I’ve struggled with this concept ever since I first suspected I had anxiety, and I still struggle with it almost every day.
I have a really great life and I still have anxiety. I have a close family that would do anything for me, incredible friends who love me unconditionally, a strong support group in a church I love, and a deep faith in God. I have a job that allows me to live independently, the ability and means to travel often, and a dog I absolutely adore.
I have never had to deal with poverty, serious injuries, unexpected deaths, abusive households, or any of the countless other difficulties so many people are exposed to every day. I grew up surrounded by love and support and people who cared about me and believed in my dreams.
I can’t stress enough how aware and how thankful I am for all of this. But that awareness has caused its own problem: If my life is so great, why do I have anxiety? What reason do I have to worry and doubt so much of the good in my life?
This is so important to understand: You can have a great life and still have anxiety. Or depression. Or OCD or Bipolar Disorder or any other kind of mental illness. You don’t need to have had a traumatic experience or years of abuse to develop something like this. You can grow up loved and happy and lucky and still deal with mental illness.
Having depression doesn’t mean you’re choosing to be negative and checked out. Having anxiety doesn’t mean you’re choosing to stress about every little detail in your life. It’s the complete opposite, actually, and I cannot stress this enough:
We did not choose this. We do not want this.
Mental illness is really no different from physical illness. You can have a great life and sprain your ankle. You can have a great life and get cancer. And sure, just like there are things you can do to help with your physical health, there are also things you can do that can help with your mental health.
I absolutely agree that lifestyle choices like a healthy diet and frequent exercise can significantly improve mental health. Having a positive attitude and being optimistic is also completely legit. Intentionally dwelling on all your problems while watching a sad movie is not going to brighten your mood.
And when you have control over that, great. But you don’t always have control. Mental illness is a never-ending war, and inevitably you will lose some battles. There will be times — moments, days, weeks — where you cannot seem to feel happy no matter how hard you try. One day you might spend the entire afternoon with your best friends watching Disney movies and eating cookies and still feel like you’ll never be happy again.
Those are the feelings you can’t just decide to get rid of. Telling someone with depression to “just get over it” is like telling someone with a broken leg to “just walk it off.”
When you have a mental illness, even when you know everything is okay your mind is constantly fighting to tell you it’s not. And your mind doesn’t just tell you — it gives you a list of reasons and a very convincing argument that is sometimes too powerful to ignore. It is not you making the decision to be depressed or anxious — it is your mind.
Battling a mental illness is battling your brain. It is arguing against the negative and sometimes frightening thoughts that constantly run through your head. It is like someone is standing next to you incessantly telling you that you’re not good enough, you do everything wrong, and you shouldn’t even try. And even when you know you are loved and supported and surrounded by people who care about you, that voice begins to wear you down. It makes you second-guess everything. And sometimes you just get so tired of arguing with it that you give in and believe what it’s saying.
Mental illness is not your decision. You cannot choose one day to not have anxiety or depression or whatever it is you’re dealing with. If you could you would have gotten rid of this long ago, right? I know I would.
But you can choose to keep fighting. You can choose to keep living. You can choose to not give up after a particularly bad day. You can choose to try. You can choose to not let your illness win. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.