Life is a painful journey but we can walk together

This is an editorial post unrelated to gaming, MMOs and all the silly things that also make me happy.

Last Friday night I got together with my oldest friend for dinner after a long stretch of radio silence. Silence not just from my side – ever since worklife has caught up with us after leaving university, the periods of not seeing each other have grown longer. I’ve come to accept this about adulthood; that we all get caught up in our private and professional lives, people moving away or getting married, changing jobs and struggling with all the daily tasks and responsibilities. We all do our best to stay in control but there are times when it’s hard to muster any more energy after the day is done. Before we know it, we start existing and stop living. That is especially true for those who are used to shoulder much more than just their share.

The overlaps of history between my friend and me are remarkable. Not only has life insisted on continuously bringing us together time and again ever since we were both 9 and 10 years old, as if our own winding paths could never part for long, I have also never known anyone to share that much of my own biography, so many experiences and constellations that made us who we are now. It’s this kinship that wipes whatever time away that may have passed between meetings. As long as we keep having these regular brushes, even per SMS or email, our friendship endures. That said, longer stretches of silence are usually a bad sign. That is certainly true for the extrovert types that we both are, who insist on functioning no matter what and have never learned to share their own pain, only share in the pain of others.

The moment she stepped into my new home, I felt it. She looked pale, she talked differently. She was like a tired shadow of her other version. I showed her around, I poured a drink wondering how best to catch up. And as usual, it didn’t take long – over the course of dinner I got to tell her what a rotten year lies behind me, how my partner finally started therapy for a complex case of childhood PTSD and how things are slowly improving for the both of us, step by step. I don’t hold back on these topics anymore; I’ve come to know too many wonderful people struggling with anxiety disorders or depression, to maintain any sort of shyness or tolerance for stigma around these discussions. Fuck stigma. Fuck the whole masquerade. Life is raw and deep and painful whenever it stops being easy.

I’m done wasting my time with false pretenses. When my partner decided to tell the world (as in all relevant environment such as friends and the workplace) that he had been suffering for over thirty years and that he was dealing with things now, in a serious manner by whatever help necessary, my heart ached with pride because he decided to stop hiding. When I think of how medication-based therapy enabled my mother to build a second life from scratch after the age of 55, when the alternative would have been death or hospitalisation most likely, there is only thankfulness in me and empathy. It’s such a huge step to get yourself help and turn your life around, no matter a more introvert or extrovert type of personality. Only you can do it and the pain tends to get worse before it gets better.

Opening up about these issues broke whatever fabric my old friend had wrapped around her pale exterior. She’s been going through her first ever rough patch that is in fact about herself. She’s a nervous wreck, she can’t sleep at night for all the noise in her head, she’s experienced several anxiety attacks at the new work place. Her body is acting up. After a life of achieving and caring and carrying, she’s finally stretched so thin that her entire system starts revolting. She’s being forced to focus on her own needs and she has no idea yet how to do this. Her first instincts are probably to write a list of priorities and weigh the pros and cons, so yeah she needs help…I was very glad to hear she’s already reached out about this to her GP.

It’s all so familiar. The moment my partner finally and earnestly got into therapy (which took three attempts), my energy levels completely rock bottomed. I got sick with serious infection several times in a row and my nerves deserted me even on trivial tasks. I have never felt as spent. That is the aftermath of overcoming hardship more often than not – it’s not sunshine and cheerfulness, it’s a deep well of exhaustion. Before you can move on, you have to breathe out and recuperate.

We’ll learn. Today I believe in baby steps, in cherishing lighthearted moments when they occur. I still look forward to things but I don’t plan so much anymore. I let things happen rather than making them – I am learning to chill. My friend is currently at the stage of debating whether she should tell her superior or not and if she can get a grip with “just a few GP sessions”. She worries about coming across as unprofessional when sharing too much about her life and well-being and I don’t blame her. But I also know that there are things you cannot hide from others. You can try of course but it won’t do you any good. When you reached the point where a condition or illness temporary or otherwise, manages your life, it is an impossible task to maintain the act. More importantly however, you are missing out; you’re missing out on reactions that will surprise and humble you. From the moment we open up about what is essentially our human condition, people around us will come out and connect. I have co-experienced this twice now and it’s stunning. Truth liberates, there is magic in being truthful about yourself. It also means you’re taking back ownership of your life by switching on the light in those dark corners. What we keep in the dark makes us sick. When we further isolate ourselves from others, we cut away all opportunity.

No matter where you are, in this moment there are people around you with the same struggles, keeping quiet about the same things. The minute you come forth, there’s a high chance of experiencing togetherness, empathy and support from unexpected places rather than rejection. And inadvertently, you will become someone else’s spring of hope, too. It’s as if everyone was just waiting for a chance to chime in. This is life and it’s happening to everybody! If you think you’re immune to it, I say give it time.

I am glad I was able to support my friend in her time of need. She’s already tough but now she’ll also learn to be human – and that is an experience worth having. Last night my partner and I came across Wil Wheaton’s contribution to the “UR OK” project on youtube and we were both deeply moved by his words that describe much of what we’ve been through. It’s not over, every day is another step on the journey. There will be days of pain and more growth and there will be days of joy and not feeling bad, until we realize that this journey is really just life. And we can all walk together.

6 comments

  1. Mental illness is just that. Illness. Maybe it is temporary, maybe it is chronic, but it needs to be treated just the same. We attribute who we are more to mental attributes than physical, such as personality, smarts, how we cope and react, so when illness threatens these, we feel it so much more keenly than a physical illness, which leads to that stigma you talked about.

    Getting a broken arm, we can talk about that no problem. Anxiety disorder? Most people jump to “Something is wrong with him/her/me…”, and that makes it very difficult to have a frank conversation about it being illness–something treatable with help/medication/therapy.

    My mother was hospitalized for depression for nearly a year when I was about 12. My step-siblings have been diagnosed with Tourette’s, ADHD, and OCD. I’ve dated folks with depression, anxiety disorder, alcoholism, and drug dependencies (generally some overlap between those).

    None of that makes them terrible people, or less of a person. None of that makes them unworthy. My mother is much better at coping, understanding her limits, etc. for her treatment. My siblings know how to work past their illnesses. My exes have all gotten treatment or are getting treatment and are in much better places than they’ve ever been in their lives (I should note most of them dumped me because if that stigma; they felt unworthy, which is bullshit, but eh, their decision at the same time).

    My point is that mental illness is something that people get. You get physically sick, a chemical imbalance can make you mentally sick. You get help, you get it treated. You might be treating it for the rest of your life. But it’s extremely rare that you can’t be helped at all. I just wished the rest of society had that figured out.

    Thanks for writing this Syl. It’s an important subject.

    1. Thanks for sharing your personal experiences. It’s just as you said – if your body had a calcium or vitamin deficiency, nobody would ask you to just snap out of it either. Everyone would assume you’re taking care of it and maybe also take meds if required. Only when it comes to mental illness, there’s still a stigma attached which proves that this topic still isn’t treated seriously enough in some corners. We’ve already come a long way though and am positive education on these matters will continue to become more widespread. In the end it’s about informing ignorance.

    1. Haha thank you! :D Things are getting better with each day and it helps knowing I’m in good company and surrounded by great people I can reach out to.

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