Growing up, I was a studious, perfectionist go-getter. Even in my earliest memories, I was focused on getting the perfect grades, behaving perfectly and even eating perfectly. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life, but I reasoned that all I had to do was focus on getting into a good college with a scholarship — and then my life would unfold without too many hiccups.
That was my approach for the first eighteen years of my life. I managed to get a college scholarship in seventh grade, I took all of the AP classes my school offered, I played sports, ran clubs, volunteered and became valedictorian of my high school. I got into an “elite” private college with everything paid for. I figured I was set.
Soon everything collapsed.
My Diagnosis Changed the Course of My Life
In my second semester of college, I experienced a manic episode and psychosis with no warning or apparent cause. For a week, I slept for half an hour each night. I barely ate. I spent all my time working on my art (I was a fine arts major focusing on traditional printmaking). I began to think I could fly and was close to seriously injuring myself multiple times. My mind raced constantly, and my body never seemed to slow down. Worst of all, I had no awareness of anything being amiss. I didn’t question whether anything was “off.” I didn’t know that my life was about to change.
What comes up must come down. I slept for 22 hours straight and woke up feeling depressed and suicidal. I started planning my death. Thankfully, I managed to ask for help. I went to the college’s counseling center and spoke up. After my confession, I found myself in the psychiatric hospital, where I stayed for a few months.
While in treatment, I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder (bipolar type). Ultimately, I experience depression, mania, delusions and auditory hallucinations.
In the decade since that diagnosis, I’ve spent my time trying to get well. It has been an unpredictable journey, with plenty of setbacks. Hospitalizations. Suicide attempts. Medication changes. Psychotic episodes. Sexual assault. Therapists. Doctors. Electroconvulsive shock therapy. Chronic illness. Life.
For each of these setbacks, I’ve also made progress in my recovery and come to understand the complex reality of adulthood.
I’ve Learned to Grieve My Original Plan — And Accept Myself
Often, I reminisce on what it was like to feel mentally “healthy” — the way I was during my childhood. It’s become almost impossible for me to remember clearly, but I dream of it, and I crave it. I wonder where I’d be now if I didn’t have this illness. I wonder if I’d have a degree, a steady job, my own home and the courage to drive a car. I think about how I could have missed all the traumatic experiences I had in the hospitals: involuntary stays, sexual assault, loss of privacy, loss of contact with the outside world.
Sometimes, I think back and remember how easy everyday things used to be — and it’s heartbreaking. I know my illness isn’t my fault (and that it runs in my family) but sometimes I wonder if I could go back in time and prevent it. But I also wonder if I would actually make that choice. I am not my mental illness — but it has certainly carved me out. My mental health condition has affected every aspect of my life any many aspects of my family and friends’ lives. It has informed who I am today and who I’ll be tomorrow.
It’s easy to say, “you shouldn't have regrets” or, “your struggles have made you stronger.” But it’s also ok to grieve the life you thought you’d live.
It’s ok to grieve the dreams that didn’t become reality. It’s ok to grieve the achievements that weren’t awarded. It’s ok to grieve the happiness, peace and stability that you have desperately sought out. It’s ok to grieve the money you spent. It’s ok to grieve while thinking back to the impulsive or embarrassing decisions you made when you weren’t yourself. It’s ok to grieve knowing your struggles may have taken things away from you.
I’m allowing myself to grieve these things. I’m trying to be easier on myself — to fight my perfectionism and the voice in the back of my mind that says that my illnesses are stopping me from doing all the things I desire.
I’m finally allowing myself to be proud of the small things I manage on the roughest of days. I’m allowing myself to be proud of the days when I push thoughts of self-harm away. For when I speak up and share my struggles. For when I call my therapist instead of hiding away from the world. When I simply get out of bed.
I think we all could use a little more self-compassion, couldn’t we?
Josey is a professional oil painter and printmaker, a yoga teacher and an aspiring writer. She uses her passions to feel alive and help her as she navigates living with schizoaffective bipolar disorder, PTSD and anorexia. You can see her creations on her website.