Mental illness is an invisible issue, it was said in a mental health support group I attended to hear a friend deliver a talk. True, and frustrating. One thing I’ve grappled with is the hierarchy of cause when discussing mental illness: we can’t see it, measure its emotional impact or quantify suffering. But we can look at root causes, events. We can compare, contrast, and ultimately measure those causes against each other. In that, we have a hierarchy of suffering. A measure of pain. It’s a false ruler, but one people – including myself – slip into.
I am a survivor of nothing. I was never hit or touched. I was always made to feel valuable. I was never an extension of someone’s ego or shoved into an intellectual box by those who cared for me. I was poor but never went without food, clothes, shelter or love. My trials growing up were common to the point of standard experience: a divorce, a gay parent. Bitter sibling rivalry.
“EVEN MY GENDER DYSPHORIA, WHICH I ADMIT EXACERBATED THE PROBLEMS OF GROWING UP IN WAYS I’M STILL DISCOVERING, WAS MITIGATED BY MY EXCEPTIONAL CIRCUMSTANCES.”
Even my gender dysphoria, which I admit exacerbated the problems of growing up in ways I’m still discovering, was mitigated by my exceptional circumstances. I had no expectation to be or do anything. I was given the space to be or do as I pleased. When my mother finally discovered I had some kind of gender questioning going on, her immediate reaction was to offer to take me out shopping for clothes or whatever I felt I wanted to experiment with.
I’m intelligent, well educated, well looked after, reasonably well adjusted, and in touch with my feelings. And I suffer from depression and anxiety. I’m extremely well supported by friends and family. And I regularly want to die. Everyone around me has time to listen and it’s made clear that any subject, no matter how troubling, is safe. And I struggle to speak for fear of causing upset.
In my adult life, I was gaslit as a consequence of an unhealthy relationship. But I was also comfortable: fed, provided for, given space to explore my hobbies. In many ways I wanted for nothing. I was loved, even if it became unhealthy.
Yes, I was thrown out of the house and yes, that was painful. But I also landed in a safe place immediately; surrounded by supportive friends. Yes, I was driven into one of my darkest places from grief for my dad and the acknowledgement of my dysphoria. But I was also held up by those same friends, my family, and I was supported medically.
I have wanted for nothing. Waited for nothing. My transition, meant to be one of the hardest things anyone can do, is staggeringly easy. I have every advantage; countless blessings thrown at my feet. And still, I feel I fight for every scrap.
Truth is, I have done nothing for my position today. I have been given every advantage. Every turn is accompanied with opportunity. With every slump, a miracle cure is handed over. But I’m still miserable at my circumstances.
“SO WHAT IS IT? AM I SELFISH, UNGRATEFUL, WHAT? AM I JUST BORN DEFECTIVE TO FEEL SUCH PAIN IN THE WAKE OF MY GOOD FORTUNE?”
So what is it? Am I selfish, ungrateful, what? Am I just born defective to feel such pain in the wake of my good fortune? I can only think there’s something wrong with me. Something in my brain, my soul, that can’t enjoy the blessings around me. I am queen of the world and I weep at my fortune.
I am invisible to myself. With no visible root cause of my illness, I see that I have absolutely nothing to complain about. No reason to be upset. No justification for my hopelessness or unreasoning terror. In therapy, I have nothing to work on. Just bad feelings. Everything is amazing, yet I feel like shit. What does that say about me?
I also feel invisible to others. I find myself making reasons up or exaggerating things because I don’t think I’ll be taken seriously otherwise. Because people generally are caring and supportive, they believe me. And I take their care, their support, on the basis of half-truth – a carefully constructed deception based on what they’re ready to hear. What does that say about me?
Those I’m closest to, those I can’t bear to lie to, I just tell them I’m not OK and bring up whatever petty thing is bothering me if I’m asked. And I feel like even more of a fraud. I feel like a whiny, selfish, worthless, weak lump of uselessness. A waster. I feel beneath contempt.
“HER STORY HELD A MIRROR UP TO ME AND I SAW SOMETHING UNWORTHY OF CONSIDERATION.”
At the support group, I heard a story of a dear friend. One I knew shards of but never stared in the face. And I knew her pain. I knew that despair. But I couldn’t know her suffering. Her story held a mirror up to me and I saw something unworthy of consideration. What right have I to mark my own suffering, a survivor of nothing, to that of someone who actually had to survive something? How can I possibly look at myself and believe that my world of blessings is somehow as bleak as her tormented past?
I am ashamed. As others joined in the discussion, I felt even more uncomfortable. I’ve known none of their rejection. None of their abandonment. Yet I felt the same way. Why? I had no right to be there. I have no validating experience, no event to hang my feelings from. I just feel my depression, anxiety and dysphoria in a vacuum.
My sister noticed how distressed I was and came over to comfort me. I felt foolish for accepting her offer. Ridiculous for letting her partner join in. Attention seeking when my friend made it clear I always had someone to talk to. I went there to support my friend and I managed to divert attention away from her. I wanted to be swallowed up even as I accepted their love. I wanted to disappear and trouble them no more.
I suppose that proves I am ill. My disease is borne of a life of advantage, privilege, and love. I should quit bothering people, enjoy what I have, and learn to love life. I should get over myself and let those who have a legitimate reason to be in pain take the attention. I shouldn’t need help.
I am grateful for everyone: yet another blessing I’m ashamed to have.