was every single inching moment perfect? Obviously not. But I had what I would unaccountably describe as a good childhood. And let me tell you something else that I have to my name, too: mental health problems!
As I’ve written about before, I’ve had symptoms of what would later be diagnosed as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder since I was a young child. As I got older, anxiety, depression, self-harm, eating disorders, the whole nine yucks, decided to come rolling along too. For a long time, I dismissed them: nothing in my life, in my comfortable and soft little childhood, had been bad enough to justify feeling that way, so the feelings themselves must not be real, right? I searched for a reason why these things might be happening, because the life that I’d had just didn’t seem to justify them. Other people had it worse and they were coping better. Why couldn’t I do the same thing?
Which is to say: it’s really easy to dismiss your own issues in comparison to someone else’s. I can’t count the number of times I have looked at the people close to me, the people I love, and the things they have been through, and felt as though I didn’t have a right to be feeling as shitty as I did.
Of course, some people can trace their mental illnesses back to specific experiences they’ve gone through, things they’ve endured, whether they’re in childhood or not – but it’s not true for everyone. I think it’s natural to look for the connective tissue in our lives, the stories that fit together with the experiences we’ve had to make sense of them, and, when you lack some part of the story that we tell about people who are mentally ill, it feels as though those feelings and experiences can’t be valid or real.
But hey, honestly, really, truly: there is basically no mental illness that requires you to have had one specific experience in order to live with it. There’s a pervasive sense, in a lot of mental health spaces I’ve been a part of, that so many sufferers refuse to see themselves as sick enough to justify their illness. And part of that, I’m sure, comes from feeling as though they haven’t gone through the Right Things to explain the stuff that we feel and suffer from.
But life doesn’t fit into neat little story patterns, and, even if it did, they’d probably be pretty boring, anyway. Mental illness can happen whether it has some obvious trigger, or whether you can’t make sense of it at all, and every place in between. There is no story that fits or explains being mentally ill; there is no one experience that is bad “enough” to justify feeling the way you feel. If you are sick, you are sick enough, no matter what came before or what comes after. You have my word on that.
Who am I kidding? It was the high school musical rejections all along. Curse you, my inability to hit any single note known to man!