I’d like you to imagine two women. Picture their lives, their surroundings, and their motivations – picture what makes them them.
Idealised images of the young professional
The first is a young professional; what do you see when you picture her? Undoubtedly a millennial, glued to her phone in an ultra-modern office full of bright, vibrant colours. A morning run squeezed in before a breakfast of smashed avocado on toast (shared on Instagram with perfectly curated hashtags) in a minimalistic kitchen in a flat she’ll never own.
The second is a young woman with a mental illness; what do you see when you picture her? Can you conjure up an image? Are the colours drab and grey, does she stare blankly ahead, eating a breakfast of cold toast in a messy room? Is she silently scrolling through social media, seeing the seemingly perfect lives of people she hasn't spoken to in years? Do you see someone sad or someone dangerous? Do you see a person at all?
Whilst I happily confess that I prefer my avocado-based mush on the side of Mexican fast food and never have I ever gone on a run before work, I am the first woman in the above scenario - the young professional.
I am also the young woman with mental illness.
The stigma we face
The reminders of my struggles with mental illness are jarring; people's averted gazes upon noticing my self-inflicted scars, cardigans donned in meetings to hide them. The nurse from the hospital I volunteered at calling because I had disclosed self-harm on my volunteer form, and my emphatic response that I had “grown out of it” was a myth I desperately wanted to believe. The denial of health and life insurance when I bought my house and they asked how many times I had self-harmed or attempted suicide since the age of 13. They're disconcerting reminders that I don't quite belong on that side of the fence. The side of the fence with social media ready lives and the tick boxes of modern “success”. After all, successful young professionals don't struggle; they share motivational quotes, drink fancy green smoothies with spirulina and kale, and go to spin class twice a week. They don't lose nights to lying in bed hoping sleep will come, obsessing over whether the front door they checked three times is really locked.
It seems that I am, at all times, two opposing versions of myself; like oil and water, they never truly mix. I'm left to try and bridge the gap and find out where each part of me fits into my overall being. The truth is, if you cannot imagine the young professional and the woman with mental illness as the same person then you're not alone - because neither can I. On a cognitive level I understand that someone can be both a young professional and mentally ill: accepting it is a different story.
Selfies to suicide
Yet in me they both exist, strikingly juxtaposed. My phone contains the obligatory folder filled with endless nearly identical selfies and photos of my dog, but also a goodbye note. I wrote the note a few days after Christmas when, after a nice night out with friends, I casually decided that my life was going to end. Perhaps not that night, but on any given night in the future. A note I can't seem to part with but don't know why I'm saving. Maybe I was pleasantly surprised with the eloquence my prosecco-soaked brain managed to muster, or perhaps it runs deeper than that.
Granted, my temperamental mental health has served me in some respects. My deafening perfectionism - although cruel at times - has always driven me to improve. I graduated top of my class at university, already in full-time employment in my field having volunteered and interned my way through summers, studying diligently for every assessment. My personal life too paints the right picture; I'm in a long-term relationship and we travel as often as we can. Condescending millennial stereotypes asides, I am the picture of the young professional, and I've built my sense of self around that.
Can I even be ill if my life is this fulfilled?
It doesn't change the fact that there's a chasm inside of me, created by years of perfectionism, that no amount of validation can fill. There are visible and invisible scars that never seem to fade. I spend time obsessing over any mistake I make, and the pillars upon which I have precariously placed my sense of self and my recovery threaten to topple down. Where and how does this fit into the life of the young professional?
On the other side of the fence, I am as similarly displaced; I don't seem to fully belong there either. I'm reminded that I'm too “high functioning” and my symptoms often fail to meet diagnostic criteria. I've never needed time off work or university. In fact, my attendance is generally fantastic even on the days where eating lunch was a near impossible task. I even doubt myself: can I even be ill if my life is this fulfilled? Did I really do well in work or was that hypomania masquerading as talent? Where do these versions of me overlap and where do they swap over entirely?
How can I expect society to accept that mental illness wears many faces, some just like mine, if even I can't marry up the two parts of myself to form a whole person?
Separating the self from mental illness
No other kind of illness demands that the sum total of our being is synonymous with our symptoms or diagnosis. Yet, with mental health it's sometimes hard to distinguish where we begin and end, separate from our illness. Society has clear lines on what is and isn't okay to share, to be, or to feel, and it has clear lines on what a person with mental illness is or isn't. With 1 in 4 people in the UK struggling with poor mental health in their lifetime, I think it's time for those lines to blur. It's time that the walls, self-imposed or otherwise, come down and we start talking openly about mental health. There is no one way to experience or cope with a mental illness. There are many days where I am genuinely happy and fulfilled, many months where I love my life. I am not the stock image of the shabbily dressed person clutching their head in concentrated despair. I am not what you imagine.
I'm telling you this because I can't be alone, and there are people out there slipping through the net. My inability - or society's inability - to accept these two sides co-existing meant that I didn't reach out to anyone for help until my symptoms were debilitating again, until I went three days without eating and seeing nothing but fog around me. I thought that I couldn't be both these people, that I could choose which one to be. So I buried it deep inside and was devastated when it crept back to the surface, like I hadn't worked hard enough to suppress it.
- See more: Conquering anxiety: pathological fear and its manifold causes
- See more: Join the mental health conversation at MHT Wales 2019
The "troubled" celebrity but "crazy" friend
We think of mental illness as one thing when really, it's many stories, each as important as the other. We deem successful people as "troubled" when their lives seem to go awry - when they self-medicate, burnout, or die by suicide - but we reserve "mentally ill" for those whom we consider to be truly "other" in society. But we are not "other": we are your friends, family, and colleagues. We are even your boss. Until we start to accept that mental illness is as personal and complicated as people themselves are, and that it doesn't discriminate, we will continue to lose people. We will continue to mourn the “greats” like Chester Bennington, Chris Cornell, Anthony Bourdain, Robin Williams, Kate Spade, Keith Flint… (the list is gut-wrenchingly long) and brush the “others” aside with dangerously stigmatising language like “deranged”, “difficult”, “psycho”, and “crazy”. It's a scenario that isn't working for anyone, and together as a society we need to start working through our prejudices towards mental illness.
Being a professional and being mentally ill are not mutually exclusive
I’d like you to picture two women.
The first is a young professional; what do you see when you picture her? Do you see the moments she doesn't share on social media? Do you see the self-doubt or the guilt or the shame?
The second is a young woman with mental illness; what do you see when you picture her? Do you see the smiles and the laughter? Do you see her grateful eyes drink in a sunset or the love she shares with friends, the happiness she surrounds herself with?
Do you imagine that the two could ever exist in the same space? Because they can - and they do. I am proof.
Lisa is a professional in her mid-twenties who began writing about living with mental illness after the death of Chester Bennington. She uses her Twitter and her blog to raise awareness, reduce stigma, and advocate for better treatment for those living with mental ill health.