being okay with falling behind

I actually wrote this in October to post on Facebook, so, if another human is actually caring or curious enough to open this blog, you may have already read this one. It includes excerpts from some of my more hard-hitting ramblings about mental health that can be found in other entries further down this rabbit hole. 

HEAR YEE HEAR YEE Ethel Ann is back to share some very intimate information she probably shouldn’t be posting for over two thousand people to see!!! I’m teasing – I like to post these updates every six months or so for those of you who are thoughtful enough to care, and I’m glad to lay it all out there if it does anything at all to make us more comfortable talking about mental health.

It was actually World Mental Health Day a week ago today, but I was in a studying/paper-writing cave until yesterday, so I just got the chance to really think about what that means to me, as someone whose mental health conditions have made life unlivable at times. There are things I’ve learned over the course of this year that I wish I had known prior to this journey, so I’m going to share a little bit about the most important of those “life lessons.”

I think all the time about how different my life looks now compared to where I was a year ago — a “senior” (hehe…I was a bit behind already) in college living with nine beautiful girls in a house overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It sounds fake. There are many moments in a day when memories are triggered of my “real” college experience – of the palm trees, the sisterhood, the blurry nights that left us with tales that to this day make me laugh aloud. I will love and appreciate that experience and the people I lived it with to the grave. I’m sure many of you relate. The college experience is one that seems to be a cornerstone of the American identity – the “best four years of your life” upon which you build your career, your relationships, yourself. There are several things that are thought of similarly in our culture, and we are conditioned from childhood to picture our lives as a stringing-together of these elements. You go through the awkward pubescent junior-high phase, then high school, your dream college, first job in a city or grad/professional school, somehow make a bunch of money because obviously you’re gonna be rich, and somewhere in there you need to fit marriage (between years 24 and 29, obviously) and start having kids because you want to have three separated by the perfect two year age gap and that all has to happen before 40 because duh! Our advertisement and entertainment industries are so youth-obsessed that everywhere we turn we see the “ideal” twenty-something, eternally just out of reach. If we just go on that trip, buy that thing, get that job, move to that city, make that much money, then we’ll be happy. It all has to be a certain way. Setbacks in this process are setbacks in happiness, impediments to our fulfillment. We have a formula set before us that ensures a happy life. For me personally, diverging from that formula made me feel weak, and it discouraged me from being comfortable speaking up about my pain.

The biggest takeaway I’ve gleaned from my mental health journey is this: fuck it! Sometimes life goes haywire. Sometimes you have a panic attack on the way to class. Sometimes you can’t even leave your room to shower for two days because you’re so depressed. Sometimes you get pneumonia while studying for finals and you have to go home for half a semester. When these things started happening to me, it would only compound my anxiety because I would feel *behind* in the process. I was scared that if I had to take time off, if I had to depart from the path set before me, I would never be happy. I would lose relevance, friendship, purpose. It embarrassed me to have to take time to deal with my health. Maybe this is all just me and my intensely self-conscious brain, but I really struggled to come to terms with the fact that my life was going off-script. I feel like, at least for me, this pressure kept me from speaking up much of the time. I was afraid to confront the fact that my mind felt like a war-zone, and opening up about that to friends and family was terrifying if I even considered it an option. Surely normal, functional people would think I was crazy. Like a bird, I thought that expressing weakness would surely get me kicked out of the flock. In hindsight, my problem was this: I was putting my imagination of my life ahead of my actual life. I was willing to ignore the pain and all the signs that I was not in the right environment to heal for the sake of appearance – not only to other people but also to myself. I was putting my life in danger to pursue my dream life.

When I was diagnosed with bipolar II in December 2018, I laughed. Not because it was funny, because I thought that was the nail in the coffin for any hope of future success. I was so depressed at the time that it was funny to consider my completely dead-end life. I wish I could say that after a few weeks I learned to accept it and love myself despite my condition, but that would be a lie. For months and months I told myself to expect the worst for my future. Obviously I was growing apart from friends, of course I was alone all the time, clearly I wasn’t deserving of love. I retreated further and further into a cave hollowed out by shame, a cave I thought I’d never leave. Losing my place in the process, losing my instagram-worthy “normal” life meant losing my self-worth. My ability to love myself was predicated on my ability to keep up with most people my age, on my ability to live up to a standard I had set for myself long ago. It took a long, long time, but I’m finally realizing how stupid that is, frankly. This measuring stick by which I determined my success is made up. It’s not real. I’m learning not to measure myself against anyone’s standards, particularly my own. I’ve learned how important it is to take the time to be healthy and happy in the present. I’m through with waiting for that next achievement, that next milestone to be content with myself. I’m a 22-year-old in a freshman art history class. I’m not getting my degree until 2021 probably. I don’t go out, and I spend most of my time with my mom. Sometimes I get so anxious I throw up, and it’s actually happened in class a few times. I’m behind, and I still have problems cropping up all the time. I have a waiting list hundreds of worries long. Who knows, maybe I’ll have to take more time off! In the face of all of it, however, I’m happy. The friends I do have are truly my ride-or-dies, and my family is the sh*t. I’m doing the best I can, and I know that when I’m feeling out-of-whack I can talk about it. I’m content with where I am.

There is no shame in taking time for yourself. *Everyone* should be paying attention to their mental health. We should encourage each other to speak up when something is wrong. We should celebrate divergence from the norm. I hope that we raise the next generation to feel free to talk about about mental health no matter their status, gender, or reputation. If the life journey I imagined for myself was a nice, clear pathway through a tranquil forest, the life journey I’ve actually had thus far started in that ditch by Old Agency then through some sand dunes down a mountainside and into a creekbed. I’ve got that all-terrain life swag. When I picture the coolly intellectual, professionally accomplished, emotionally collected person I dreamed I would turn into when I was younger, I laugh. I’ll be crying to my therapist and having panic attacks in the Taco Bell drive-thru line and screaming hopelessly into the void for many years to come. I’ll never be the woman I imagined I would be. I’ll be better.

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