The Blessing of This Curse

April 21, 2017
A smiling man talking to a student in his office.

One of the myths of mental illness is that people who live with it cannot be productive members of society. Many people believe that we’re violent, we’re basket cases, and/or we have split personalities.

As someone who lives with both anxiety and depression, and has a history that includes childhood trauma as well as two separate traumatic experiences as an adult, I respectfully disagree with those myths.

Further, I resent them. I resent that society might very well act as though there is “something wrong with me” because I choose to see a mental health therapist. When I needed physical therapy for a leg injury, I didn’t hesitate to put that on my calendar at work—the one visible to my colleagues.

As for my mental health therapist, that appointment stays private.

And after a couple of those appointments, I couldn’t come into the office at all. Therapy can be really difficult and exhausting work, both physically and emotionally. Some of the experiences I’ve been numb to for so long are powerful in their emotional impact. When those things come up, part of me wants to tell myself to suck it up and just stop thinking about it. But as it turned out, that attitude hasn’t been the best way for me to cope with any of it.

Perhaps I should back up a bit. I also know some stuff about the neurological effects of trauma. When I first started doing the research, purely out of fascination (because brains are cool!), I could almost feel the knowledge tugging at my brain, whispering, This is you.

Then I started seeing some patterns in my thoughts and my behaviors: flinching when there is no real threat, constantly feeling paranoid and that the people in my life were out to get me, an almost complete (and innate) lack of trust in everyone, the rush of emotions that demanded immediate attention at the cost of everything else. The amygdala can so easily override the frontotemporal lobe, and I researched about how the Broca’s area could just shut down and not allow a person to talk because a memory was too powerful … and I’ve literally felt those things happening, too.

Unfortunately, through my experiences in therapy and in life, I’ve realized that just because I understand how the brain works doesn’t mean that I can override shutdowns when they happen.

Which is scary, but even more, it’s frustrating.

It’s frustrating because I’m at a point now where I can literally feel the tug of war between the irrational fears and the rational thoughts in my head. Thanks to the many insights I’ve had through therapy, rational thought is winning more often, but there are times when irrationality gets the best of me.

In my workplace, I am fortunate to have nonjudgmental and forgiving colleagues. When I am abrupt with them, I can apologize and know that such an apology will be accepted. There are even a few with whom I can speak openly about my anxiety and traumatic experiences, and again, there is no judgment. There is a lot of compassion.

Compassion for others might be an odd side effect of my struggles with my mental health. I understand what it is to struggle every day, and, as human beings, I find that we are far more alike than different. So, if I’m struggling, then others probably are too. Save for the days when I am self-absorbed and lost in my own head, I like to think that my experiences can make me a relatively empathic listener, and I always have tissues nearby. And a hug if someone needs it, even though I’m not a particularly affectionate person.

And that’s the blessing: turning the unique skills that my anxiety and trauma have embedded in me into skills I can choose to use in my everyday life. For example, I am keenly observant of my surroundings, and this includes the people around me. If my senses insist on being constantly on high alert, then I insist on using that information to assess, say, which nearby person may need a friendly smile or a kind word.

If you know me well enough, then I have likely said the following phrase to you:

The worst day of my life was also the best day.

But it took years for me to see that.

And that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any bad days—days when I’m shaky or my mind is racing and I can’t figure out why. But it does mean that my coping skills have improved. Since I cannot change my past or my anxiety, then on the good days it means that I can use them to my advantage.

Now, I’ve never been sure where I get my optimism from. Somehow, it exists. On the worst days, I resent its utter foolishness. But on the good days, it helps me see the light and hope in my fellow human beings.

And on the best days, it reminds me that we’re all kind and flawed and beautiful, and just trying to survive our own private myriad of internal battles.

Resources and recommended reading

How to find a good therapist

Further reading*

* Trigger warning
Due to their nature, these books touch on some stories, examples, and experiences that may be difficult for some readers to visit. Remember that it’s a book, it can be put down, and think about whom in your life you can call for a bit of support.

Professional training

To further foster a culture of acceptance in the workplace, CPI has a Topic Module for all Certified Instructors, which addresses the challenges of mental illness in the workplace

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