Life with mental illness: Things I’ve learned from places I’ve been

April 11, 2023, 11:01 p.m.

For a year or so, I forgot my name. I had seen so many doctors, and none of them called me “Mira.” Instead, they gave me new names: bipolar, borderline, traumatized. I saw myself as a collection of symptoms, as a sum of things that happened to me.

They say mental illness doesn’t define you. But it does, sort of. It fundamentally alters how you think and feel and behave, and while it never defines you entirely, it does become a facet of you. People, whether or not they know about your illness, often see your outward presentation of your illness in the way you live your life. And so your illness also fundamentally alters how people think and feel and behave in response to your actions.

I learned a lot about people in the year I forgot my name. I learned about how their true selves emerge in times of great struggle: about how they can become scared, angry and overwhelmed, but also loyal, empathetic and brave. I learned about how they come and go, as well as how to appreciate the coming and how to grieve the going.

When I first became sick, there were people who looked past me — avoiding eye contact and no longer speaking to me — as if I were invisible. This was upsetting. Some part of me imagined, I guess, that they would treat me with kindness once they found out. However, their reactions only reinforced my conflation of illness with identity.

“It’s not your fault,” my best friend told me. “It’s just that people don’t know how to react to mental illness.”

She was right, but it took me a long time to accept that I’d never be able to control the way people saw me. Maybe that’s why I’m writing this, to encourage you to empathize with those who are misunderstood. My best friend has always been like that, empathetic even when she can’t understand me. “I don’t know how to help you, but I’m here for you as a friend,” she says, and I think that’s the best way you can be there for someone sick — by simply maintaining your role in their life and not leaving them once you get to know them better.

I spent my last two months of high school in an intensive outpatient program called La Selva — Spanish for “the jungle.” Is that where I belong? A jungle? I wondered. It was anything but a jungle, though, and the people I met there were some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. There was a certain comfort, perhaps hope, in struggling alongside other people, and so that place became a haven for me — a haven of people who wanted to ease great pain.

What shocked me, though, was the number of Stanford-affiliated people there, including students, professors, doctors and alumni. It quickly became apparent that I would soon be attending a school with others who were similarly struggling. So next time you walk or bike through campus, look at all the people around you and remember that they may very well be living with debilitating mental illness. It could be your friends, or even you, at some point in your life. It’s a scary thing, the uncertainty of life — what we don’t know about ourselves and each other.

After I graduated from high school, everyone — my therapist, family, friends — said that I’d have a fresh start at Stanford and move on from what had happened to me. And this was partially true: I’ve made incredible friends and found opportunities to explore my passions through classes and extracurriculars. But what no one predicted was that for the first two quarters of my freshman year, I would be consistently haunted by relentless ghosts of my past. I would re-experience different times and places — dark times and places — throughout the day, and I would wake up in the middle of the night with my pillow damp from puddles of tears I had already cried long ago. 

People would tell me things like “leave it in the past,” but the nature of my newly developed illness, PTSD, made it impossible to do that. I once again felt misunderstood, and I watched relationships grow rocky by the minute. I didn’t know how to explain that underneath the veil of my trauma, I was a different person — happy, vivacious, sassy — and that although my sickness would sometimes make me act in seemingly erratic ways, there was always an explanation buried in my brain.

I will admit, though, that I lacked any sort of self-awareness in the midst of my PTSD. It was easy for me to recognize that I had a problem, but it took me a while to realize the implications of my disorder for my friends and family. When I was sick, my mind reverted to the way it was in the past — apathetic, emotionally unstable, negative — and this naturally impeded the mental well-being of some who were close to me. I failed to notice, though, because they felt they couldn’t tell me that my mental health was taking a toll on them, too. They thought I might be offended if they told me it was difficult for them to deal with me since they knew I never chose mental illness.

But mental illness can never be an excuse for accepting strained relationships, where one person feels burdened to “take care” of the other. And so if you have a sick friend, I hope you first treat them with empathy: you may not understand what your friend is going through, but that shouldn’t prevent you from being a good friend. However, keep in mind that to be empathetic is not to be a therapist; it is important to clearly define boundaries for maintaining a healthy, mutual relationship. So tell your friend what makes you uncomfortable, but remind them that while you might not be equipped to help them, you are still there to support them as a friend.

And if you are sick, perhaps this will give you the hope that you can still maintain your social life as you get better and reach out to professional support rather than relying on people around you. You aren’t your illness, and you can retain aspects of your life in spite of obstacles you may encounter. Remember your name.

This leads me to my next piece of advice: to give yourself a break and focus on your relationship with yourself. For some, this might mean investing a few minutes to do something you enjoy every day, and for others, this might mean starting therapy. For me, it meant dropping Math 51 in winter quarter because PTSD is far more challenging than a five-unit math class. 

And it was so worth it — I’m proud to say that as of March 9, I no longer meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD and actually live in 2023 rather than my past. The speed of my recovery may sound contrived, but the therapy I did (EMDR) has between 84% and 90% efficacy rate in completely eliminating PTSD in trauma survivors after three sessions. So, yeah, when people tell you the cliché “it gets better,” they aren’t lying.

It’s been a while, but I’m Mira Ravi again.

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