Mental Illness Adds Value to Our Lives
In healing from mental illness, I gained a resiliency I never had.
Posted Jul 12, 2020
Many people think of mental illness as detracting from their lives.
Mine did at first. For a number of years. I lost a career due to anorexia. Not just a job, but a career I’d spent eight years working towards, ascending the corporate ladder. I started as a secretary in a mid-sized advertising agency and when I had to leave due to the eating disorder, I was a consumer promotion development manager at one of the largest packaged goods companies in the world.
I was forced to leave behind my life in Queens, NY, where I had grown up, the only neighborhood I’d ever lived in. I was and still am very much a homebody, someone for whom familiarity breeds safety. I was told by someone I ran into who currently lives in the same neighborhood that Dani’s Pizza is still there. That place is an institution. My mother used to give my brother and I each a dollar and both he and I were be able to get two slices and a soda and bring home change.
It wasn’t my decision to go up to Westchester, NY, for treatment, but after being on the long-term borderline personality disorder (BPD) unit for almost a year and a resident at the halfway house for three years, I decided to stay up there to be close to my treatment team. It didn’t hurt that my mother had relocated to Southern Connecticut to start her own business.
I was giving up my identity as a “city girl,” which, up to that point in my life, had been an integral part of my identity. I’d worked in Manhattan and survived riding the “F” train at rush hour. I’d played softball in Central Park, partied at dingy bars on the Upper East Side, prowled Barney’s and Bendel’s and explored with wonderment the exquisite galleries of the Metropolitan Museum and the MOMA.
In the midst of a severe depressive episode which required six hospitalizations in 18 months and in which I was treated with a course of ECT, I tentatively signed up for a writing class. I don’t recall what I was thinking and I’m not sure what I expected. Almost all the writing I’d done up to that point was academic papers on which I’d received mostly As.
The class was in memoir and since the most relevant thing going on in my life at that time was my mental illness, I wrote about that. My first essay was about my struggle with anorexia and I wrote the only way I knew how – openly and honestly. I didn’t sugar coat any of the details, I didn’t gloss over any of the uninviting facts.
I was worried about the reaction of the instructor and the other students. Would they judge me? Would they think of me as an outcast? The instructor laid out the ground rules at the first class. Constructive criticism only. About the writing style, not the content. I relaxed, but only a little. That didn’t mean they weren’t going to read it.
My instructor suggested I submit my first essay titled “Sharp Edges,” to an anthology about illness and healing and it was accepted. That was in 2007. Thirteen years later, I’m still writing and submitting. It would have been incredible and a bit magical if they were all that easy. But the rejections serve a purpose.
Growing up I had a sensitive temperament. I cried easily. All the rejections helped build a thicker skin. I needed it. Especially if I was going to be a writer. Rejections far outnumber acceptances.
I don’t write for the acceptances, though they are a nice reward. I write because I have to, because I can’t stay away from a blank screen. When I’m not actually writing, my brain is on a quest for inspiration. I always carry paper and pen with me because I never know when an idea might strike.
I write because I’m addicted to the craft; the art of choosing the perfect word, creating a beautiful sentence, designing the definitive paragraph – it all stems from an inextinguishable fire in my belly.
All the ups and downs, all the times I’ve been knocked on my butt and gotten back up, has built grit. With time and practice, the resilience I’ve gained has shown itself in other areas of my life. I bounce back faster from setbacks. I’m more outgoing, more likely to be the one to introduce myself first.
“Hi. I’m Andrea. Nice to meet you.”
I never would have been able to do that five years ago. My ability to recover from my mental illness has given me a particular sense of confidence. If I have survived something this protracted and this severe and I am thriving, then I can deal with anything.
I know that my former psychiatrist, Dr. L., agreed with me when I said to her that after my stroke, when I became depressed, my mood could have dipped much lower but for already have coping skills in place to recognize, act proactively, and ride out the moderate depression rather than to plunge to the bottom of the abyss.
Growing up, I was taught that feeling proud of yourself and what you had accomplished meant you were conceited. I was taught to shrink into myself, not to speak up and not to take credit for all I had achieved. My father – along with his best friend, Johnnie Walker Red — did a pretty good job of knocking me down and quashing any remaining self-esteem.
I’ve since learned and been able to put into practice the ability to take credit for good work done and to speak up for myself. I’ve also learned to accept responsibility when plans go awry and to come to the table with a sincere apology and a plan to correct the mishap.
I’ve also become aware that we, as women tend to apologize for our existence.
“Sorry, but, could you just...”
“So sorry, I just wanted to say....”
I will no longer apologize for my gender or for being who I am.
I always left the entrepreneurial inclinations in our family to my mother and my brother. I thought I was the type who would continue to choose the safe route and choose to have the security and regular paycheck as an employee. My recovery from mental illness has given me the courage to launch a venture of my own because of a newfound passion. There is nothing like passion to drive motivation, determination, and plain hard work, qualities I already possess in droves. BWellBStrongBPD is a mental health advocacy and awareness organization focusing on, but not limited to, borderline personality disorder due to the great stigma carried by BPD. There is also the fact that I'm living proof that recovery from BPD is possible.
I regret my mother didn’t live to see me at this point in my life, but I know she is up there, watching.
Thanks, Mom. It was just the right time.