The Riotous Courage of Being: Bravery and Mental Illness

I have never understood people who sleep easy. For as long as I can remember, I have struggled with falling asleep. Don’t get me wrong: I adore dreamland, once I’m there. The passage over, however, tends to be rough. I have the most difficult time turning off my mind. As an example: I’m writing my first draft of this piece at approximately 12:34 AM on my iPhone, after several solid attempts at slumber. Insomnia hasn’t been as bad of an issue lately, but my old friend visits from time to time. When I was a child, though, it was unbearable. I spent the first 45 minutes to two hours every night trying to stop the day from wheeling about in my head.  It was in those moments that my constant companion, Fear, would crawl into bed next to me like the worst housecat ever.  Every shadow was a monster, and even the air was suffocating and foreign, as if my lungs belonged to someone else.

When I got older, those first few hours would play like a blooper reel of my most embarrassing moments from the day, paired with contingency plans for every horrible event that could possibly happen.  What would happen if my parents suddenly vanished?  Who would take care of us? These questions were punctuated by mental calculations: if it was 1:03 right now, and I have to wake up at 5:15 to catch the bus at 6:00, how much sleep can I get tonight? And what if I don’t get enough sleep and something terrible happens?

My mind is a busy place.

And so I developed a method for helping myself to sleep, which worked about half of the time.  I would make up stories.  If I didn’t think about my own life, I could usually lull myself to sleep.  I usually made up stories about my favorite cartoon characters and put myself into them.  That’s right: I was writing fanfiction before I could actually write. If I’m being honest, I made some vast improvements to the canon of The Cowboys of Moo Mesa.

I still put that technique to work when I can’t sleep.  Some of my best stories have come from those pre-slumber moments. When I was trying my hardest to fall asleep, I used to tell myself stories about bravery.  When I was a child, I knew what bravery looked like. Bravery meant women warriors in fantasy lands, starship captains, queens and princesses and sacrifice. I knew that I wanted very much to be brave. I used to imagine what would happen if an adventure were to appear at my window. I used to dream that I would be brave enough to take it, but as I couldn’t recall reading about any heroes who had to sleep in their own bed with exactly three pillows and a stuffed animal on each side for symmetry, I felt that I would be ill suited for bravery. I didn’t think that brave people spent most of their time being wary of the toaster or checking the under-the-bed every half-hour or telling themselves stories so they could get to sleep every night. Brave people, I reasoned, could do things I couldn’t.

Later in my life, bravery came to mean different things. Bravery meant going on dates with boys, driving on the highway, and studying abroad in France.  Bravery meant throwing parties, going to parties, and deciding to road-trip at the last minute.

I did none of those things.

Because I had such conscripted ideas of what courage was, I felt as if I were a coward. A coward with an advanced degree and a stellar work history, but a coward nonetheless.  I felt that I spent so much time managing my anxiety that it took me twice the effort to maintain what other people thought was a “normal” life.  Constant policing of my mind left no chance for valor. I was afraid of spontaneity because I thought it would break the brittle ice standing between my outside composure and the maelstrom of tics, compulsions and noise that threatened to spill out of my mind. I saw other people my age dropping everything to travel abroad, to pursue a calling in New York or Los Angeles, to fall topsy-turvy in love and embark on a romance for the ages.  I didn’t understand how I was supposed to go out and chase my dreams when it took all I had to hold myself together, and I was ashamed of my fear.

I’ve learned, however, to both forgive myself for my perceived shortcomings and to redefine courage in the face of all I have undergone.  I’ve learned to weather life in a world that I find often overwhelming and frightening.  I’ve overcome the clamor in my head and the roaring in my ears enough to engage with the life all around me.  I’ve moved through the panic to form attachments – which, if we are honest, are messy, entropic things by their very nature.  Love is complex, intuitive, and absolutely terrifying. People are unpredictable. If courage is defined as moving outside of one’s comfort zone, then I may be the bravest of people.  Do I take medicine to help me do this?  Yes. Yes, I do.  But the fact that I take medicine to keep myself healthy in mind doesn’t undermine the strength I have at my very core.  The courage.

Mental illness has a pronounced, devastating effect on one’s sense of self.  I don’t mean “self-esteem” in the fabricated, superficial way we so often encounter.  I mean, rather, the connection between our minds and our inner selves – our personality, if you will. As a person of faith, I think of that transcendent part of myself as my soul. Mental illness kills your ability to recognize the value of your own soul, because your perception of reality is skewed and sick.  I know that from first-hand experience, and having people pat you on the back and tell you “You’re all right,” does very little good.  It feels like charity.  And you know for a fact that it’s a lie. You’re not “all right.”  I certainly wasn’t.

Instead, let me reassure everyone who suffers from mental illness that you may not be “all right,” but you are brave.  When you feel as if every breath will collapse your lungs, breathing is brave. When you are frightened of the Outside World, going to work is brave. Holding conversations is brave when you feel yourself drifting away inside yourself whenever you start to speak. You may never travel abroad. You may never “find your calling.” For some of us, life itself will be the greatest battle.

Simply being is act of riotous courage.

Yes, mental illness is “all in your head.” By it’s very definition, it is in your mind.  But that doesn’t make it any less real.  This is something that is happening to you, and it is real, and you are brave – however you choose to weather this storm.  And once I realized that – once I realized that forgiving yourself is wonderful, but not as wonderful as not punishing yourself to begin with – I started living my life, not in spite of my anxiety, but with it.

I decided what I wanted and threw out the list of “Things You Have to Do Before You Die,” because life cannot be a checklist governed by the fear of Death. I accepted that my fear will always be with me, but that I am powerful because I stand in the face of Fear and know it by its name.

I did drive on the highway – at age 24, on my own terms.  I never lived abroad – but I learned to treasure the close relationship I gained with my parents in its place.  I did quit a job to pursue my passions – though I still have to manage the panic caused by jumping out without a safety net.

I’ve even fallen in love.

All of that seems pretty courageous to me.