I was thirteen years old when my plight with serious, chronic illness began. It was a terrifying time of medication, infusions, and tests that made me feel like my body was less of a living, breathing miracle and more of an object that needed fixing. But I won’t get into all of the specific details. I want the focus to be less on my life and more on our lives and on the struggles that we all face, whether we are dealing with something terrible that has happened to our mental health, our physical health, or both.
I have found that mental health is often overshadowed by physical illness. There was a certain unspoken expectation that I had to mold myself to fit the “inspirational sick child” stereotype, and because of that, I felt too ashamed to address my mental health difficulties. I began to feel as if my body was not a home. The skin and bones I had known became hostile territory. I felt as if there was something wrong with me when I began to experience grief and depression. I didn’t want to tell others about my overwhelming urge to cry when the doctors searched and searched for more abnormalities to list in the fine print. I didn’t want to tell anyone about how I suddenly wanted nothing more than to rid myself of my body — a vessel that others called beautiful, but that I saw as a shadow of its former glory. I never acknowledged how truly sick my infusions made me feel, and I pushed aside the tremendous fear that I would experience when I thought about feeling that sick again in my lifetime.
Because of that, my mind suffered. I felt myself receding to a dark place. At the time, I didn’t realize how much my mental health was overlooked during my physical health crisis. After all, it is much easy to order diagnostic tests and send a patient away than it is to make sure that patient gets quality mental health services too. The truth is, I felt stuck – stuck in a body that I no longer wanted. I spent so much of my time trying to fix my body’s physical shortcomings that I almost forgot about my mental health. I felt enormous pressure to live up to the expectations thrust upon me, and in turn I hardly realized the most inspirational thing I would ever do was acknowledge the fact that I was experiencing a mental health crisis.
After months of wandering aimlessly in the dark, the light began to come back into my life. I finally seemed to be making progress in my physical treatment, and even though there were still countless doctors to see, vials of blood to be drawn, and difficult days to come, I was out of the immediate storm. I thought I’d be able to move on with my life, but to my surprise I found that my mind still had trauma to sort through.
I tried to rush healing. I told myself that I shouldn’t keep reliving my trauma. I told myself that I should be able to move on from the trauma as easily as the trauma moved on from me. But somehow, I could never shake the feeling that at any moment my life could be ripped from me. When I looked in the mirror, I still saw my frail former self staring back at me. I was haunted by both my past and my future, and I was too afraid to ask for help. Reluctantly, I went to counseling. I began to practice mindfulness and meditation. I let go of my own stigma surrounding getting the mental health services that I so desperately needed. And it was one of the best decisions that I have ever made. Now that I have begun to process the last few years, I have once again been able to immerse myself in the beauty of life and the miracle of existence.
Now, I don’t know your story, but I’d like to encourage you to get mental health services if you need them. I’d like to encourage you to make your mental health just as much (if not more) of a priority as your physical health. I don’t know what kind of trauma you’ve had to endure or where your mind goes at its darkest, but I think we probably share some common ground. Every one of us has been hurt by this world in some way. No matter the source, your pain is valid. And you deserve to feel as if your body and mind are yours.