Essay by Sara Lackey
“Middle school was awful” is a statement most people who have ever been through middle school would agree with and have most likely uttered while reminiscing about their preteen academic experience. Middle school was also awful for me. However, while most adolescents coped via sleepovers, bad mid-2000s pop music, journaling, and AOL instant messaging, I coped by ceasing from eating.
While I thought this was a brilliant plan to lose weight and control the stressors in my life, I soon learned that what I was experiencing was anxiety along with an eating disorder, which was a form of what society refers to as “mental illness.” I learned that I– like many other people who struggle with mental illness– can at times have a difficult time coping with life because of chemical imbalances in my brain.
As I got older, I learned that many of my friends struggled as well. Some faced depression, some anxiety, while others suffered from more “serious” mental illnesses such as bipolar and obsessive compulsive disorder. I related with these friends because I too had experienced mental illness. Actions my friends made that seemed irrational to many people seemed rational to me. When friends would self harm, run away, or drink excessively, I understood that they were not strange, abnormal, or crazy. They were simply trying to cope. However, as I learned that some people thought my friends were “crazy” for simply being who they were, I became confused and saddened.
Some of the worst days of my life have been spent consoling some of my best friends experiencing extreme symptoms of mental illness such as suicidal ideation and self-harm. While these symptoms were a bit scary to me at times, what scared me more is that their family and friends called them selfish for experiencing these things. Instead of taking them to the doctor like they would if they had the flu or broken bone, my friends were alienated by the closest people in their lives and denied proper access to medical treatment.
In fact, the feeling I experience when I hear my friends being called “crazy” is worse than any middle of the night phone call I have ever received from a friend contemplating suicide.
As a political science and public policy student I was fascinated that issues of mental illness were not major policy issues. As an ambassador for my undergraduates counseling center, I was aware of alarming statistics related to mental illness. For example about 1 in 4 people live with a mental illness, yet 60% of those people do not receive any treatment, or that suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States and has increased 24% since 1999. Additionally, I learned that serious mental illness costs America $193.2 billion in lost earnings per year. I could not understand how a vast public health issue impacting Americans citizens and the American economy was not regularly discussed amongst my political science and public policy cohort and professors. So I devoted myself to understanding mental health as a public policy issue with the hopes of forging change.
One irony that I have discovered throughout my journey in mental health advocacy and policy reform is my hesitation to let personal struggles guide my personal motivations and conversations with others. I cannot speak for everyone, however to me it seems “victims,” “survivors,” and “sufferers” of many ailments and life experiences are viewed as courageous spokespersons. When advocating for mental health reform there is often pressure to hide one’s personal struggles with mental illness because we too have been taught that nobody will listen to a “crazy person.”
Society is afraid of mental illness. They are afraid to let the “crazy” lead. Afraid to let the “insane” make critical decisions. Afraid to let the “batty” influence the everyday lives of the normal. However, I constantly ask myself why we are actually so afraid of mental illness? When your brain functions differently than others, you are able to see the world through a unique perspective. And those unique perspectives, if we let them talk, could innovate, create, and inspire others to think about complex policy issues in a completely different way.
Some of the smartest and strongest leaders I know have been suicidal, anorexic, bulimic, and self-harming. Yet, through support, therapy, and learning helpful coping mechanisms, they have taken those personal experiences and actively sought ways to engage in society in the most inspirational ways imaginable.
Living with a “mental illness” does not prohibit people from being leaders and change makers. Alienating individuals who are different, simply because their brain processes and perspectives on the world are abnormal is illogical to me.
For me, my mental health is a spectrum and some days are impossible and other days are incredible. But without anxiety, I probably would not think as critically about every dimension of personal and professional issues I am tasked with facing. Without anxiety, I probably would not be as driven to alter the status quo of what society accepts and rejects in individuals who are different.
Sometimes it seems as if anxiety is my quirky roommate. A peculiar friendship. I find myself anxious about my own anxiety which prompts me to be anxious about the presence of anxiety in society and anxious to make a change.
Sometimes my anxiety rages like a feminist punk band angry about the injustices in society and eager to do something about them.
Sometimes my anxiety floats like a rain cloud; forbearing, uncertain of what to do, and on the verge of tears.
I have found that sometimes the best way to cope with my anxiety is to listen. To consider, contemplate, and create an inner dialogue about what it is that is in fact making me anxious and what I can do to resolve that.
Sometimes I have to negotiate with my fears.
I say go for a run. Anxiety says stay in bed. We settle on going for a walk.
I say go make new friends. Anxiety says my fictional TV show friends are enough. We settle on staying home 6 days a week and going out 1.
I say write your research paper that is due. Anxiety says it won’t be perfect so why try. We settle on finding a cozy comfortable coffee shop to write and agree it’s okay if it isn’t perfect.
Anxiety sometimes means that coping is not as easy for me as others. But that does not make me “crazy.” Rather, it makes me contemplative, creative, innovative, open minded, and ultimately strong.
Sara is a master’s student at the University of Maryland where she studies public policy. We are so excited to have her as a contributor in our series of essays on self acceptance.