By Anna Lente
I know; it sounds “crazy,” right? Having a mental illness is incredibly hard, so what could be good about them? Well, I have written and thought a lot about all the burdens I carry due to my mental illnesses and how they make daily tasks harder. But if it wasn’t for my mental illnesses, I wouldn’t have known these blessings:
1. The deep friendship/brotherhood with diverse and beautiful warriors of mental illness.
If it wasn’t for my mental illness, I wouldn’t go to support groups or seek out people who understand. If it wasn’t for my mental illness, I would probably just be friends with people who look and act like me and move in the same circles, since it’s easier that way. Instead, I form a deep and beautiful friendship with a unique co-worker who also has bipolar disorder. Instead, I go to NAMI support groups and meet all sorts of beautiful and strong people who are fighting the good fight in trying to manage their illnesses. These people I meet are complex and interesting, wounded but strong. They are survivors. They are warriors. They come in all colors and patterns, and if it wasn’t for my mental illness, we wouldn’t have met. If it wasn’t for my mental illness, we wouldn’t form a deep connection.
2. I am able to encourage others.
Honestly, much of the time I feel like my life is pretty small. I work and go to school, hang out with my husband, do regular boring stuff. I feel like I’m just living my life in my little safe box. How could I help anyone else? Well, due to my struggle with mental illness, even a small person like me can have a voice. I write these stories on this site and I am able to be an advocate and raise awareness. I write and people listen as if I had something to say. I can help people from my safe place. If I didn’t have mental illnesses, maybe I wouldn’t have a platform to write and help others. Maybe I wouldn’t know where to start. My struggles are a way I can make a small difference in the world. I work very hard to be healthy. If I can help others follow behind me, that’s pretty awesome.
3. I appreciate small acts of kindness.
So many daily things are hard for me. Often my illness wraps around me, making it hard for me to breathe and live. When people are kind to me, when people lower a rope for me to help me climb out of the pit, it is the most amazing and wonderful thing. If I didn’t have a mental illness, I might not think much of kind words and gestures. I might just smile and think, “that was nice,” and go on with my regular day. But as a person with mental illnesses, often little things are hard and the world seems unfriendly. I go grocery shopping while in a dark cloud of depression. The cashier notices my reddened eyes and asks quietly, “Are you OK?” I glance up and see she really cares. I am amazed. I’m not ready to talk, but I smile and leave the store feeling a little brighter. Or I leave somewhere quickly due to a panic attack, and someone follows me to ask if he can help. I am moved by his kindness. If I didn’t have mental illnesses, I might not think twice about these small things. But as someone with mental illness, I appreciate each kind word and gesture, each friend who is ready to listen or asks me questions because they care.
4. I appreciate good days.
So many days are difficult for me. So when I have a good day, it is the sweetest, most amazing thing. I have a day where I feel happy and at peace, where I feel comfortable in my own skin. Maybe for other people that would be a “normal” day. But to me, it is this incredible gift. On these good days, I soak up everything the world gives me. I try to create memories so on the bad days I can look back and smile. I appreciate each good day so much. I treasure each minute. I know the pain of difficult days so the beauty of these days is exquisite.
5. I know who my real friends are.
If I didn’t have mental illnesses, I might not know which of my friends would stand by me when I struggle. As someone with chronic mental illness, I find out pretty quick which friends will be there for me and which flake out. My friends see me as the imperfect person I am, and they are OK with that. If it wasn’t for my mental illness, I might not know their true colors until I had a crisis and they disappeared.
6. I am ready to handle whatever life throws at me.
So, maybe in some ways, I am weaker than other people. I admit I am sensitive. I admit that small stresses can be overwhelming. At the same time, my battle with mental illness helps me deal with other stresses that come my way. I’m in school and I see my classmates panic over exams and projects. I have generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) so I’m anxious all the time. But while my classmates stay up all night in a panic cramming for an exam, I am using my coping skills to put together a game plan to prepare for the test. When they are thinking about all the bad things that would happen if they fail, I am practicing in my head the positive affirmations my counselor taught me to deal with stress. As they wait nervously in the classroom before the test, I am doing deep breathing and muscle relaxation exercises. Battling my mental illnesses every day has helped me deal with everyday stresses.
7. It inspires my creativity.
I’m a poet, writer and artist. Personally, I’m not drawn to poems that talk about a flower or a waterfall, or nice paintings of a sunset. I’m drawn to poems that are profound and unique. I’m drawn to artwork that shows me a side of life I haven’t seen before. My battle with mental illness gives me a never-ending supply of things to write about and transform into art. It is part of what makes me a creative person.
8. It teaches me to think creatively to solve problems.
We’ve all known people who are good at fitting in and saying the right things. We’ve all been in meetings or worked on projects where everyone seemed to share the same opinion, or employees all agreed with the boss. As someone with mental illnesses, I tend to think differently. I have different perspectives and invent different ways to beat an obstacle. If you have me on your team, I’m going to bring in all these new ideas you haven’t seen before. Maybe I won’t give all the right answers, but I’ll find you new ones.
9. It makes life more interesting.
OK, so a lot of the time I wish my life would slow down and be simpler. But I have to admit that having mental illnesses makes my life complex and rich. People sometimes tell me, “You are the most fascinating person I have ever met.” I don’t know if that’s a compliment or just a statement about me having a bunch of weird mental issues, but it does make me interesting. It makes my life interesting. I live in a corner of the world where the weather is constantly changing. It’s 70 degrees one day and 30 degrees the next, then in the 50s next week. We complain about how we always have to guess what the weather will be like. But honestly, if the weather was the same every day I would get bored. I hate the roller coaster of a life with mental illnesses, but at the same time, I like how my story is constantly changing. I see myself growing as a person and battling new aspects of my illness each day. Yes, I would prefer if my illnesses went away and I could have calm, but since I’m stuck here now, I’ve got to admit it makes my life interesting.
10. My brokenness allows others to be real.
Some people seem to go through life with their walls up, never showing the struggles they hold inside. Well, as someone with mental illness I can’t always hold it together. I put on a good act, sure — most of the time — but eventually my brokenness spills out. Eventually, I end up confiding in people about the stuff going on in my head. By sharing my story, people often feel like it’s OK if they are real too. A discussion that starts with me saying, “This week has been pretty awful due to my depression,” might end with a friend saying, “To be honest, I’ve had a rough time this week because Monday was the anniversary of my mom’s death.” Depression and grief are not the same thing, but my sharing of my heart made it feel like it was OK for her to share her heart with me. I watch as I see that she is so glad to take that burden off her shoulders. I deal with my own burdens all the time. I can help her hold hers.
11. The emotional strength and courage I have gained by managing my mental illnesses.
It’s not easy to be mentally ill. My illnesses make many daily tasks difficult. Sometimes dealing with my mental illness feels like climbing a mountain … in a blizzard. It can be incredibly hard. But I can see myself getting stronger as I learn coping skills and ways to manage life. I can see myself becoming more courageous over time. As I am able to manage the complexities of my mental illnesses, I come to realize my own emotional strength and resilience. I see how I am fighting. I see I am a fighter and I am strong. If I didn’t have this daily battle to fight, I wouldn’t be the strong, convicted woman I am today.
12. It will equip me to be a better counselor.
OK, so this reason is personal to me, but maybe many of you can relate. I have been kind of lost for the past 10 or more years trying to figure out what to be when I grow up. (Don’t tell me I’m an adult at 34 years old!) Well, I finally figured it out. I want to be a counselor. I’m actually two years into a graduate program. I think counseling is the perfect career choice for me. I’ve worked very hard for 15 years to recover from my mental illness. I believe things happen for a reason; well, I think my struggles have happened for a reason so that I can help other people with the same struggles. I fight to be healthy so that I can work as a counselor and help others. And maybe, just maybe, all of the struggles and pain will be worth it in the endas I am able to help others find peace and joy.