Voices

For years, I thought my mental illness was a personal failing

A person sits by the window with a small smile on their face. There are potted plants on the window sill, and tall buildings outside. There is a large grey cloud in the bright blue sky, and a beam of light shines through, illuminating them.

Having spent more than a decade just fighting against my mind to keep myself afloat, my diagnosis was, in one word, a relief. I realised that all along, I had been carrying the guilt that my mental illness had induced. I had held myself responsible for my behaviour, and anything in it that was even slightly different from what is neurotypical registered as a fault — a fault in my own self.

‘Emotional.’

I share a very conflicted relationship with this word. Growing up, my family regularly described me as ‘too emotional’ — their explanation of the fact that I cried very easily, and got intensely attached to people.

To me, it felt like I had to apologise for feeling my emotions, because I was told I felt them too strongly. To compensate, I did what I could do as a teenager — I decided I would be the opposite of emotional. Unaffected. Indifferent.

It took me more than ten years to finally understand that my seeming excess of emotions was, in fact, an issue of mental health. Two years ago, when I was going through a period of depression, I received my diagnosis. I live with borderline personality disorder.

Having spent more than a decade just fighting against my mind to keep myself afloat, my diagnosis was, in one word, a relief. I realised that all along, I had been carrying the guilt that my mental illness had induced. I had held myself responsible for my behaviour, and anything in it that was even slightly different from what is neurotypical registered as a fault — a fault in my own self.

The diagnosis meant that I was not making a ‘choice’ to be ‘emotional’ or ‘moody’.

Let me dial back to what I was carrying in my mind over the years.

When I was ten, I cried throughout an entire night because I thought I was not worth the gift that my family had given me for that birthday.

By the time I was sixteen, I had convinced myself that I was incapable of being loved. I thought I had to earn love by achieving something.

By eighteen, I had stopped feeling happiness. I distinctly remember being congratulated for something, and all I felt was empty.

A drawing of a person lying on their back, legs bent, head turned, looking into the distance. Their hair is dark black, and they wear a green polka dotted dress.

Credit: Helena Perez García via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When I was diagnosed, all these instances came rushing back to me, and while the diagnosis itself was empowering, I could not understand the difference between where the symptoms of my illness caused a certain action, and what incident contributed to the illness in first place.

For instance, I started seeking sexual pleasure when I was twenty. I decided to date people that would never give me a chance as a serious partner, because it was just safer to know that I could not be loved. I could not handle the intensity of my emotions. In the process, I faced abuse.

I also had body image issues, which meant that several times I was the target of a certain form of humour. I had a very poor sense of self, and more often than not I lacked a sense of what my own identity was. So, I played along, and joked about my own self.

In effect, I had created a web of explanations in my mind so that I could sidestep emotions at all points in time. When I slipped up, I reminded myself that I was feeling too strongly, and I had to stop feeling.

If I have to metaphorically describe my mental illness, I would call it an invisible cloud whose weight I carried with me for a very long time. This meant that on occasion I would see sunshine, but mostly I was just stuck under a raging storm cloud, while kicking to keep my head above the water it continuously poured down on me.

I felt like this for over a decade, every single day. As an adult, I made drastic changes to my life in an attempt to escape this cloud — I changed cities almost every year. I changed jobs, career paths, dated with reckless abandon, traveled a lot — all in an attempt to escape. What I did not follow then was that the cloud did not exist away from me. I carried it with me, and so no matter where I ran to, it came with me.

But I managed to stay afloat. I found ways to distract myself, and survive through the worst of the storms. And finally, after many years, I was fortunate to have access to therapy. I found a psychiatrist and therapist, who diagnosed me.

I am currently on the path to recovery. I have slowly learned to start feeling once again. I let myself cry once again and learned to not apologise for it. I learned to accept that feelings are inevitable, that they make up the very essence of living. Now, I finally admit that emotions are natural, and the way I experience them may not change. I no longer feel attacked when I am called emotional. I reject it as a label, and embrace the existence of emotions.

I still cannot differentiate where my illness ends, and where I, as a person, begin. I don’t know which of my decisions are the consequences of my illness, and which ones aren’t. I am also exhausted, especially because I am constantly questioning and overthinking every statement that is made in my interactions with other people.

This means that I cannot hold down a 9–5 job, or even hang out with a large group of people.

But a sure sign that I am recovering is that I can see a sunbeam of light through the cloud. There are many days when I don’t even feel the weight of that invisible cloud, and that is a freedom I have never known before.

Swetha Dandapani is a communications professional who writes, reports and creates videos. Her mental health has defined a lot in her life, and she hopes she can communicate more about this journey.

Featured image credit: Alia Sinha

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Point of View Team