I remember once, probably at the height of my slump into depression, that one of my friends who I’d pushed away, like I pushed everyone away back then, told me that I was being selfish. It’s an odd thing to hear when you’re riddled with anxiety and have such low self-esteem that if someone stabbed you you’d probably ask them if they wanted their knife back. It’s also probably not the best of things to tell a mentally ill person. But it was also true. It’s perhaps hard to hear when you’re at such a low point in your life that your actions can be described as selfish. Maybe the only thing you pride yourself on is your humility, how little you do care about yourself, how little of a threat you are. But as C.S Lewis says: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less”. Arrogance is so often borne of insecurity, of self-loathing, of masochism, it’s why we fail so often to recognise it. But there is an absolutely vital distinction to make between self-care and selfishness and its a tragedy that the lines between the two so often become blurred.
Mental illnesses can make you prone to lashing out in anger or despair, they can make you prone to distancing yourself from loved ones, they can cloud your vision and drain anything that was once positive out of your life. It’s more than just not being happy, it’s like you can’t bring yourself to be happy, you can’t eat, you can’t sleep, sometimes you can’t even move. Then your friends get mad at you for not going out to this or that and you really want to but it’s like you’ve got a rock holding you down. Your friends ask you what they can do to help and you don’t even know what you want, you don’t know what will make you feel better. You could have everything you desire in the world and still feel like you meant nothing, that you are nothing. As you push your friends away the words telling you that you amount to nothing get louder and louder and the world becomes so bright and so noisy that even in the solace of your own bedroom you can’t escape. I’ve been through all of that and it’s awful, I’ve seen friends and family so sick that they can’t go into school or work, I’ve seen what happens when people can’t go on. And yet despite all of that I’ve seen unfathomable strength from those people I know who suffer from mental illness, they’ve been some of the most admirable people I’ve ever met. And they’ve realised that there is only a link between mental illness and toxicity if you let there be one.
It’s not my job to tell people the right and the wrong way to live with a mental health issue. All I can say is that mental illness doesn’t deprive you of character unless you let it. Mental illness doesn’t deprive you of freedom of action, it gives you an extraordinarily bad hand in starting life but it doesn’t deprive you of the right to play the game. How you live with it is entirely up to you, whether you do the wise thing and seek help and treatment or let things slide and become bitter and resentful at the neuro-typicals around you, is up to you. But the burden of your happiness lies with you, it’s your responsibility and yours alone. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t seek out those that can help you whether they be medical professions or good and understanding friends, that is part of your responsibility. But you can’t expect to jettison the responsibility for your own well-being on somebody who faces issues of their own.
We so often pick out certain people and rest the meaning of our entire existence, our reason for getting up in the morning on their shoulders. But it’s unhealthy, not just for them but for you too. You are your own independent person and looking for somebody to “complete you” is a mistake. Your mental illness doesn’t make you less of a person, it doesn’t define you or make you small. It’s part of one of the hundreds of attributes that make our characters. You might be of the opinion that your character doesn’t matter all that much but it’s precisely that way of thinking that leads to the toxicity, to the suicide threats, to the self-loathing and the morosity that drives those that can help you away. The strength of your character isn’t just important for you but for everybody else in the world who you touch, whether through friendship, through blood or through a smile at the library or the checkout. Who we are is the accumulation of what we give each other. If you treat yourself like somebody you care about it won’t just result in a happier, healthier you but in happier, healthier people who can surround you and keep you level.
The point of calling out people who use mental illness as an excuse for their toxic behaviour then isn’t to shame them, to silence them or erase them. It’s to acknowledge the fact that people with mental illnesses are like any other people, with strengths and flaws. It’s to acknowledge the importance of self-care and of acceptance of problems and of the bravery in seeking for help. It is only through recognising our problems, taking responsibility and seeking help that we can have any chance of being a better person tomorrow. And being a better person tomorrow isn’t just important for you, it’s important for your friends and family around you, and the friends and family around them, and for the flawed and wonderful people who make up our country, our continent and our world. All of that, starts at self-care.