“I hope you get better,” the nurse said as she left the room.
I smiled and looked down.
She paused at the door and spoke again, “I really hope you get better.”
The doctor came in shortly after and it was as procedural as it could be. We traded pleasantries and I talked about my job. We acknowledged my weight being a bit down from my last visit. We even pointed out how my bout with bronchitis had passed. He then asked his standard series of questions and I gave him my standard series of responses:
Within twenty minutes, I was back in my car. And within thirty more I had my prescription. Mission accomplished. But as I sat there and stared at the paper bag of pills, the nurse’s words kept coming back:
“I hope you get better.”
I wasn’t there because I wanted to get over the flu or because I had strep throat. While I had some poison ivy on my ankle, I wasn’t there for skin cream or itch relief. I wasn’t even there for a physical. In truth, I was there because I am, by all accounts, mentally ill.
It’s rather scary when it’s phrased like that. It feels as though calling myself sick implies that I’m not able to function or that I can somehow infect the people around me with my brain germs. Even as someone who has been rather outspoken about his struggles, there’s just something in the word “illness” that rubs me wrong. Unlike getting bronchitis or a sinus infection, you just can’t take an antibiotic, rest, and drink some orange juice to get better. “Getting better” doesn’t feel like a realistic option because “getting better” sounds like being healed.
Over two years ago, I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and depression in my therapist’s office. Years of undiagnosed struggles, unspoken insecurities, and unhealed pain brought me there. I couldn’t be in a car for more than ten minutes without panicking. I couldn’t get myself out of bed in the morning. I lost interest in just about everything. I wanted to harm. I wanted to quit. I wanted to end the thoughts.
I remember telling my therapist all I wanted was to be better.
If we use the deepest valley in my life as a benchmark, then I’m happy to report I got better. Much better. Therapy, medication, and God helped me through that darkness. I’m not suicidal anymore. I found direction in my life and a job I’m passionate about. I have a community that cares for me. By the fall of 2017, I was even able to come off my antidepressants. With so many tangibles, it’s easy to say that I was, and am, better.
But, the truth is, I’m still not mentally healthy.
While those benchmarks have been reached and are by no means tiny accomplishments, I’m still not healed. That dark place I was in wasn’t just from faults in my mental health, but rather the result of it absolutely spinning out. I am no longer falling apart, but it’d be dishonest to say I haven’t struggled since.
People get anxiety, everyone falls into funks, and everybody feels sad sometimes. It’s normal. It’s the brain’s response to stress, heartbreak, and disappointment. The ability to react in a healthy way, to cope, to refocus, and to ground, are all things we are capable of doing. For me, my struggles translate to a loss of control and an inability to react with healthy coping mechanisms.
At my peak of struggling, I feel as if I no longer live with my thoughts, but am controlled by them. Not so much in a brainwashed, super-villain-weapon-esque way, but in the way that I just get lost in my mind. Those anxious and depressive states lead me to feel like I’m taking a step away from reality and entering an area where my surroundings are moving but the only thing existing are my thoughts.
If “getting better” is reducing the occurrence of those states, then by that logic I have gotten better. I’m aware of what makes me low. I know my triggers. I know what it feels like when I’m slipping. My behavior, my outlook, and my happiness are blatantly different when I’m struggling versus when I’m not. Less bad days means I’m happier and being happier means I’m better.
But mental health doesn’t work like that either.
This summer was the best summer of my entire life; the happiest I have ever been. I worked with purpose, with fulfillment, and with community. I felt loved by those around me, my God, and myself. Even on the rainiest of days when I was tired and cranky there was no place I would have rather been. I truly was happy. Yet, I still had struggles.
They weren’t seismic lows or anxieties that shook me to my core. There were no major triggers or feelings of slipping. I was able to pull myself through or at least distract myself long enough to get a hold on it. In all cases, they were just weird, abnormal feelings. But they existed.
Which is what brings me back to that office with the nurse and the doctor.
I had a backslide at the beginning of October. A bad one. The depression and anxiety were back with a vengeance. It was terrifying, but it prompted me to find new solutions. I didn’t want to submerge myself in pain and wait (or hope) for it to pass this time. Instead, I texted my therapist, emailed my pastor, and set up an appointment with that doctor to discuss antidepressants.
Just as the nurse had wished for me, I too want to be better. But better, when it comes to mental illness, isn’t charted with benchmarks or being able to say “I’m cured.” Better for me is finding the best possible way to live and function while having struggles. I want to continue to grow and understand why my brain works the way it does. I want to learn how to prevent myself from closing off when I’m hurt. I want to put the work in and be able to stay rooted and confident in myself, my beliefs, and my mental state. I want to be the best me.
At the end of the day, God made me this way for a reason. I may never know why, but he did. I was also made with the ability to grow while struggling, to love while hurting, and to be hopeful while falling. I may never be perfect, but I am able to be better.
Alex Milner is a recent college graduate and writes independently. You can connect with Alex on Instagram at @alexander_milner.