I Am Not My Mental Illness, but It Is Me

Published on 8/25/2020

All writers suffer from Imposter Syndrome to a certain extent. We’re in a profession that breeds it profusely, that brews competition from the smallest occurrence. But there are different strains within the Imposter Syndrome, and one, in particular, has snuck up on me while I was distracted with my growing statistics on Medium.

If I didn’t have my mental illness, would I have anything to say? If I were not mentally ill, would I be interesting at all?

I have suffered from depression since the age of fifteen, and with it came self-harm, an eating disorder, anxiety and finally, the diagnosis of a personality disorder. But even before I started struggling, I had this innate fear that I was boring, that I was set to live a life of mediocrity. I wish I could tell you where it came from; the same goes for my mental illness. I’m the youngest of three girls, maybe it came from feeling that by the time I did stuff or achieved something it had grown tiresome, my parents had already taken those steps twice before. Maybe it’s the competitive environment of an International School, where above average is still below their average. Maybe it’s my Borderline Personality Disorder, the need for attention and fear of being abandoned, believing that if I’m special enough they won’t go.

So every time that I get carried away, believing that people may find me captivating enough, my unique strain of Imposter Syndrome creeps in to question my success. And here’s the thing, because even my rational Healthy Adult identity is beginning to debate it. To what extent are the best things about me a result of my mental illness? I know the worst things are tangled deep within its web, but I had never explored the possibility that my positive traits are right there with them. Or we can take it another leap further; to what extent am I my mental illness? Is there anything else of note?

The good in my bad

I once wrote a Medium article about the good things that come from going to therapy, namely why you should date someone who has been to therapy. I applied this logic to the positive traits that fuel a relationship, but I have never turned the mirror to face myself. So I’ll undress for you now, strip my personality into core traits and highlight which of them may have come from my mental illness. My low self-esteem immediately steps in, detesting the idea of attributing anything positive to my personality, feeling humiliated at the thought of actually praising parts of me, even if only to connect them to my diagnosis.

My mental illness has made me loyal. That is the one good trait I often allow myself to acknowledge. I know how difficult it is to be with me for the longterm, the ups and downs that my struggle brings. That’s why I will always return this favour to others, that is why I am here for the good, the bad and the ugly.

It has boosted my empathy. This empathy guides me in my writing, but also my daily life. I am someone who will always walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. It can be frustrating, as people will hurt me and I provide an explanation rather than anger, sometimes even using this to blame myself rather than the guilty. But it also means that I am considerate, that I give people chances, and that I create a safe space for them.

And one more before my humility collapses entirely. My mental illness has made me wise. I have seen darkness in my life, to the extent that I almost couldn’t carry on with said life. And because I know the darkness, I know what a gift each day is. It doesn’t always feel like that; some days feel like I am Sisyphus, pushing that boulder up the hill with the knowledge that tomorrow it will roll down and I will have to begin all over again. The wisdom allows me to insert context into a situation, to think beyond immediate gain, to value the gift of a body and mind.

Would I be these things without my mental illness? I wish I could know, it’s a curious thought to consider who you would be without significant life events or struggles. I sometimes look at my sisters, to see the effect of a different mind in the same environment. But that isn’t accurate, as there are infinite influences and possibilities, time meeting moment and creating a result. Maybe I wouldn’t have the same positive traits if I had never struggled, but perhaps I would have others. Without anxiety to weigh me down, I could be confident, the life of the party. Without depression gnawing at my mind, perhaps I would be optimistic rather than realistic, maybe I would radiate joy into every room that I enter, I envy those that do. I wouldn’t be who I am without my mental illness, but does that mean that I am merely comprised of it?

Mental illness makes you interesting

This trope began somewhere around the time of Skins when the media decided that instead of demonising mental illness, they would romanticise it. Enter self-harm on Tumblr, painfully skinny actresses and the damsel in distress trope. I honestly don’t know which one is better. I’m accused of exaggerating my struggle or even making it up, but now it is to copy some character or pad out my personality. A friend once drunkenly told me that she was jealous of my depression. I think she was struggling through a lot, but it made me guilty that my diagnosis and more apparent pain made her feel like hers was lesser and angry that it had been diminished to that.

Mental illness has become an accessory, depression is the new black. Without my mental illness, would I be a less interesting person? It feels that way sometimes like I’m converted into an exotic trope based on the demons that captured my happiness early on. To be completely honest: I don’t know what else is very special about me. I’m not the prettiest girl in a room, I don’t tell the funniest stories, and I don’t stay in your mind long after you’ve met me. The only thing I have is this, the constant urge to put words onto a page, to capture thought into text.

But even so, mental illness is not a positive trait, it is never something that people should desire to have. It is never "just for attention" as even that need for attention that would drive you to such extremes is enough cause for concern. My mental illness is not yours to create a cute character with. Explore it properly and correctly, or leave it out.

Something to write about

If I weren’t depressed, would I be a writer? I like to think that I would find something else to write about, as I’d have a new hobby or thing to keep me busy. Maybe I would write a happier genre of books and actually be published by now. Write romantic novels with the main protagonist called Andre and a wedding that gets interrupted at the very last second. Maybe I would write fashion articles, as I’d have the confidence to explore clothing and express myself through them. I can’t know, but I have a gut feeling that I would still be writing. My love for words came before the depression, I think. It was a little girl in Primary School who gave in a full book for a small story writing assignment. That girl still felt happy, and always wanted to put pen to paper. She’d still be here, just writing about something else. I won’t let my mental illness steal the glory of my writing.

The fear of getting better

I developed my mental illness before I developed my personality. I was a young teenager, and despite moments of clarity since then, I have never been without my mental illness. I don’t know myself without it, and that terrifies me. Many therapists refuse to work with BPD patients because they believe that the mental illness is too inexplicably wrapped up in their personality, to the extent that you can no longer separate them. My therapist didn’t think this, and neither do I. Instead I try to look at my personality disorder as an umbilical cord, it developed to help me through a time when I couldn’t survive without those coping mechanisms, but now it needs to be severed. Or a tumour in a difficult spot, it takes a great deal of time and expertise to remove, but you would never say that it is just who they are.

Sometimes I fear getting better, losing the mental illness that I cannot distinguish from myself anymore. But firstly, there is no losing your mental illness, especially when it comes to a personality disorder. I will carry it with me for life, and merely learn how to maintain and control it. Secondly, I have to hope that my mental illness isn’t the best parts of me, only the worst. That even the good it gave me will still stay with me, and be strengthened by my own identity.

Are you depressed, or do you have depression?

These two terms may sound like the same thing, and I used to mix them without thought. But now I see the phrasing as a choice, a chance to distinguish between yourself and your mental illness. I am not depression; it isn’t my identity or what makes me who I am. I am a writer, I am a theatre geek, I am considerate. I have depression, it is a mental illness that affects me and deserves to be taken seriously, but it is not an irreparable part of my personality. I am needy, I am sensitive, I am jealous. I have a personality disorder, I have BPD but I would never say that I am borderline. Differentiate between aspects of your identity and your mental illness. Because your mental illness can shape you and change you, but it should never encompass who you are. I guarantee you that there are aspects to you that are far more interesting than your diagnosis, and you deserve to be recognised for them.

Fleur

Fleur

Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.

Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.

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