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My Pain Is Valid

By Lea Grover 10/29/15

I am living with mental illness, and I am strong. I am capable. I am determined to survive.

Lea Grover

When I was 14, I attempted suicide. I had suffered from depression since I was eight years old, and had a concrete plan for over a year before I acted on it. There were a lot of things that contributed to my decision to end it all. I hadn’t slept for months. I no longer found any joy in reading, writing, watching movies. While I had previously spent my sleepless nights wandering around my suburban neighborhood, the winter cold kept me inside, staring vacantly at my bedroom walls and fantasizing about death. The end of winter break was coming, and that meant a return to school, and facing a boy who I tried to tell myself hadn’t raped me weeks before.

But the final straw was that I had a really nice day. Unlike the hundreds that came before, it was fun and pleasant, and I found myself smiling and laughing without fighting my face to mimic the reactions it used to make on its own. Near the end of the afternoon I caught my reflection in the bathroom mirror, and I didn't recognize myself. It was the face, which wasn't a particularly happy one, felt so disconnected and distant from the emotions pulsing numbly behind it, that pushed me over the edge. I went to my bedroom and began writing my suicide notes. Dozens of them, for my sisters on their birthdays and wedding days, to my friends, to my parents. All apologizing, the words, “I’m so sorry,” becoming sloppier as I wrote them the tenth and twentieth and thirtieth time.

My plan failed. While I was going to add a final ingredient to my drug cocktail, to ensure I slept through the seizures and vomiting that were certain to come, I had incapacitated myself too much to walk the three steps from my bed to remove this last ingredient from my desk. I was unfortunate and and still breathtakingly lucky enough to be conscious for the painful hours that followed.

That I survived my attempt is miraculous. My heart is still damaged, will always be damaged both metaphorically and structurally, but my life is intact. It took a long time for me to appreciate that, but I do.

Depression is incredibly misunderstood. All mental illness is misunderstood—we seem to have the belief that brains can't get sick. If somebody has liver disease, we understand that their jaundice is real. If somebody has kidney failure, we don't shame them for dialysis. If somebody breaks a bone we sign their casts. We sympathize with dental emergencies, with cancer, with nervous system disorders more easily than we sympathize with mental illnesses.

We don't understand most of what the brain does. We know you can remove a whole region of someone's brain and another part can learn to compensate. We know right controls left and left controls right and we know where some motor centers and vision centers lie, but we don't know how much of it works. We don't know what about the brain makes us feel, what part houses the ego and the id, where our sense of humor lives, what causes déjà vu.

The idea that our brain can become sick, sick in such a way that the only symptoms are our private thoughts and behavior, our ability to experience joy and pride and even love, is terrifying. The idea that anyone could wake up one day with a sick brain, a brain that doesn't know how to process emotions, that doesn't remember how to laugh, that sees the faces of the people it loves and feel nothing, that's terrifying.

It's so much easier for people to say it's not real. It's so much scarier than any bogeyman.

But it is real. Mental illness is a physical illness, an ailment of a physical organ, and as terrifying as it can be, it can also be treated. It can be treated before somebody is so poisoned by their own sick brain they believe the only escape is through death.

I've been living with depression nearly my entire life. I have experienced decades of insomnia, of anxiety, of suicidal thoughts and yes, a suicide attempt. I have outlived postpartum depression, one of the worst periods of my life, and I have overcome PTSD. I am proud to call myself a warrior, a survivor. If they made bandanas and blenders and bumper stickers covered in the green Depression Awareness ribbon, I would rock that gear year-round.

When I compare depression and cancer, people tend to get offended. Cancer, they say, is real. Cancer kills millions of people a year. Cancer is aggressive.

Mental illness is also aggressive. There are more than a million suicides each year. Mental illnesses can come and go into a sort of remission, like cancer. Depression is a disease nobody ever asks for. Like many mental illnesses, it can be treated with medicine, can be treated with therapies, can be treated with support and positive thinking, but it also can come back. Like most malignancies, you're never really cured, you're just stable. You’re just waiting until it comes back, angrier and stronger and with a chip on its shoulder. The struggles you experience, from your symptoms to your medications' side effects, are valid.

There is no shame in mental illness. There is no shame in being sick, period. Our bodies are fallible. Our brains are part of our bodies, as uncomfortable as that idea might feel. That so much of who we are resides in our brains is the bad luck of biology.

While I have never been glad that I am one of the millions of Americans who suffer from depression, I am proud to be a depression survivor. I am glad I have the ability to talk to other people suffering from mental illness, to let them know that I understand. I've been there. I'm not proud to have attempted suicide, but I am grateful that I can speak from a position of compassion and comfort. I'm glad that I can speak to a world full of stigma against mental illness from a place of stability.

I am living with mental illness, and I am strong. I am capable. I am determined to survive.

And I am determined to help others stand with me.

Lea Grover is a writer and speaker living on Chicago's south side. Her writing has been featured in numerous anthologies, and on websites ranging from to AlterNet to Woman's Day. She speaks about sex positivity in parenting and on behalf of the RAINN Speakers Bureau.

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Lea Grover.jpg

Lea Grover is a writer and speaker living on Chicago's south side. Her writing has been featured in numerous anthologies, and on websites ranging from to AlterNet to Woman's Day. She speaks about sex positivity in parenting and on behalf of the RAINN Speakers Bureau. You can find her on Linkedin and Twitter.

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