Growing up, I was a hardworking, perfectionist go-getter. From my earliest memories, I focused on getting perfect grades, acting perfect, and even eating perfect. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life, but I figured that all I had to do was focus on getting a scholarship to a good college and then my life would unfold without too many hiccups.
That was my approach for the first eighteen years of my life. I managed to get a college scholarship in the seventh grade, I took all the AP classes my school offered, I played sports, ran clubs, volunteered, and finished first in my high school. I got into an “elite” private college where everything was paid for. I thought I was hired.
Everything soon collapsed.
My diagnosis changed the course of my life
In my sophomore semester of college, I experienced a manic episode and psychosis without warning or apparent cause. I slept half an hour every night for a week. I hardly ate. I spent all my time working on my art (I studied fine arts with a focus on traditional printmaking). I began to believe that I could fly and came close to seriously injuring myself several times. My mind was constantly racing and my body never seemed to slow down. Worst of all, I had no awareness that anything was wrong. I didn’t question whether anything was “off”. I didn’t know my life would change.
What comes up must come down. I slept 22 hours straight and woke up depressed and suicidal. I started planning my death. Luckily I managed to ask for help. I went to the college counseling center and brought it up. After my confession, I found myself in the psychiatric hospital, where I stayed for a few months.
During treatment I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder (bipolar type). Eventually I experience depression, mania, delusions and auditory hallucinations.
In the ten years since I was diagnosed, I’ve spent my time trying to get better. It was an unpredictable journey with many setbacks. hospitalizations. suicide attempts. medication changes. Psychotic Episodes. Sexual Assault. therapists. Doctors. electroconvulsive therapy. Chronic illness. Life.
With each of these setbacks, I have also made progress in my recovery and understood the complex realities of adulthood.
I’ve learned to mourn my original plan – and to accept myself
I often remember what it was like to feel mentally “healthy” – like I was when I was a child. It has become almost impossible for me to remember clearly, but I dream about it and I long for it. I wonder where I would be now if I didn’t have this disease. I wonder if I had a degree, a steady job, my own apartment and the courage to drive. I think about how I could miss all the traumatic experiences I had in the hospitals: involuntary stays, sexual assault, loss of privacy, loss of contact with the outside world.
Sometimes I think back and remember how easy everyday things used to be – and it’s heartbreaking. I know that my illness is not my fault (and that it runs in my family), but sometimes I wonder if I could go back in time and prevent it. But I also wonder if I would actually make that choice. I’m not my mental illness – but it certainly hollowed me out. My mental health has impacted every aspect of my life and many aspects of the lives of my family and friends. It informed who I am today and who I will be tomorrow.
It’s easy to say, “You shouldn’t regret it” or “Your struggles have made you stronger.” But it’s also okay to mourn the life you thought you were living.
It’s okay to mourn the dreams that didn’t come true. It’s okay to mourn the achievements that didn’t win awards. It’s okay to mourn the happiness, peace, and stability you’ve been desperately seeking. It’s okay to mourn the money spent. It’s okay to grieve while thinking back to the impulsive or embarrassing choices you made when you weren’t yourself. It’s okay to grieve knowing that your struggles may have taken something away from you.
I allow myself to mourn these things. I’m trying to be more relaxed about myself – fighting my perfectionism and the voice in the back of my head that says my illnesses are preventing me from doing all the things I desire.
I’m finally allowing myself to be proud of the little things I accomplish on the roughest of days. I allow myself to be proud of the days I suppress thoughts of self-harm. Because when I speak up and share my struggles. Because when I call my therapist instead of hiding from the world. When I just get out of bed
I think we could all use a little more self-compassion, right?
Josey is a professional oil painter and graphic artist, yoga teacher, and an aspiring writer. She uses her passions to keep her alive and to help her navigate life with schizoaffective bipolar disorder, PTSD, and anorexia. You can see her creations on her website.