By Alisa Tanaka
I was too young to know what having a mental illness diagnosis actually meant when I actually got one. It wasn’t until I was put through a catastrophic treatment plan that the diagnosis took aim at my already low self-esteem.
Years after the events that triggered my diagnosis, I have a complicated relationship with the term “mental illness.”
On one hand, the term gave me an explanation for my emotions, something I desperately needed as a confused preteen. It was something I held onto, the rational explanation in the midst of confusion.
On other hand, I hate(d) it more than I hate olives because the definition implies that on some level, individuals with these issues aren’t able to function.
Finally having the answers to my questions didn’t fix much, though. Knowing the medical term for what you’re dealing with doesn’t make the things you’re feeling go away. I wanted this to go away. I wanted to be “normal.”
After taking a test, in the total of two seconds that would usually pass from the scraping of one chair’s legs against the linoleum floor to the avalanche and accelerated heartbeat that would follow soon after, I realized that this was the farthest thing from normal.
The empty room, the pills, the extra time I was given on exams, those things were not normal because they were not what I saw.
In my eyes, a diagnosis meant that I wasn’t normal. I didn’t know, and I’m still not sure if I’ll ever feel “normal.”
After I was officially diagnosed, it took me a while to even accept the help offered to me because to me, acceptance of that assistance meant accepting the fact that I was not normal.
When I finally decided to utilize the help offered to me, I vacillated between believing I was broken and giving a proverbial middle finger in an act of defiance to the idea of being categorized as “mentally ill.”
These feelings of confusion were exacerbated by doctors calling my condition “mild.” When I asked why, I was told it was because I was succeeding academically. This, apparently, was a sign that my mental illness was just enough to prevent me from feeling normal and needing extra time on tests, but not enough that my illness was debilitating.
Academic success or not, a few letters and numbers certainly didn’t change how I felt. The doctors who saw me called me lucky, my condition, mild, but I felt like it was anything but.
Maybe I was lucky in comparison to some, but that didn’t mean that I automatically felt better.
At the height of my pain, I saw being “normal” as being without any (visible markers of) medical issues, a description that I certainly didn’t fit. I defined “normal” as “not standing out.” I made up the definition in my head. Our perceptions of reality rarely compare to what someone’s reality really is. Many of us deal with struggles we can’t see, even if everything seems perfect.
Having a formally diagnosed mental health issue gave me an excuse for the way my life was.
I could look at something that I wanted that I didn’t get and blame my condition. The diagnosis also gave me some semblance of purpose before I realized that having a health condition didn’t automatically qualify me as special because everyone has come into contact with challenges at some point in their lives, whether they faced them themselves or if they were close to individuals who had suffered.
In retrospect, rather than accepting the condition, I have compensated for it, which isn’t the same thing. Compensating for it meant planning the simplest trips hours in advance, saying that I was fine when I really wasn’t because I felt backed into a corner, making sure that everything I did was perfect, no matter how insignificant the thing was.
I concentrated hard on compensating in order to prove to the people around me that I could function, that I could be just like everyone else around me. It was never enough. Every time I checked off a goal on my list, I would reach for the next one.
On the other hand, having a formally diagnosed mental health condition has given me a label, a label that unfortunately, comes with stigma in modern society. Those very words “mental illness” imply that on some level, you’re not able to function, but invisible struggles or not, we can function. Having invisible struggles doesn’t mean that you’re mentally ill, but that doesn’t mean that those struggles don’t affect you.
The cashier who hands you your usual coffee order in the morning, your favorite teacher, the athlete you’ve followed since they first began their quest for Olympic gold, the YouTube star you love, they all have, or are currently dealing with, struggles you can’t see, no matter how perfect they may seem.
To someone out there, it might look like you have everything figured out, but you know the truth. You know that you are far from perfect, that there are things that you wish you could change about yourself.
No matter how many quotes on Pinterest we see about embracing our flaws, being perfectly imperfect, the really hard work lies with us. As inspiring as those quotes may be, embracing who you are takes time, some more so than others. Learning to embrace who we are, invisible struggles and all, is a journey.
Alisa Tanaka graduated with a Communications degree from Lewis & Clark College in 2012. Her interests include psychology, linguistics, and mental health. She can also be found reading, watching documentaries, and writing her blog.
This article was originally posted on GenTwenty.