I Am Not Mentally Ill. I Live With Mental Illness.

October 10th was World Mental Health Day. One of the many goals I hope to accomplish through this business is to raise awareness and reduce the stigma surrounding mental health disorders. Official statistics say that 1 in 5 people live with mental illness, and while that 20% figure may cover chronic and severe sufferers, I believe *most* people deal with mental health challenges at some point in their lives and have no idea help is available OR are too ashamed to seek it out.

I was diagnosed with complex PTSD and bipolar II disorder in 2017 but developed the conditions as a young teenager. Let me be clear: I didn’t just live with my conditions. I thrived with them. I’ve had a job since I was eleven years old. I dedicated myself to my studies and then my physical therapy career. I met and married my husband and had two beautiful boys. It was only once I had children that my illnesses--misdiagnosed for years as postpartum depression and anxiety--started affecting my ability to cope with life.

How could someone have TWO severe, chronic mental illnesses for nearly thirty years and not even know it?

The answer is that mental illness doesn’t look anything like I thought it did. Mental health is a spectrum, and the severe cases that come to mind are the exceptions, not the rule. Mental illness isn’t represented only by those who cannot perceive reality or those who take innocent lives. In fact, those who live with mental illness are far more likely to be VICTIMS of violent crime then perpetrators of it. Mental illness may simply look like stress, irritability, emotional sensitivity, fatigue, high energy levels, distractibility, worry, rumination, disordered eating, excessive drinking and even perfectionism. It may look like above average levels of intelligence and empathy. It may look like racism and misogyny.

When I was struggling last year, my wise teacher Alex gave me this advice: “don’t take ownership of it. *You* aren’t depressed, you’re dealing with depression. It’s not who you are, it’s just something you’re living with.”  Separating myself from what I was experiencing was a first step toward empowering me to fight this battle I neither asked for nor deserve. We all have our battles to face, though, and this just happens to be mine.

I’m finally finding my place in the world. Not in spite of my mental illnesses but because of them.

Kathleen Schwarz