I may “joke” quite often about liberalism being a mental illness, but I come to that conclusion with some authority: I struggle with mental illness myself. Not something I love to admit, not something I shout proudly on my t-shirts or my coffee mugs, but there it is. And it’s always there, no matter how wonderful my life may be going, I live with the constant reality that my brain just isn’t quite right. And that reality in itself furthers my struggle when I mess up and let it.
Honesty is something I care about in my writing, and in my career in general. I never want to put on a show for my readers, listeners, and followers. As clichéd as it may be to say, I want to be real and to show my real self to my audience whenever I can. A lot of people in this business take a different approach – they hide their personal life, mask their history, and just try to stick to their work as it relates to the present moment. There’s nothing wrong with that, in fact, for straight reporters at least, I wish it was a more common approach.
I’m the person who sits here before you, drinking some herbal tea because caffeine has been making my anxiety worse lately, talking about things that might very well make me cry to think about. I have a pretty long history with mental illness. My grandfather suffered from depression, among other things, and it seems whatever part of mental illness is genetically determined skipped a generation and went straight to me.
I had a great childhood. I was homeschooled, very close with my parents and two younger sisters, and really had no “reason” to have mental illness issues. And yet, one day, when I was about eleven years old, I woke up one morning and my life changed.
It was that simple – and that complicated.
I went from a happy, normal child, to a guilt ridden and miserable one. I don’t know how common it is for depression to have that sort of onset, but it did for me. I remember everything about that morning. I remember the way I laid looking at the wall, touching the soft pilling on my light blue sheet, the sun streaming in. Everything outside was the very same. But inside, I was different. Like a light switch. Darkness, all consuming.
My mind became a cage. To this day, even after heartbreaks and fights with people I loved and giving birth without medication and self-harm, I have never felt anything as painful as my childhood depression. And I pray I never, ever go through it again.
The biggest thing was the guilt. I had this weird compulsion (I now suspect some OCD elements) to confess EVERYTHING to my mother – and what sort of confession could an 11 year old really give? It didn’t matter. I still told her everything. I remember thinking these violent thoughts – I didn’t want to hurt anyone, not really, but the thoughts were there. I also thought constantly about ending my life. Again, I don’t think I ever would have done it, had I had the means to do so, but I thought about it. I was so, so, so sick.
I remember every day just excited for bed time – because I knew I could lay down, and I wouldn’t have to confess anything else, and I could just sleep and feel peace. My parents knew what was going on, of course, especially my mom, but I think they were afraid.
Long story short, my depression was never diagnosed or treated. One thought got me through every single day: “when you’re fifteen, you will be happy again.”
I don’t know why I thought age 15 – far enough away to feel possible that I would be better? Close enough that I could conceptualize it? Fortunately, it was closer to 12 when I got happy again. I never did anything. I don’t remember the day it ended. I remember a year, maybe it was shorter, but I remember this long period of endless time where my mind was a storm and I was drowning in it.
I had optimism. I had the childish hope and trust that it would go away, that I would get better. And I did. I’m not sure why or how, but I waited it out.
Fast forward to ages seventeen to twenty-two or so. I won’t go too far into detail, but I felt the monsters in my head rising again. This time, it wasn’t the cloud of depression – but the panicking, tingling, terrifying feeling of anxiety. My biggest trigger? Work. Having a day job. Great, right? Something everyone has to do to survive felt completely impossible.
The pattern was always the same: start a job, love what I’m doing and do well doing it (usually), and then for no reason at all, start obsessing about going to work and feeling trapped to the point where I spent every second between shifts anticipating the next one. The constant “help” from friends telling me that “well, no one loves their job!” was not helpful.
At my lowest point, I was drinking every single night and self-harming almost as often. I don’t say this to get pity – I made dumb decisions. I self-medicated. Until one day I realized that enough was enough, that I didn’t give a damn what anyone thought, I refused to live that way any more. I started an anxiety medication (I’ve been med-free for about 3 years now), I went to therapy, I quit my (actually awful) job, I left my (actually awful) boyfriend and moved home.
I fought it and for the most part, I won. It wasn’t normal, how I felt, and I know that now – because I have a job and I don’t feel like that at all. Sure, it helps having a flexible job instead of a 9-5, but I think it’s more than that.
I’m better because I understand my problems – but I don’t allow them to define what I choose. Are there days when I let fear and anxiety rule me? Yes. Are there days when I feel like that scared little kid, like no one will help me, like I just have to endure and let the demons come and pray they go away someday? Yes.
Lately, a lot of life changes have happened. I felt the anxiety creeping back. A few times, I got angry. I pitied myself. “Life finally feels right, and beautiful, and happy, and my brain has to mess it all up? Are you kidding me?!”
I used to let those thoughts consume me. Anyone who reads me regularly knows I’m a chronic overthinker – which can be great as a writer, but terrible as an anxiety sufferer.
Now, I don’t. I know that anxiety is a stupid mental illness and it can be beaten and millions of people have beaten it to the point where it doesn’t come up in their daily lives. I have a confidence that I never used to have. I know that if anyone can deal with some bulls*** mental illness and win, it’s me.
So how does this relate to politics?
Because doing this work, and learning about politics, and talking about politics, has made me realize something.
There is no certainty. There is no perfection.
Government will always be corrupt, messed up, filled with evil, wrong, inconvenient, annoying, and filled with impossible questions that we will be arguing out for the next ten thousand years. No matter what form of government we choose, no matter if we’re pure anarchists with no government or authoritarians under a benevolent dictator, politics will never be just right. As I wrote, the best it’s going to get is our only option.
And somehow, that idea, that realization that it’s okay to just be okay, struck a chord in me.
My mental illness will never fully be gone. There is no magic pill. There is no perfection. There is no guarantee that the people we love will stay, no guarantee my son will be safe, no guarantee I will look the way I want, no guarantee that I won’t lose everything I have tomorrow.
Realpolitik? Real mental wellness. Whew, there’s a sentence I bet no one has typed before!
But it’s true. We are complicated human beings. Whether it’s me, alone, dealing with what happens inside my brain, or me, voting in an election that deals with what happens in my entire country, it’s all the same.
It’s going to be okay – or it isn’t. And sitting around being afraid and full of doubt and self-hatred will never make it any better.
This is why I love “politics”. It’s so much more than the sum of its parts.
Politics helped me find peace with my own mind. I will have to work to keep that peace, but it’s okay, because now I know how to do it.
The mental security I spent my life searching for can be found by knowing that everything is insecure.
Figure that one out.