Mental illness and the urgency to be okay April 30, 2019

I've struggled with depressed moods and anxious temperament for most of my adult life. I'm grateful that in spite of my struggle, I've been able to live a rich life full of great friends, a loving family, good food, a comfortable living space, a dynamic career, and some creative hobbies.

For the past few years, I've tried everything I could think of in order to find ways to cope. Talk therapy, yoga, fitness, self-help books, group therapy, and sobriety were my frequent go-tos. I could never find anything that worked.

One day recently though, I had an epiphany. I realized that the pursuit of getting better was, ironically, the cause of my depression. The idea that I am depressed means I'm not okay the way I am. It means I have to seek to be something different in order to be okay, even if I don't know what the target is. I need "treatment", which in our culture means some therapy and some medication. And if those don't work? Well, you didn't do it right. You need more treatment. Different treatment.

It's enough to drive a depressed person into cascading spirals of horrible depression. The idea that you're not good enough leads to depression. Depression leads to seeking treatment. Treatment leads to a diagnosis. A diagosis reinforces the idea you're not good enough.

I received a casual diagnosis from a therapist that I might have bipolar II disorder. He also told me it was a lifelong affliction. When this happened, I immediately had an identity crisis. Am I bipolar? What does that mean? Will I need to be on medication forever? What started out as me asking how to cope with my depression turned into a whole new identity of confusion, victimhood, and powerlessness.

I ruminated about the diagnosis for weeks. It consumed me, making me wonder whether I would always carry the burden of mental illness. It truly became a part of me. I adopted a victim mentality and became more of a burden to the people around me because I was even more convinced I wasn't okay the way I was than when I started.

But I started to think more critically about such a diagnosis and the ramifications mental health diagnosis has on its patients. Bipolar II is marked by hypomanic episodes involving high-risk activities, the likes of which I've never really experienced. It just didn't make any sense given my lifestyle, and the diagnosis came after only a couple months of therapy.

Then, suddenly, I had a breakthrough. I realized that my identifying with mental illness—my impression that there is such a thing as normalcy and that I don't have it—was the illness. I knew I needed to let go of the idea that I needed to be something else. To cultivate gratitude for what I am, not what I think I need to be. To let go of the idea that someone or something is going to fix me, because I don't need fixing.

I let go. And suddenly, the depression lifted. I felt good again. No therapy. No medication. No self-help. Just some meditation, good food, exercise, and letting go of the idea I need to be different from what I am.

I'm not "disordered". I don't have a "mental illness". I'm eccentric, exceptional, excellent, and unapologetically me. In letting go of what we think we need to be, we emerge recognizing the perfection we already are.