I used to believe that progress was a destination. Take this medication, and you won’t be depressed anymore. Prepare your meals in advance, and you won’t be tempted to skip them. If you’re really dedicated (which you have to be if you really do want to get better. That’s what you want, isn’t it?), you could even plan your meals weeks in advance. The narrative we’re fed, as the recovering mentally ill, is that if you really want to get better, there’s a list of steps you must follow exactly, and if you don’t seem to get better, it has got to be your fault. You, as a person with a mental illness, must not act like you have a mental illness, so as to not alarm those around you. The perceived end goal is not, in the treatment of mental illness, to find comfort and love for yourself while coping with the ups and downs of an augmented emotional state, but to appease those around you who’ve been left feeling wary around you and your acceptance of your reality.
At the age of 18, when I reached my peak of instability, I placed my trust in those around me who assured me they knew what was best for me, and followed their advice, with the only end goal to be “normal,” both psychologically and physically following my 25-pound weight gain. I payed close attention to their reactions to my actions and rewarded and/or punished myself based on what I observed. When I dropped 30 pounds in four months, I saw the family I trusted and the friends I loved congratulate me on what they thought was new-found health, and rewarded myself with another skipped meal and a thinner pair of jeans. When those around me remarked that I hadn’t seemed sad in a long time and that it made me so much easier to be around, I learned to hold my tongue when I did feel sad or scared, because I couldn’t bear the thought of being the disappointment and drag I thought I used to be. I learned to shave away my physical presence in the space I once occupied, and also that my vocal presence was unnecessary, too. I thought that I was helping myself by making myself easier to swallow, smaller and dumber and nice. I thought that my place in the world was that of a barbie doll who speaks only when her string is pulled. These are the lessons I learned while trying to seem neurotypical for the comfort of those around me.
This fall will mark three years of struggle with my weight and my brain. I’ve planned the meals and I’ve taken the pills. I’ve learned to cope with who I am, and maybe even love myself for it and see silver linings in my heightened ability to empathize with others and connect to the raw emotions of children. Despite all of this, I’m still just as mentally ill. Some days I don’t allow myself to eat, and some days I’m too sad to even get out of bed. Some days I feel like I’m on top of the world. I’m still the same girl, I just love myself infinitely more, and that didn’t come from a doctor or a gym. Progress has not meant being a perfect young adult, but being flawed as I am while trying my hardest.
Mental illness is not comfortable; it isn’t a paper cut that heals, or a curling iron burn that leaves a barely-there scar. Mental illness isn’t a virus cured in a twelve-day process with little white pills. I am not ashamed of who I am and what I go through every day, and “normal” isn’t something I feel pressured into wanting anymore. I have fought to be here today, and I won’t shut my mouth to appease you.