Generally speaking, mental illness is not something people are thrilled to identify with or experience. I can’t say I’m often jazzed about chronic fatigue, self-doubt, and the emotional imbalance that accompany my illness. Things I could live without, am I right? However, a life without depression would not be life as I know it. Despite my struggles, I am grateful for the life I have built, and part of that includes an understanding of an evolving identity that includes mental illness. For the purposes of discussion, I say “perks” mostly with tongue-in-cheek, however, along my journey I’ve noted several ways my depression has enhanced my life rather than detracted from it.
Better insight into moods and feelings: Being vulnerable to unpredictable changes in mood and well-being, I’ve become adept at identifying my feelings quickly and accurately. Most times, I can sense the signs of an oncoming depressive low, for example, when I find myself derailed by a seemingly unimportant event, such as routine blunder in my dating life. When I’m healthy, something like this wouldn’t faze me (I’m basically Mary J. Blige) but a disproportionate emotional reaction is often indicative that I’m spiralling. I’ve had to learn to stop, evaluate, and put a label on my feelings (shame, embarrassment, anger, etc) so I can do something productive about them – share with a friend, discuss with my therapist, or sit with them and allow them to run their course.
Grateful for contentment: In my late teens and early 20s, I was always chasing the next source of excitement in my life. More often than not, I overdid it in pursuit of bigger and better thrills – too much drinking, partying, unhealthy lifestyle choices, blowing my budget. All of the excess would leave me with an emotional hangover that could last for days. I realize now, it was the depressive lows that I was trying to outrun. Maturity helped – I eventually lost the stamina for thrill-seeking, but I also came to value the stability of contentment and happiness over whirlwind excitement. As someone who is always pursuing emotional equilibrium, being content is the new goal.
Empathy and Understanding of others: The obvious one: having a lived experience with mental illness personally and within my family, I’m well equipped to be compassion with people sharing similar experiences. While I would never suggest that I know exactly how someone feels, as everyone experiences their feelings within their personal context, I can certainly relate to how frustrating and exhausting mental illness can be. This understanding makes me a better friend and family member, and gives me a strong skill set to support my clients in my line of work.
Quality Relationships: Friends that love you even when you’re feeling about as fun as a bag of bugs are treasures to your life. I’ve been absolutely #blessed to have friends who not only tolerate my illness, but wade around in the muck of it with me when I need them to. These are the friends that notice small changes in my behaviours and regularly engage in meaningful dialogue with me. These are the people who love me and see my value. I have had to let go of people along the way when I sensed I could only be one version of myself – the happy, positive, over-the-top energetic version – and I wasn’t confident my depression would be accepted or understood. If mental illness gives you anything, it tells you who your people are.
Permission to be Honest: Being honest about mental illness can be very freeing. There is an unmistakeable sense of relief in verbalizing that, “sometimes I’m not okay”. I hid behind a convincing semblance of “being okay” for a long time, and it was ultimately detrimental to my well-being because- surprise! Depression eventually surfaced to greet me anyway in spectacular fashion. Now, I can talk about it without fear of being discovered because I’m no longer pretending I’m okay when I’m not. In being honest about the problem, I now have a better sense of what I need to take care of myself and I’m always pursuing avenues to improve my well-being through research, therapy, medication, self-care and reaching out to my people.
So, sure. Mental illness has a pull on me that can cause difficulties in my day-to-day. And there are certainly symptoms I’d be pleased to live without. As a result of my challenges, however, I have gained insight, self-awareness, empathy and gratitude, and these are qualities I can’t imagine living without.