The concept I want to describe is one that I’ve never quite been able to put into words, so bear with me here. Luckily, I have a couple of very insightful and thoughtful friends who understood the concept when I tried explaining it to them, so I’m borrowing their words.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve tried to separate my depression from me. I demonized it and made it this big villain that wasn’t a part of me – it was a battle I had to fight, an enemy I had to destroy. Time and time again, I hear myself saying “I am not my depression” and how I’m not really myself when I’m anxious and depressed. I still stand by those statements…sort of.
I am not my mental illness, I am not exclusively my mental illness, but it is a massive part of me. It influences the way I act, the way I speak, the people I associate with. It’s in every deep breathing exercise I do, in every therapy session I pay for, in each conversation I have. It does not (always) consume me, but it plays an integral role in my life. As much as I would like to believe I am not defined by my mental illness, it defines a part of me. And that’s not to say that my mental illness has to dictate my life and I just have to accept that, but rather, it means acknowledging how this part of me is not a demon to destroy, but a wound that needs healing. It means acknowledging that though my mental illnesses have made life really hard, they’ve also allowed me to become a better listener, they’ve guided me towards people who have better intentions, they’ve taught me valuable lessons about the universe that some people may never learn. They’ve made me more fearless in knowing what I want and going after it.
I’m learning that because my mental illness is part of me, I have to learn to love it somehow before I can truly love myself. I have to love the beautiful bits, and the parts I think are ugly, and I have to try and see the beauty in the ugly. I can’t accept myself wholly or give myself love if I’m constantly vilifying a part of me that can’t be silenced or ignored.
Part of that process of loving all of me, is being loved by the people around me. Letting them love the good, the bad, the ugly. Being loved simply because of me, and not in spite of something else.
Let me make this part crystal clear: my mental illness is not something to be “looked over” or loved in spite of. I don’t need you to look past my struggles and mental illness in order to love me. I need you to see that there is ugliness in me, but that ugliness is just as worthy of love as the most beautiful parts.
I’m tired of the rhetoric that exists around being loved even though you have pain or baggage or struggles. I deserve better than “I love Ameera, but she has anxiety and depression”. It’s not something that diminishes how deserving I am of love.
I was really frustrated with this one day, and tried explaining it to a close friend. She understood what I meant immediately, and described it as needing people to say “Yes, and”, not “Yes, but”. It was a simple concept I learned in improv class – that when someone offers something in a scene, you accept it. Whether it makes sense or not, whether it makes the scene harder or easier, you accept it, and you work through the scene together.
Moving from language of “Ameera has depression and anxiety, but I still love her” to messaging of “Ameera has depression and anxiety, and I love her.” It’s reaffirming that I can be loved with what I have, rather than mental illness being something that should detract from the amount of love I am worthy of. It’s a mixed bag, and you don’t get to pick and choose which parts you get.
Another example is when I have a bad day or I’m going through a rough patch and feel bad about it, and people (with only the best intentions) respond with how they know how I really am, and they don’t judge me for this part. They see that I’m actually this happy, funny, lively person and it’s “just the depression talking.” I really, really appreciate the sentiment that I am not my illness, and sometimes my depression and anxiety make me act differently. However, that depression and anxiety is a part of me too. They may be a part I try to hide a lot more, but they’re a part of my journey and my experience. They are not just something to be overlooked or ignored.
When we make our mental illnesses something to be loved in spite of, or we allow them to be ignored so we can be loved, we create the perfect breeding ground for shame. Shame that makes us hide who we are, shame that makes us hide our pain and our struggles, and shame that makes us feel unworthy of the love we need and deserve. It fosters guilt that we can’t be “enough” because we deal with these issues. And it’s not right. No one should be made to feel more isolated and guilty and ashamed because of their mental illnesses. There’s already enough of those feelings because of the mental illness alone, we don’t need the problem exacerbated because it’s easy to love the “good” and hard to love the “bad”.
I realize I’m basically contradicting myself by saying my mental illnesses don’t define me but also they totally do, and I also recognize that it’s difficult to be a positive support when you have to navigate a paradox as complex as this one. This journey isn’t an easy one, but it’s easier when we’re in it together. Even if the people around me don’t know what to say, just knowing that they can love me with or without my mental illnesses, because it has no bearing on how they feel about me, is enough. Reminding me that depression and anxiety don’t have to be looked over and brushed under the rug in order for them to still think I’m great speaks volumes.
Regardless of if you deal with mental health issues or not, think about who you love. Do you love all of them? Do you love them through the messier parts? Do you show up when not showing up is easier? If the answer is no, think about how you can make that move from “yes, but”, to “yes, and”.
If you’re struggling with mental health issues, and you feel like people have to love you in spite of what you deal with, or you feel you have to hide the hard parts so that you don’t lose that love, you’re not alone. That fear is totally valid. I hope we can learn to love the beautiful bits and the ugly bits of one another, and see the ugly bits as beautiful in their own way, so that we can break down the walls and boundaries built by bricks of shame and guilt. I hope you remember that you have pain and struggles, and you are loved. Not despite it. Not in spite of it. Not when it’s ignored. You are simply loved. I see your pain and your struggle, and I love you.
“Yes, and”, not “Yes, but”.
Keep Surviving by Living.