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  • Alexandra Hillenbrand

a reflection on forgiving yourself for being mentally ill (geez there aren't any succinct titles for this?)

I grew up naïve and simple. My older sister had to pull me out of dangerous situations with a tight-lipped command and a hand in mine. There were always skid marks on my knees from tripping up stairs and walking into obvious corners. There was the tendency to collapse in a heap of laughter at the dumbest joke, or an out of context comment. It was easy, to divulge my life story to my parent's friends on the walk home from the playground. It was even easier, to brush anything off - dirt, drama, or dissonance.

So, maybe it wasn't me being naïve, perhaps it was something called being carefree. I could play pretend like it was nobody's business, inventing stories with dolls and rolling in piles of leaves like they were made out of fairy dust. I hardly thought to practice before I spoke, never once swallowed a joke, or bit back a smile. I was silly, loveable and living wholeheartedly for each moment.

In my relationship with anxiety or depression, I have often felt a surge of anger. There is a sensation of unfairness, of feeling like I was robbed from ever getting to be 'normal'. Why was it okay to give me my first depressive episode when I was 11? Where was the toolbox that other people seemed to have, to never self-isolate, to not turn inward and shut myself off from the world?

It's a sentence I uttered when I graduated from college almost a year ago. It's a weird sentiment, to be exhausted by life at the age of 22. "I could have been great," I told my family. "And the only reason I'm not it because of me."

Where I was once a high-achieving, self-confident, light-hearted kid, I had transformed into a shell of myself. No amount of faking it until I made it stopped the internal monologue of self-loathing sentiments and grappling with failure.

I had graduated with no honors, a disillusionment of myself, and a realization that the future wasn't near, it was now. I had no plans for it. Hell, I wasn't even sure I wanted to be there for it. I was taking life day by day, swallowing grains of sand through every attempt to keep myself afloat, and wondering how no one around me could see that I was drowning.

When your own brain is your greatest enemy, it's hard not to harbor a grudge. I had every mental and personal capability to succeed at school, but I let myself give up instead. I felt guilty, of course, remembering teachers who had pulled me aside and said, "you should be getting an A in this class, so what's going on?". I couldn't give them the full answer, not the real one. 'I find it impossible to focus on anything other than how lost I feel' is a pretty lame excuse. Instead, I gave them a nod and a promise, "I'll start trying harder." Of course, I didn't.

Similarly, I look back on certain lost friendships and wish I could go back and shake myself out of my own self-sabotage. 'You'll miss her', I wish I could say, 'and you'll only realize it when you're 22 and finally have the frontal lobe to see it for what it was'. A person who knew you. Someone who could bring out the lighter side of the 13 year-old who wore dark eyeliner and a stoic expression. But, I would have never seen that. I was only capable of feeding my personal victim-complex and striving for some external measure of validation that might have silenced the voices in my head.

And I look back on others with a sense of ever-present isolation. Like, I could hear a certain song and the pit in my stomach will resurface and I'll never have the answer of what I could have done differently. And I'll just have to understand that maybe I was just never going to be enough for them. Or, that they are out there someone regretting loosing me, the same way I think about the ladder, and we'll finally have something in common other than circumstance. But thinking about it too much is a rabbit hole of misery.

Grieving the person you could have been if you never made any mistakes is useless. It would be insane if I never cried in bathroom stalls at school or bawled my eyes out at my first job. If I never burrowed myself in my bed and re-watched Pride and Prejudice for 24 hours -straight, avoiding an assignment and the reality of having to face my ex-bestfriend at school the next day. Maybe I would have gotten into a 'dream' college and had the same friends I had since I was 16. But life shouldn't be made of the 'didn't happens', it should be focused on the future.

When I hit rock bottom a few months after graduation, at the very least, there was nowhere to go but up. Although I didn't look at it that way at the time, it was a wakeup call, nonetheless. I was like a buoy, floating interchangeably among the waves of other people's opinion of me. Is that really who I wanted to be - someone who let words or perception break my spirit? Someone who had already turned inward to begin the destruction herself? The answer was a clear no. I lived with horribly uncomfortable, soul-crushing pain for months. I never imagined a world where I could overcome it. The feeling of wanting to give up on it all stays with you. I am still the only person who can choose to tell it to go away.

The bad served as opportunities to learn. At 13, over-using my Naked palette, with a jet-black under-eyeliner and bright white eyeshadow in my inner corner lent to a realization that I didn't need to scare off the world. Then, scoffing whenever a person suggested watching a rom-com and requesting 'real cinema' instead is merely laughable now, with the entire canon of my Netflix history having Drew Barrymore or Sandra Bullock as the female lead. Throughout my life, pushing people away or holding them too close taught me the metrics of healthy relationship. Engaging in self-destructive behavior made me want to address the root issues. Growing up too fast made me want to never grow up at all. Until I faced a choice: rise to the challenge or get left behind.

A year ago today, I wasn't determined to keep trying. I wanted to relish in the 'could-have-beens' and the missing pieces. Waking up was a battle in and of itself, and falling asleep was impossible.

That hill was mine alone to climb. Nobody could save me, but myself. Others did push me though, they acknowledged my faults while asking me to strengthen the good. Which always existed, by the way. No matter how caked in self-loathing it may have been.

The reason I know that I am different now? Because I feel more connected to that carefree little girl than I ever have before. It's a better lens though. I have all of the experience and gained perspective to use it for the better. It's not like I never get bogged down by the negative, but I can usually see the light on the other side.

Without metaphors or long-winded allusions, I no longer have to get defensive about the way my mind works. It thinks it's protecting me most of the time, from rejection, heart-break, or danger. But, half the time it's wrong. It's okay to leave the house, or to text a friend first, or to say the wrong thing. It's okay to ride the subway, or drive my car, or write about the way I feel.

I can laugh about who I was without feeling like I am disparaging that version. She was brave and resilient, with everything inside of her mind telling her it would just be better to give up than to take a chance to try again. I feel empathy for her, but I don't feel like I am her.

Would it have been easier if I had never stopped myself from being happy? If my mind never darkened and I never learned to self-sabotage? Of course it would have been! But the difference now is, I wouldn't trade those experiences, no matter how upsetting, for a perfect life. A year ago today, that was my only solution to my sadness. To start all over and do everything perfectly. Now, I see those experiences as the necessary calamities to make me a better, more reliable person.

On my worst day, I was only ever trying my best. On my darkest day, there was always a light at the end of the tunnel - no matter how obscured the view was by my own hopelessness.

If you take anything away from this post, I hope it's that you are capable of change. You can be happy. You don't have to resent your circumstances forever, and you don't always have to listen to your mind. The past is interesting, but it isn't everything. I hope you stick around to see that.

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