Mourning the life I thought I was living

Growing up, I was a studious, perfectionist go-getter. Even in my earliest memories, I was focused on getting perfect grades, having perfect behavior, and even eating the perfect diet. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life, but I told myself that all I had to do was focus on getting into a good college with a scholarship – and my life would would then take place without too many setbacks.

This was my approach for the first eighteen years of my life. I managed to get a college scholarship in seventh grade, took all the AP courses offered by my school, played sports, ran clubs, volunteered, and became valedictorian of my high school. I got into an “elite” private college with everything paid for. I thought I was ready.

Soon everything collapses.

My diagnosis changed the course of my life

During my second semester in college, I experienced a manic episode and psychosis with no warning or apparent cause. For a week, I slept half an hour every night. I barely ate. I spent all my time working on my art (I was a fine art student focused on traditional printmaking). I started to think I could fly and almost hurt myself badly several times. My mind was constantly racing and my body never seemed to slow down. Worst of all, I had no awareness of anything wrong. I didn’t wonder if something was wrong. I didn’t know my life was going to change.

What goes up must come down. I slept for 22 hours straight and woke up depressed and suicidal. I started planning my death. Fortunately, I managed to ask for help. I went to the college counseling center and spoke up. After my confession, I ended up in the psychiatric hospital, where I stayed for a few months.

During treatment, I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder (bipolar type). Ultimately, I experience depression, mania, delusions, and auditory hallucinations.

In the decade since that diagnosis, I have spent my time trying to heal. It was an unpredictable journey, with many setbacks. Hospitalizations. Suicide attempts. Medication changes. Psychotic episodes. Sexual assault. Therapists. Doctors. Electroconvulsive shock therapy. Chronic disease. Life.

For each of these setbacks, I also made progress in my recovery and understood the complex reality of adulthood.

I learned to mourn my original plan – and to accept myself

Often, I remember what it was like to feel mentally “healthy” – the way I was when I was growing up. It’s become almost impossible for me to remember it clearly, but I dream about it, and I want it. I wonder where I would be now if I didn’t have this disease. I wonder if I would have a degree, a stable job, my own house and the courage to drive a car. I think of how I was able to miss all the traumatic experiences I had in hospitals: involuntary stays, sexual assaults, loss of intimacy, loss of contact with the outside world.

Sometimes I think back and remember how easy everyday things were – and it’s heartbreaking. I know my illness isn’t my fault (and it’s in my family) but sometimes I wonder if I could turn back time and prevent it. But I also wonder if I would really make that choice. I’m not my mental illness – but it certainly carved me out. My mental health condition has affected every aspect of my life and many aspects of the lives of my family and friends. He informed who I am today and who I will be tomorrow.

It’s easy to say “you shouldn’t have any regrets” or “your struggles have made you stronger.” But it’s also good to mourn the life you thought you were living.

It’s okay to mourn dreams that didn’t come true. It is normal to mourn accomplishments that have not been rewarded. It’s okay to mourn the happiness, peace, and stability you’ve desperately sought. It’s okay to mourn the money you’ve spent. You can grieve by thinking about impulsive or embarrassing decisions you made when you weren’t yourself. It’s okay to cry knowing that your struggles may have taken things away from you.

I allow myself to mourn these things. I’m trying to be easier on myself — to fight my perfectionism and the voice in the back of my mind that says my illnesses are keeping me from doing everything I want.

I finally allow myself to be proud of the little things that I manage on the most difficult days. I allow myself to be proud of the days when I push thoughts of self-harm away. For when I speak and share my struggles. For when I call my therapist instead of hiding from the world. When I just get out of bed.

I think we could all use a little more self-compassion, right?

Josey is a professional oil painter and printmaker, yoga teacher and aspiring writer. She uses her passions to feel alive and to help her live with bipolar schizoaffective disorder, PTSD and anorexia. You can see her designs on her website.

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