Trigger Warning: Suicide, Self Harm, Mental Illness, Bipolar Disorder.
Do you know what is really frustrating?
People I come across now who “cannot function unless they’re, like, doing 1,000 things at once.”
And I’m not talking about those who like mentally need to do that in order to survive. I’m talking about neurotypicals who romanticize drinking 30 cups of coffee and running from train to train to be superheroes—because I literally was one of them until six months ago (an overachiever, not a neurotypical.)
There’s this societal notion that if you’re “doing a lot” that you MUST be impressive, that exhausting yourself to adopt new projects and hobbies and accomplishments is admirable—that human suffering is secondary to constant output and contribution.
I have never come across critical analysis challenging it. I was raised, much like other children in high-pressure homes, to have ideal expectations of myself. And I thrived for a while. I was the “honor of the family,” I was the kid other parents would compare their children to, the one who will “do something big for humanity.”
Until, of course, I fell mentally ill. Until I experienced physical temporary paralysis. No one told me that in the years that followed, all the countries I escaped to, all the trips I took and the nights I vigilantly forced myself to push through school and work on side projects, that I was simply adding to my deterioration. Nobody told me that I should stop—that these “compensation accomplishments” are unnecessary.
Every therapist, every family member, every friend would gaze at me in awe that I was still “able to do so much” and overcome my incredible circumstances that debilitated me mentally and physically. But nobody considered asking themselves, why am I only praiseworthy when it relies on how I overcome hardship in the first place?
And my mentally-ill ass suffered so badly for it that it ended up in the ER, it had nights of self-harm, confusion and disarray—while I still wondered: why am I not healing, even though I’m pushing through so much?
Like the Chinese finger trap, I stretched myself further and further and then asked myself why I was still in a rut of self-loathing and despair, while outwardly being showered with praise. “You’re so inspirational! You’ve accomplished more in 20 years than what people do in their entire lives” — even if all of it was done out of mania and extreme fear rather than willful participation.
Do you know how easy it is to disguise manic episodes as productive output?
Complete a month’s worth of coursework in six days (Just don’t eat or sleep).
Go out at 2 A.M. for a drive and just don’t look at where you’re going or where you’ll end up. (Every Pinterest girl’s dream! Until you realize you’re running away from your house and you can literally drive off a cliff and not care.)
Take an impromptu trip abroad for “relief work” (Teach kids! Nobody can criticize that, it’s good work, right?) and force yourself to climb a mountain (Even though you were paralyzed four months before and this is your way to telling your nagging brain, “See? I am not useless! Please stop feeding me with my own worthlessness.”)
It’s so easy, that I even convinced myself. And the world’s affirmations only strengthened this.
I’ve thought about this over a course of four to five years now because I remember I would sit in psychiatrists’ offices and repetitively ask the same question: why am I not motivated? Where did it go? What the hell can I do to be motivated again? Why is my manic depression (more popularly known as bipolar disorder) swallowing me whole from the inside?
It physically perplexed me that literally no one and nothing had the answer to that question. That all of my willingness to do anything disappeared into thin air and I had no means of getting it back.
No matter how much exercise I did, or how many “admirable” projects I undertook, or how much praise I received, my brain continued to tell me to kill myself every few days.
I got extraordinarily lucky. I am beyond privileged because recently, I coincidentally got to escape my abusive household and simultaneously find an apartment with a partner who understands mental illness, who emotionally supports me and encouraged me to literally just…take a break for a year from everything.
He told me to stop thinking about what I “need to accomplish next” and do nothing. For a year—from university, from constant work, from toxic friends, from everything.
And about six months later, I find myself healing—but even more, discovering that I used to hate myself. I hate that I felt the need to push myself to do a hundred things in order to feel valuable and invested in the world.
The world has evolved in such a way that continuous labor with insufficient reward is conditioned as the norm. Where it’s sometimes obvious (in the 40+ hour weeks that working parents expend for minimum wage) and sometimes not so obvious (in the way capitalism trickles down to permeate our understanding of how we should function in order to yield “success”).
It’s great when you’re the star child with two published novels, a black belt, a graduate at 16 with high honors and next up on Buzzfeed’s profiles of “Youngest ____ to Do a Task Most Humans Can! Praise!” But that stack of hollow accomplishment falls apart really quickly when the thorn of turmoil (or even just your everyday systemic oppression and injustice) pushes at you enough.
Lucky for those who can overcome it anyway. People will use your example to describe your strength. “It was God’s way of testing you.” People will praise you for fighting and making it out the other side. But who will care for the severely mentally ill survivor who is just about to give up on any means of actual hope? Who will care for the disabled and bed-bound blogger begging people for donations to afford rent because the government refuses to provide enough disability aid? Exactly.
Stop telling me that you just cannot function unless you’re “trying to be superwoman doing everything at once, haha. :)” You’re romanticizing exhaustion and hardship.
I urge you to consider the consequences of suffering. I urge you to assess the way we normalize behavior and ridicule unforeseeable circumstance. I urge you to redefine the scope of struggle itself and come towards productive solutions to begin to address ourselves.