How I learned that Mental Illness was not a Personal Failure

To my father personal failure had an explicit monetary value. Anything less than a good monthly salary (one that covered rent, expenses plus a little set aside for a rainy day and one which naturally required a qualification in business or finance) was a result of poor life choices on my part.

He grew up an immigrant child in America, during the depression and then the war. Financial stability was the only goal and anything else was indulgence. You worked, in sickness and in health because back in his day there were only people who made it, and people who didn’t. People who didn’t were a drain on society, unemployment was laziness and illness was weakness. In his version of the American Dream you had to cast aside people who didn’t make it, if they were family, you supported them to live apart from society–maybe–as a matter of duty, but they became a burden.

Many of us grew up with parents like that. I want to be angry at them, but I can’t. Not for people of their age and experience. I dislike their attitudes now, but I benefitted from their financial sacrifice. Education and criticism designed my personal architecture. I fit into corporate life earning a fine salary for around ten years whilst repressing myself as a high functioning alcoholic, in part due to the extensive education and criticism bestowed on me. But inside me the emotional pain from C-PTSD, emotionally neglectful and narcissistic, helicopter parenting, adoptee issues, domestic violence, and rape festered unacknowledged and untreated for years. Because simply talking about these things, was also an admission of failure.

As an adult my answer to all of that therefore, was ‘to work harder’. I believed as I had been taught that from working more, I could find a solution which would magically cure me. I worked my way across seven countries, got another two qualifications (four in all), until at thirty, I became head of a centre of excellence in a global firm. Then came the breakdowns, the attempts and the diagnosis until I too became a burden. My father does not talk about the past, and even less so emotions; because I will no longer be silenced, he cannot control me and we are now estranged.

Those who like me grow up learning that failure is just around the corner, live on a 24/7 treadmill trying to live up to what we’ve been taught are the expectations of the world. Shame becomes intertwined with failure. Shame whispers into our hearts ‘there is something deeply and inherently unlovable about you’ if you do not contribute to society. If I did not–as a good cog in society–fulfil my functions.

“And sin, young man, is when you treat people like things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”

– Granny Weatherwax, Carpe Jugulum, Terry Pratchett.

We talk a lot about sexual objectification but rarely look at the bigger picture. An object exists to serve a purpose and in many instances we are objectified in order to serve society. If I could not be the obedient girl, if I could not pay my own way, if I was not a good mother… if I wasn’t another brick in the wall, then I was redundant, useless to the world. It’s taken years of therapy, study and reflection for me to confidently dispute this. It’s taken me hitting the bottom and truly believing that death was a better alternative for people who had a “negative resource impact” like me.

The turning point was when my newborn daughter was placed in my arms. Then I realised how truly ridiculous a narrative that was. She was precious simply because she existed. She mattered. It was the first time I asked the question. If it was true of her then, why shouldn’t it be true of me too? But the narrative of inadequacy was beaten into me once more as British social services told me my post-natal depression risked losing my child. I would be the ultimate failure. Failure as a mother.

After years of struggling, I developed a tumour. Among the many fears which breezed back and forth between the hospital visits, I penned a letter to my children, who were then two and four years old. I told them that they mattered, regardless of what they did. As I lay high on opiates after the doctors had sliced the tumour away, I resolved to make valuing myself part of my life, if it was not too late. Because I realised that my children would never know they mattered unless I truly believed that I mattered too. Whoever I was, whichever collection of survival mechanisms I acted upon. I could not teach them that they mattered unless I showed them myself. And unless I demanded that others treat me that way too.

This underdeveloped ability has strengthened in fits and starts. Fortuitously earlier this month, the following crossed my feed and I want to share it with you.

My father I realised, had a huge fear of failure and could only feel successful if he was comparably favourable to those around him. He controlled his life, and the lives of the people around him. My mother’s and my own. Early recollections came flooding back to me of him telling my mother that she was worthless–because she couldn’t get pregnant, because her job didn’t pay very much, because her interests in classical music were unimportant and ridiculous. She lived in a marriage for eighteen years where she was told much of the time that her personal worth was equivalent to her unimportant achievements until she believed it and spent years battling depression.

I do not want to pass these lessons on to my children as they were once passed on to me. 

So I remind myself that I am worthy of care, of respect and of dignity no matter whether the world judges me a success or a failure. I am of value just as I am, with all my riddles, frustrations and emotions. I surround myself with people who also think this way. It’s taken me over forty years to learn the lessons I do want to pass on. Achievement and failure exist only as a construct, a way to judge others and my sickness, my health and my worth has nothing to do with either. It’s true for my children, for me and it’s true for every body.

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