I've had my eye on the Bravelets company for a while now. With every purchase you make, 10% of net profits are donated to a cause of your choice. When I saw that there was a sale, I bought two bracelets and chose the National Alliance on Mental Illness as my cause. NAMI is an amazing organization that's committed to helping people who are affected by mental illness. Not only does it advocate for public policy that will strengthen mental health, but it also offers educational classes that help teachers, families, and individuals understand mental illness.
This small purchase has made me wonder what it means for someone with a mental illness to be brave. But this eludes an easy answer; I mean, being mentally ill can mean a million different things, just as being brave can mean a million different things.
I've noticed that the conversation about mental illness can be unproductive. I hear about people who successfully eliminate medication from their routines... or who meditate daily to help them gain more control... or who embrace essential oils to calm themselves. Those methods are great. But they're not great for everyone, which is why I worry when people endorse their way to treat mental illness as the way. Mental illness is not like a Hallmark movie—it's unpredictable, and it's different for everyone.
Being brave with a mental illness is being responsible. It's understanding that your treatment plan should be personalized. It's being willing to invest time and effort to figure out that plan. It's respecting your strengths and your breaking points. It's asking for help and being able to filter good from bad advice. It's owning it. And that's hard... good hell, that's hard.
A couple of years ago, I had a student who experienced a crushing bout of depression. At first, she tried to balance school and her mental health simultaneously, but the crisis was too much. I remember when she approached me after class to tell me that she was obtaining a medical waiver for all of her classes, so she could devote all of her time to her health. She kept apologizing, but I told her that her decision was incredibly brave, and I admired how she was taking responsibility for her academic career by first taking responsibility for her health. I don't see a lot of students do that. I'm afraid many believe that mental illness is somehow an illegitimate condition... that maybe they would feel less embarrassed to ask me for help if they had been impaled with a lance.
I make these observations, but I don't pretend to be an expert about this. I can count my bad days based on the number of cereal boxes I go through in a month. But I have a plan. I consume Lithium pills like they're tic-tacs (I sound like an addict, I know). Last week, I needed a refill and two girls saw my pill bottle (I'll be honest—the bottle looks like the cylinder container that banks use for pneumatic tubes.) I heard one of the girls whisper, "Now that's what I call dependency." I smirked and resisted the urge to punch her. I remember thinking, You best hope I don't hunt you down if I ever go off these meds. But after I simmered down, I realized that I am dependent on these meds, but that's nothing to be ashamed about, especially when they help me feel my best (and help me avoid punching stupid girls).
In addition to taking my tic-tac pills, I call my parents and talk to them whenever I need help. I respect my need for solitude. I keep a weekly log of my moods and note when and why I don't feel my best. I find that a little healthy self-deprecation helps me stay positive. This plan works for me, but it won't work for others. The point is that I try to be responsible about my illness, even though it's taken me years to figure something out. But the journey is so worth it. And this process has helped me learn that my mental illness defines who I am, but only in the best ways.
Being brave is hard, especially when mental illness gets such a bad rap. I've spent the last few years researching late 19th-century perceptions of mental illness, and it's remarkable how those century-old, ridiculous misconceptions have permeated modern-day conversation. It's never shameful to put mental health first, and anyone who says or makes us feel otherwise is a piece of... turd.
I also told that former student that she was one of the bravest girls I had ever met, and I meant every word.