Do you ever wonder if your life story really matters? Do you debate how much of your baggage you should keep hidden? Do you ever put on a mask in an attempt to appear like you’ve got it all together? For me, the answer to all of the above is a resounding yes.
A few days ago the mental health advocacy community lost an important contributor, Amy Bleuel, to suicide. She was the founder of Project Semicolon whose slogan is “Your story isn’t over”. People all over the world have gotten semi colon tattoos to represent that they are survivors who, despite wanting to at one point end it all, decided to keep going.
When I first read the story my heart sank. How could someone so inspiring and dedicated to helping others take her own life? Why wasn’t anyone able to save her? If someone as amazing as her got to the point of utter hopelessness, believing there was no other way out than to end her life, what am I supposed to learn from this tragedy?
I began to wonder if those who strive to bring hope and awareness to mental illness actually feel the need to cover up our current struggles for fear of not being taken seriously anymore.
I’m not sure why I had these questions. By no means am I implying that she, or anyone else who has struggled with suicide , is weak or their message and efforts to help others are any less meaningful or inspiring. Quite the contrary. In reality it just proves how complicated suicide is and that we still have so much to learn. For whatever reason I couldn’t stop dwelling on all of the contradictory thoughts I’ve had about being transparent and I wondered if she had ever experienced the same battle.
Ever since I started sharing my story with the world I’ve always had a nagging thought way back in the dark recesses of my mind that I had no business trying to spread hope? What if people found out that I still struggle? What if they came to the conclusion that recovery does not mean everything is wonderful and we will all live happily ever after? Isn’t that what we want to believe? “Yes, your life will be amazing and you’ll never have to worry again.”
Don’t we want so badly for that to be true? There are success stories that convey this message, but does that represent the majority of us? If we don’t attain that level of recovery does it mean we have failed? Sometimes I honestly do feel like a failure and I find myself becoming envious of the person who is accomplishing amazing things and experiencing success despite their diagnosis. Sure it is inspiring and I’m not trying to minimize people’s victories. I’m not suggesting these stories shouldn’t be shared, but at the same time I think it’s just as important to admit it when we struggle.
After I began writing, my story was featured in the Life Unlimited section of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance’s monthly column which highlights an individual who has “been touched, but not limited, by a mood disorder.” Initially it validated that I was finally ok. I felt so good about it, as if I had finally come out on the other side of this pit and was a legitimate success story.
But it didn’t take long for doubt to appear . When I think of the word ‘overcome’ I envision conquering something once and for all. And for me that’s simply not true. Shortly after my story was shared I recognized that symptoms were slowly sneaking up on me. It annoyed and frustrated me because I had just announced to the whole world that I had overcome this ‘thing’ called bipolar. People from all over the world started following my blog. Messages from strangers asking for advice and complimenting me on my courage filled my inbox. It felt so wrong.
I think this is a struggle many of us have regardless of what type of illness it may be. If I overcame heart disease but then a year later suffered a heart attack would that make my initial recovery less significant? Would people laugh and call me a fraud? If I had given what seemed like good advice about overcoming disease that was from the heart and initially worked, would that now make me a hypocrite?
One thing I know with certainty is that when we go through our own hardships we become more empathetic and compassionate toward others. Who better to help someone through a difficult time than a person who had already been through the battle? However, we shouldn’t be afraid of the truth. In order to remain healthy and allow others to continue to learn from us we need to release our anxieties about being perceived as a failure if we aren’t getting it right 100% of the time. In reality no one does. When we only emphasize what is going right it can be discouraging to others who may be dealing with a relapse.
To be perfectly honest people who claim to always have it together are intimidating to me. So why then do I worry about appearing weak? It’s such a contradiction.
Of course I realize that I put most of this pressure on myself. I’m the one predicting judgment will come from those around me if despite having no evidence for that conclusion. Chances are though, I’m not the only one who does this and I can’t help but wonder if Amy believed she had to appear strong for fear of letting people down. Did she think she would be judged if she reached out for help? How many of us would insist that if she told the world she was on the precipice she would be no less of an inspiration to us? We would still love and admire her. But then when I apply that same scenario to myself I am convinced it isn’t true. Whenever I have felt the weight of depression squeezing the life out of me, my mind plays tricks on me and deceives me into believing what is true for others can’t possibly be true for me.
When I talk to someone about not giving up, telling them how valuable their life is and it WILL eventually get better I believe it to my very core. The conflict comes if I am personally struggling. If I am supposed to be helping people, how can I ever admit that to anyone? Won’t I look like a fraud? In my heart of hearts I know the truth but in times of darkness I can’t quite grasp it and make it my own. That’s the madness of mental illness… it corrupts our thoughts and what we understand in times of clarity becomes a distant memory and seems so absurd.
The bottom line (and what I have to keep reminding myself) is we all have to learn that it is ok to be vulnerable. In fact, I would go as far as saying it is vital for all of our well being. We can’t be afraid to show our true selves to the world for fear of appearing weak or “less than.” We should all be able to stand up and shout “I do not have all my shit together!” and be applauded because on this side of heaven we never will. If I have to ask for help it doesn’t negate any of my victories. It just means I am human.
I hope somehow Amy knew she was loved. I hope she realized she was inspiring and touched the lives of millions of people. I hope there was a part of her that truly believed that. I did not know her personally so I am not aware of the details behind her death. It’s quite possible none of this applied to her, but my prayer is that this motivates all of us to keep the movement going and fight relentlessly to keep shedding the light on mental illness. The best weapon we have is raw honesty.
Don’t feel ashamed because you need help…no matter who you are. Never be too busy or selfish to stop and genuinely listen to those who are close to you. Don’t feel you need to have all the answers. Most importantly, be willing to let your guard down, remove your mask and look deeply into one another’s hearts. When we do we will discover the parts of each other that are hurting and the moment we realize we are not alone in our struggles, we begin to live authentically, no longer carrying the weight of our burdens alone. And that’s exactly what God has called us to do.
Galatians 6:2 (ESV) Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.