“As I am. As I am. All or not at all.”

Sometimes I wish I could extract more quotes from a canon of literature that didn’t have so many dead white men in it, but sometimes you just have to suck it up and admit that you’re channelling James Joyce at the moment.

A few days ago, one of my friends sent me a quote from a science fiction novel written by a writer who is NOT in the dead white dude canon:

No, emptiness is not nothingness. Emptiness is a type of existence. You must use this existential emptiness to fill yourself. – Liu Cixin, The Three-Body Problem

I have been thinking about this a lot in terms of how to describe how I’m feeling. So far it’s something along the lines of “weightlessness” or “unvoiced-ness” or “numbness”. Self-destructive is also a close contender.

It’s been tumultuous, the last couple of days, with this on-again off-again feeling of a lack of control/auto-pilot bullshit, and some people have taken to the standard 3 step model:

  1. Ask if person is alright
  2. Person responds “I’m fine!” or along the likeness of such
  3. Subsequently, person will probably ask you the same, to which you also reply, “Good!” or similar

But what happens when people are not alright?

I should start by saying that it’s difficult to talk about mental illness when you don’t really understand it yourself. I know what it is objectively, I can define and describe all the usual qualities, but to talk about how it affects me? A task meant for someone else (or at least an older, wiser, more observant version of myself).

My biggest problem with people is the instant discomfort they experience when you say you’re not alright. This discomfort doesn’t usually happen when your answer needs to be pried from your mouth, but more often when you proclaim your discontentment freely, without doubt.

Why are you so sure of yourself? Why are you not happy?

One must be happy. Or they need help!

So people will help you out of the assumption that if you’re not okay, then you must want help. Of course, this isn’t a fault of anybody. They care, and they’re just doing what they know how to do. Perhaps they do it because they don’t know what else to do. Perhaps they do it because that’s what they would want others to do. Perhaps they do it because they think that’s what others want them to do. Whether it’s a social pressure or an inner drive, most people will go out of their way to help you when you say you’re not okay.

When I was younger and less affected by whatever’s going on upstairs, I used to tell people that I wanted to help others. Recently, I’ve changed that to helping others that cannot help themselves.

The reason that incited this change is due to my personal dislike of others assuming I want/need help, and acting on behalf of me when they believe I do, whether they understand the extent of their actions or not.

A weaker, pettier example of this is my mother whenever I try to cook. As a twenty year old, I feel like I should have some cooking experience because my parents always insist on cooking for me because they’re afraid I’ll hurt myself, but they also get annoyed that I can’t really cook. So whenever I cook, my mother always tries to fix what I do in anticipation of my making a mistake, which I appreciate, but that in itself will impede me from actually learning.

A more salient example, however, is when I was told my event for my club hadn’t gotten a room confirmation yet, and I said I was stressed about it. Instantly someone started telling me that it wasn’t my fault and that it would work out and be fine in the end and blah blah blah. And I understand why they did that, but please, let me keep my unhappiness sacred without converting it to some pseudo-happiness that relies on a constructed idea of hope rather than acknowledging things that are out of one’s control. I know it’s not my fault, and I know that we’ll work something out, but that doesn’t mean I’m not annoyed by it nonetheless.

Please don’t help me unless I ask for help. But please also treat me like a human being with the capacity to feel and to choose and to be.

I think the remedy to this is active support, which a couple of my friends have taken up and have helped tremendously in getting me to not only open up, but to actually talk and have conversations. I think the last thing people with mental illnesses want is to be treated like someone with a mental illness. Unfortunately we, as a society, haven’t reached the level of erasing stigma from mental illness yet, so we are othered.

Some things they’ve said that I think are noteworthy:

  • How are you?
    • no emphasis on feeling, invites more answers than just feeling-based answers, although most answers will still be about feeling
  • Let me/us know if you want to talk
  • We are here to listen
  • Are you okay with ___?
    • more of a consent to ask abut something that they thought might be sensitive or anxiety-inducing
  • We support you with whatever you choose to do
    • no qualification, no condition, simply being there in their entirety
  • …whenever you’re ready to do _____…

But, most importantly, they’ve just been talking to me as a friend about what we would normally talk about, and I think that has helped the most: normalizing people with mental illness rather than leaving them out of the picture. I don’t think there’s anything worse than being left completely alone when you haven’t asked for that.

This is a working model for me and I’m sure I’ll run into something or other that I’ll want to change, but knowing how I want to be supported  and what works for me when I become destructive is probably the best thing I can do for myself for the future. I’m very thankful for people who are “all or not at all”.

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Self-proclaimed jack-of-all-trades. Intersectional feminist. Educator/linguist in training. Fashionista, food-lover, and fairly poor hand-eye coordination.

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