When I share with someone that I am a survivor of (and still an occasional punch bag for) OCD and anorexia, one response always stands out to me – “you’re so brave!”. I try to beam and thank them – I can’t deny the dopamine hit of gratification. And yet, my head buzzes with questions. Questions and doubts, in fact.
Because my brain has learned to second-guess itself constantly and attach greater significance to negative and scary thoughts, I have a tendency to feel confused about the idea of my so-called ‘bravery’. Am I really brave? Was my journey really something unusual or special? Or am I, as my brain would like me to think, just ‘back to normal’ after a long period of being pathetic or cowardly?
Of course I try not to allocate too much time to these thoughts, but as a friend told me just the other day how brave they thought I was, I felt like delving a little deeper into what I and many other people with mental illnesses might be hearing and thinking through, when they hear that particular word. I also want to assure people in a similar position that you absolutely can and should accept the admiration and inspiration of others – because despite what you believe, you really are brave in so many ways.
You’re brave! Because you faced something terrifying…
Firstly, I think one of the main things someone is trying to get across when they say ‘brave’ is that you’re brave for getting through such a struggle. The very act of facing a mental illness is a heroic act. But when I hear this, my brain asks if it’s actually true. I mean, I didn’t have any choice to pursue and overcome my psychological conditions. I merely recognised them, and dealt with them as best I could. This is what I tend to tell myself.
Anorexia has been with me for over ten years now, and while my OCD was initially diagnosed five years ago, its tendrils reach back to my earliest anxious behaviours. Sorting food by colour and size, disliking and avoiding bathrooms, being highly self-critical: in so many ways, I have always been ‘like this’. So perhaps I am simply used to it? Perhaps this illness that I am praised for surviving is simply a part of my personality, and not really such a big deal, I wonder?
When you are accustomed to a set of behaviours, it can be difficult to see your situation through any lens but your own – highly subjective – eyes. We assume that our experiences are ‘normal’ and therefore not special or valid. It’s true that everyone has a unique struggle or two in their lifetime, like grief, failure, or illness… but we all experience and process these events in unique ways too. What we assume to be our core, unchangeable personality is more a combination of our genes, our neurochemistry, and the coping strategies we learn from environmental stimuli (i.e. the stuff that happens to you). It’s a classic nature/nurture combo. Nobody has quite the same experience or will cope in the way you do. Your experience does matter.
I recently completed my latest course of CBT, and my therapist continually emphasised one point to me: that I was highly empathetic towards others, but unnecessarily cruel to myself. Trapped in my head, I could only see my negative coping strategies and mental illnesses as failures, flaws, and inevitable hopeless parts of myself. Whereas I might look at a friend’s problem and say it was understandable, it was a result of these certain factors, and it was something that could be nurtured back to positivity.
So now, when someone calls me ‘brave’ for learning to live with my disorders, I try to listen with a sense of compassion towards myself. I try to hear their words and really take heed, to make a mental note of them to remind myself of the outside perspective. Because I know, deep down, that I have had periods of great bravery, where I have taken steps and faced terrifying thoughts and behaviours in order to be here today. I have developed my own strategies, to face my own personal demons – and that is amazing.
You’re brave! Because you’re telling your story…
Secondly comes the idea that the courageous part of having a mental illness is talking about it. Social media platforms (like Twitter especially) are flooded with advocates for recovery from just about every mental health condition. Blogs are filled with incredible personal stories. Spaces are being created for sharing and unravelling our experience.
And hence comes the second doubt that always bothers me: why am I adding my story to this mix? I worry that my experience is just like everyone else’s, and therefore I can’t contribute anything new. I worry that I don’t have all the right lingo, and that I’m straight up not a ‘good enough’ communicator of these difficult topics. Once again, my overthinking brain forgets the whole point of talking mental illness: you know, the talking!
Having a large scale impact requires just that: a large scale. There needs to be a huge wash of stories by everyone, from every background, with every kind of mental illness. Each one is unique: no two people with depression are the same, no two people with schizophrenia are the same, and so on. Demonstrating the overwhelming breadth of mental health experiences will help spread awareness and help people feel less alone. The more supported and knowledgeable you are, the more you’ll feel empowered both to prevent mental illness in your life, and develop coping strategies to handle anything that does come your way in future. One in three people will suffer from a clinical mental health condition at some point throughout their life: why wouldn’t we want all the help and community we can get for this?
I have shared my story with so many therapists, GPs, and fellow writers, that I can be a bit blase and casual about it. Again, I laugh off my difficulties as small and insignificant things, reinforcing to myself that my story is not worth telling. So when someone tells me I’m brave for sharing, I remind myself that everyone’s story is worthwhile and has useful learning points. I remind myself that actually, adding my voice to the online conversation on a regular basis is hugely rewarding, and emotionally demanding. I have been through something life-changing, and not only am I allowed to talk about it, but I can genuinely have a positive impact by doing that.
You’re brave! For one final reason…
I feel like we’ve covered the common meanings of the word ‘brave’ when discussing mental illness. But there’s one more potential meaning I want to mention; one that is often overlooked. Mental illness can be isolating, overwhelming, hugely personal, and private. We feel under pressure to put on a false ‘brave’ face – we smile and lie and say we’re fine. We feel like we need to deny ourselves in order to exist in society.
So, for me, what’s possibly the most courageous thing you can do…is to seek out help, and then continue helping yourself. Persistence. Is. Key.
Starting treatment, or simply reaching out to a friend, takes more courage than almost anything else on your mental health journey. That first little step – which might feel like a giant leap. We don’t like feeling vulnerable and exposed, because it feels uncomfortable, needy, or even childish, to so many of us. So reaching out is a great challenge.
You’ll need the determination to say your feelings aloud, to tell the truth, to make that phone call to the GP, to walk in that therapist’s door. All of these steps take mighty strength and resolve that we often forget to praise. Undoing the thoughts and behaviours that have felt like part of you for so long means a lot of hard work and requires a bucketload of self-acceptance at each stage. Medication, therapy, reaching out to the people closest to you (including, for example, your employer)….sounds pretty flipping brave to me.
So, when someone says I am brave, I work through all of the above – at least in some abbreviated form. I try to practice patience with the side of me that wants to deny the compliment or admiration. I remind myself that I am allowed to have this praise, and I can use my experience to inspire and help others.
And as the bestower of said compliment: know that when you tell someone they are brave, and they look at you doubtfully, or laugh it off and dismiss your words as nonsense…it could well be because their brain is whirring with all of the doubts I’ve mentioned here.
As conversations around mental/emotional health are becoming more common, I am so excited to see where they lead next. Maybe one day, people will feel less fearful and more comfortable contributing to awareness and understanding. If you want to talk online, or read about the brave, bold experiences of others, hashtags like #SickNotWeak and #KeepTalkingMH are great places to start. Give a follow to Mental Health Awareness Week, Mind and other charitable organisations too. Keep talking, keep learning, and never forget how brave it is to do so.