Searching for Space While Chaining My Mental Illness Away

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Clara Barnhurst

It’s a long road from believing you suffered nothing to understanding you suffered something. Befriending others that suffer helped me understand that I am a survivor of something. Those same friends sometimes look at how I keep it together through the flashbacks and panics and the truth is I don’t. I sob in bed just like everyone else; I’m just good at beating myself into submission when I have to.

I wouldn’t describe this as management, but it probably is. Suppression is a nasty process of killing part of oneself off to keep moving forward. Hindsight tells me it’s a skill I unconsciously honed long ago. Now that I’m aware that I can do it, it’s a handy way to keep going. It’s also self destructive and frightening.

The problem is the world needs me to do things like get dressed and go to work. The world needs me to be friendly and patient with the idiots I encounter. Being there for my friends is a thing I find healing, but it requires a certain amount of internal violence to achieve at times.


I hurt myself to remain present, even for the things I love. Playing a game with some friends last night, I found my mind tugging at me to notice something: a memory, noise outside, housework. Stuff I need to do that I can’t do that moment, stuff I need to process but I’m occupied. Fear of… something. But I’m with my friends of an evening and I want to have fun so I clamp down. That doesn’t stop my brain from feeding me painful things, it just kills the part of me that feels it for a time.

Exhaustion helps. If I’m too tired to feel, I can’t panic. If I’m too invested in another’s pain, I can’t remember my own. If I am sleep deprived, the sleep I get is too deep to have nightmares. Remaining on the edge of collapse, overextended and under rested, is a coping mechanism. It limits your field of view. The event horizon of your thoughts is restricted to the next task, the next text. The time; when you have to get out of bed. I work to deadlines, and having too much to do keeps me functioning at my peak while pushing my feelings away.

Of course, this isn't a tenable way to live. Early this year, it drove me to suicide as I lost the tipping point: this kind of self harm is difficult to maintain. That’s sort of the point: it’s supposed to tax you beyond what’s reasonable. You’re supposed to only have the emotional space to endure the moment.

Losing my balance back in February led to several months of trimming back or failing spectacularly at things. It was good. I actually dealt with me, and I’m healthier for it. It’s hard going – my brain is a pain to deal with – but stuff is a little less threatening. Funny how we get better when we stop to breathe, face what’s bothering us, and really process the pain. But we have to feel all that pain.

I’m making myself worse by killing off the bits of me that get in the way, but they’re in the way. The world needs me to do things and I can’t stop to have a system-wide failure ‘cause my brain demands it, so what’s the option? The world usually wins; the brain gets it. I don’t like doing it anymore but I’m left with little choice.

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There has got to be a better way. Surely there is a compromise between shutting down entirely and killing off the bit that needs to feel, but I haven’t found it. How do we parse panic? Can I have flashbacks in pulses that don’t overwhelm me? Brains don’t work like machines at all but the metaphors are helpful; I’d like to compress the signal.

Perhaps the problem is actually the world that demands that we destroy ourselves to function within it. If most of the world is mentally ill and the world demands we just get on with it, then it probably is the world that’s wrong. Often, the world is wrong.


If the world is wrong, and it often is, then we’re a bit stuck between fighting the world all the time or fighting ourselves all the time. I’m tired of fighting myself. I’m exhausted from killing the bits of me that feel. I’m fed up with being told that my panic attack can wait. And I’m powerless to deal with it on my own.

The only solution I can think of right now is to keep leaning on my friends and to keep asking them to lean on me. Yeah, that can lead to the same self destructive behaviours but at least we’re all processing. At least we’re all feeling. At least we’re creating a safe corner to just be.

In the transitional world, as I’ve come to think of transgender circles, there is a singular focus on just being. Everyone who suffers needs to just be, but it’s particularly explicit in transitional spaces. I always struggled with that bit of rhetoric because I always felt I was just me. There was never a point where I looked at myself and didn’t think I was being me. Even when I realised I needed to change, I simply integrated the information: this is me, so I’ll get on with being me.

The world seems to be hell bent on stopping people from being themselves, whoever they are. As mental illness numbers soar, the world appears to continue to squeeze us. In my case, it’s swiftly becoming myself or the world, and the world can’t win that one. I understand that we’re not going to topple the world today, but quietly building a safe space to feel sounds like a lovely way to start.


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