This is What Mental Illness Looks Like

by LINDSAY S. WHEELER | STRONG MAGAZINE

Growing up in a small town in New England, I knew something wasn’t right. At sixteen, everything felt so complicated; the pressure in my head would build until an inevitable breakdown. On the outside, I was social, active, and carefree; but inside, this wasn’t the case. I struggled in school despite having the capacity to excel. I had chronic depression but didn’t have the tools to recognize it yet. Without knowing how to manage the issues I faced, I assumed I just wasn’t good enough. Stigma – which is discrimination against particular identities – also made it difficult to seek help. Fortunately, the culture around depression has changed a lot since then. It was a privilege to have grown up in such an affluent town, but as a young person it can seem like these issues don’t exist. Just as depression can live in the minds of troubled kids from ailing towns, it can also afflict someone from my sort of background.

“My anxiety was so extreme at the time that I routinely buried my face in my pillow, hoping I would disappear.”

My anxiety was so extreme at the time that I routinely buried my face in my pillow, hoping I would disappear. On my worst mornings, I had to be dragged from the school parking lot because I feared being somewhere I felt so alone.

“I’ve learned that “vulnerable” doesn’t equate to “weak,” and that we should never be ashamed.”

I fought so hard but couldn’t yet see it as the act of bravery that it was. As kids, we like to think we are invincible, when in reality we are vulnerable in certain ways. I’ve learned that “vulnerable” doesn’t equate to “weak,” and that we should never be ashamed. It simply means we aren’t equipped with the tools to help ourselves heal. As we age, we become consumed with adult concerns and can forget how difficult growing up can be. Bullying, which is far too common, can be so painful, and the pressure to be a particular way is crushing. Social media can exacerbate the problem, where we are encouraged to have a persona that’s inconsistent with lived experience.

But you live in a society that no longer expects us to be silent about these issues. 

I learned that I am enough as I am.”

I began to restrict my eating in high school; a common pattern sometimes called “concurrent mental illness.” It felt like a means to regain the control that depression took from me, and life became a cycle of sadness and guilt. It was a dangerous coping mechanism, and I hid in the depths of a full, but very sad, heart. I wouldn’t seek help until age 21, and by then I had done a lot of damage to my body. I was lucky to have finally realized I didn’t need to be ashamed about the hand I was dealt. I came to not fear the judgment of others because I learned that I am enough as I am. Treatment can look very different to different people, and there are so many different paths to happiness. Throughout my healing process, I realized that good did exist within me; it would just take therapy and hard work for me to be led, through a steady process, to my best self.

What once felt like a deep void has been filled with the courage I found when I said, “I am better than this.”

Today, I am proud to be exactly the person I once needed: a role model who seeks to help others navigate some of what I went through.”

Today, I am proud to be exactly the person I once needed: a role model who seeks to help others navigate some of what I went through. Slowly, I learned to channel pain in a healthy way, writing openly about my personal challenges. I write through elation, tears, and loss, finding sudden relief after I put my thoughts on paper. Sharing stories of darkness does not smother the light; in fact, I am following my dreams and laugh more than ever before. I walk fearlessly into the places I once walked out of, and for this – not despite it – I am loved. As I progressed, my mind became flooded with ideas, aspirations, and a newfound sense of motivation. I sing often, cook lavishly, eat real butter, and am even in the early stages of writing a book! I saved a puppy along the way, who I believe also saved me. His name is Tubs and he is a little bit emotionally fragile just like I am. Today, I can say that my fragility is my most respected asset. Mental health issues should bring us together, not tear us apart.

“You are not alone if you are afraid that you can’t share both the good and the bad...”

I no longer let worry make me physically sick and I fight for people just like myself, who have trouble seeing the light. I’ve been approached for insight on how others can find a voice like I have. They are unaware that they don’t need me; the power lives in us all. I am astonished by the bravery of each individual because years ago, I was in that place of vulnerability. But no other part of my history has been so worth living for. You are not alone if you are afraid that you can’t share both the good and the bad, but I – one who has seen the impact a voice can have – demand your trust. It’s your turn to fight; for your friends and for yourself.

I still have my share of bad days like anyone else, but twenty difficult years later, I am here to say it can get so much better. My hardest years led me to personal accountability and the endless patience and support of wonderful therapists, friends, and family. I would’ve been skeptical reading this years ago – laughing, crying, maybe closing my computer. But let my voice travel through that cold, glass screen of yours, or reach out to you from this page and earn your trust. My world was once a little grayer and I couldn’t conceive of what life through different eyes might look like. If this is something you or a friend can relate to, there are so many ways to get help. I am among the lucky to have realized it. 

Lindsay’s powerful and honest blog can be found at lswheeler.com.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

This piece was originally published in STRONG, a new magazine aimed at tween and teenaged girls that seeks to break the mold. While many other publications for this age group focus on celebrities, STRONG focuses on real girls with diverse interests. While other publications focus on body image and fashion, STRONG focuses on keeping a healthy body and mind. STRONG also presents great role models - girls who have overcome adversity and thrived, and women who are breaking glass ceilings in areas previously dominated by men. Visit www.strongmagazineforgirls.com to learn more.