The Strength Within

When you look in the mirror, whom do you see? Do you see someone you admire, or even like? Do you see anyone at all?

Mental illnesses – or mental challenges as I prefer to call them – are in some respects undergoing a revival of awareness in the modern arts. As a society, we are increasingly attracted to movies or books with biographical elements. We enjoy reading about the lives of celebrities and the memoirs of ’ordinary’ people, hoping to find understanding of significant others and of ourselves within them. Stories such as "A Beautiful Mind" and "Girl, Interrupted" have inspired the current generation of filmmakers to shed light on mental challenges. Yet, in some ways, these studies are safer than a close examination of the self: the challenges are removed beyond ourselves, and can be denied and pushed away.

We all know someone who has mental challenges. Sometimes, although we may not like looking in the mirror, that ’someone’ is ourselves. In a world where normalcy is valued, it is difficult to confess that one might be having difficulties in one’s mental life. I am a physicist, a writer, an empathic soul, and a woman afflicted not only by the cognitive difficulties of an autoimmune disease and fibromyalgia, but also by major depression: that most common yet serious mental challenge. Yet, in order to grow, I had to look at myself honestly and recognize that I had other challenges to face.

I have a dissociative ’disorder’. In retrospect, this state of being manifested itself in my early years: the product of life as a sensitive child in the care of two highly stressed parents, struggling to conceal their own differences from everyone, especially themselves. It is not my parents’ fault that I am marked by this difference, nor is it anyone else’s, especially my own. My only fault was to bury my difficulties so deeply and to deny recognizing myself, such that those who might have helped me could not see what was so well hidden.

Instinctively, a child recognizes his or her differences, and adopts strategies to mask them, once it is understood that those differences are unacceptable. One of my coping strategies was to become what was needed to escape scrutiny. By becoming hypervigilant, by monitoring my environment constantly, and by learning when to ’disappear’ or to change to fit the situation, I learned to deny and avoid my true nature by the age of four. At school, as an A-grade student, and then at work as a developing research scientist, no one saw the pressures I was under. It was vital that I showed the normal ’Jane’ to the world. Even in my twenties as I mimicked my parents’ stoicism and submerged my emotions, hiding inside alcoholism and even moving physically to another state, I ran from the real problem. The problem was my fear to face the real me.

During many years of therapy and drug treatments for major depression, I searched within the therapeutic community for ’the answer’ to my mental pain. I never saw that my search was peripheral to the true goal, which was raising myself out of denial and looking at myself, not with fear or judgment, but with self-acceptance and self-love.

It took me over a decade of searching to overcome those fears and judgments. Invisible to everyone around me: colleagues, friends, husband, and even myself, I underwent a disintegration of self. On one occasion, after having my stomach pumped, I found myself apologizing profusely to a hospital psychiatrist for causing them trouble. After discharging myself, I cut dried charcoal out of my hair as easily as I had cut away my sense of self. Over those years I suffered episodes of self-harm, brief hospitalizations for depression, frequent over-medication with inappropriate psychiatric drugs, the collapse of my health to autoimmune disease, the failure of my first marriage, and the death of my father.

One day, after twisting my ankle whilst already nursing a broken arm, I finally realized that I was an unconscious participant in my life. The inner struggle had manifested itself outwardly. At that, my turning point, I realized that I truly needed to wake up, or my next ’accident’ might be permanent. I had spent so long looking for myself in others and, ultimately, it was only the strength within that could save me.

I made a conscious decision to live and wake up. While the years since then have been filled with the struggle of many mental and physical challenges, I can pause at this point in my journey and say that I made the right decision. Back then, I never anticipated the moments of joy the future would bring me: the loving partner to share my life with, the two wonderful daughters to whom I could become a proud and nurturing parent, and the joys of a new life in Canada.

My journey is far from over. While my own efforts to sabotage myself are coming to an end, the work required to nurture what was hidden away and to love the person buried within is just beginning. At last, with the precious support of my partner, a counselor and a peer support group, I am learning how to connect with the world once more – as my true self. I am learning that it is all right to be authentic. I am also learning the importance of balance: that to be a strength to oneself is not enough. Ultimately, one must also learn to let people closer and find the skills to ask for help: skills that I never learned. As I move through the labels that once defined me, it is my goal to prove that intelligence and mental challenges can co-exist; that mental challenges do not preclude sanity, nor do they preclude the ability to be a contributing member of society.

My journey has led me to the realization that I must leave behind family and friends who cannot embrace the full person who has emerged in place of the shell I used to be. As I leave denial behind, to embrace the challenges and to rise above them, I grow in confidence that I will not only become healthier, but also happier.

When I look in the mirror, I want to see more than the partially disabled woman with so many flaws. I want to see something to admire in her. I want to like her. One day, I hope to love her. On this journey, like so many others hidden away in their rooms, both real and mental, I hope we may all realize the strength within us. That those of us living with mental challenges – no matter how big or small – will find ways to express and empower ourselves, and to gain recognition in our own right.

Unlike John Nash, the schizophrenic hero of A Beautiful Mind, we shouldn’t need to win a Nobel Prize to prove to others – and ultimately to ourselves – just how worthy and valuable we are, both for our unique mental gifts and for the potential of what we can become.

Jane Waterman is a freelance writer and scientist. She is presently working on a graduate degree, her memoirs and a first collection of short fiction, which she hopes to publish this year.