Experts estimate that over 83 million people suffer from some form of diagnosable mental illness. Some call it anxiety. Some call it depression. Some call it bulls**t. The media romanticizes suicide attempts and self-harm because they make a touching story about someone overcoming struggles by finding “the one” or through some feat of their own strength. After all, this is America; go big or go home. Depression can’t be a slow loss of vibrancy in one’s life. Anxiety has to be crippling panic attacks in a public place. Getting help generally involves a straitjacket and padded walls. Or so the image goes.
I have anxiety, low self-esteem, and maybe depression. I have self-harmed in the past. My condition controls my life, and yet it does not. I still go to my classes. I have a 3.86 GPA. I can smile and say I’m doing ok. I can laugh, and sometimes even enjoy something for a few hours. I’ve never attempted suicide, never suffered an assault, never been institutionalized for my behavior. And yet I suffer on. I am not the person I want to be. I am lonely and incapable of being around people. I am not the poster child for any of the mental disorders I suffer from. But I am one of the 83 million.
And I matter. We all do.
I hear a lot of people say to those who are struggling with mental health issues: “It gets better.”
I hate that. I think it’s a gross understatement of the problem. I understand that it’s something that most that struggle don’t believe. Many people don’t think that it gets better, and so people say it to try to change their minds. It’s the thing that you’re supposed to say to give people hope.
But as one who has been told that it gets better, I find it to range from irritating to insulting. I understand that it can get better. Life has been good before. It can theoretically get there again. But that doesn’t reduce someone’s struggle. I should say it doesn’t reduce mine. I frequently respond to that with “If you tell a starving man that he will eventually eat, that does not nourish him.”
I’m sure it does get better. But in the three years since my central struggle for happiness started, it has not gotten better. It has changed a great deal, certainly. My central concern has shifted from “No one will ever love me” to “I will never love anyone.” My negative self-image has shifted from “You’re an unlovable piece of s**t who doesn’t deserve happiness” to “You’re a monster. Why can’t you love like you used to?” I have gone from isolated and lonely to surrounded by friends and still not happy. It has gotten different. But it hasn’t gotten better.
So I don’t say “it gets better.” I’m not nearly positive enough to say “it gets better.” Instead I say “don’t give up.” It’s succinct, and I think it gets the point across without undercutting the suffering of the individual.
“It gets better” is a sunny platitude muttered from the mouths of those who are not in the heat of battle. “Don’t give up” is something you can yell to your compatriots in the trenches of anxiety and depression and bipolar disorder and whatever s**t may be going on.
“Don’t give up” isn’t so much a constant sense of hope, as there are plenty of times where I lose sight of hope. But rather, it is a constant desire to keep moving. It is an overarching drive that says even if you lose sight of the light, you keep on pressing forward. You keep pressing forward because it is simply the right thing to do.
And even if you haven’t made it out yet, even if the end still isn’t in sight, you don’t ever give up. You don’t ever give up because there are friends and family and classmates and professors and teammates and roommates and casts and crews to whom you are uniquely special, and who love you. Some days that isn’t enough to make me feel happy or hopeful. But every day, it is enough to get me out of bed.
It is my hope that this series has inspired someone not to give up in their fight. And it is my hope that someday, when I’m ready to lay down my arms and give up the fight, with the shells exploding around me and the enemy closing in on all sides, that someone will be there to say to me:
Don’t give up. Never give up.