The Moment I Realized My Mental Illness Was Bigger Than Me

For all the hours of therapy I had received over the years, it took being accepted for Social Security benefits to break through my denial.

I hate when people ask what I do for a living. Sometimes I tell them I am a stay-at-home mom, which is true insofar as I am home for my 8-year old son before and after school. But that still leaves hours of my day unaccounted for. I write, but I am nowhere near prolific enough to claim that as a work identity. What I don’t want to tell people is the truth that my living is provided by Social Security disability payments.

Five years ago, after my third incident of major depression and anxiety, I took some time away from work to recuperate. I was receiving long-term disability benefits through a program my employer sponsored. The insurance company that administered the program required me to apply for Social Security disability payments because any benefit I received from the government could be subtracted from their private pay out to me. At the time, I considered this to be an annoying formality. I knew that three fourths of first time applicants are rejected by Social Security and I assumed that would be my fate as well.

I did not consider myself disabled. In my mind, disability was a constant state of being while my experience of mental illness was cyclical. My characterization of my illness was that I was fine for years at a time until The Bell Jar descended and I spiraled into a serious bout of depression and anxiety, one that took months and several hospitalizations to come out of.

Always, when I was depressed even simple acts like brushing my hair required too much emotional energy. Always, when I came out of the fog I was ready to take on the world again, throw myself back into my job, my family. The first time I even doubted this fact was during my last hospitalization, when I told my case manager that I intended to be back at work in a few weeks. She looked doubtful.

“Take your time,” she said.

“Well, maybe a couple of months, but then I’ll be OK.”

“Or…,” she tilted her head to the side and furrowed her brow, but left her sentence unfinished.

I resented her doubt.

Then came my Social Security application. To my shock, I was in the minority of first-time applicants accepted by the program. I was faced with the harsh reality that, however I saw myself, other people saw my mental illness as a clear disability.

That sucked.

For years I had viewed my depression and anxiety as a series of isolated occurrences that would eventually fade into the background. In filling out the Social Security forms and talking to my psychiatrist about the same, I began to realize my denial. My pattern was that I lived a life where I took on stress until the burden became unbearable. I’m no fading flower and so I could white knuckle my way through the early stages of depression, fulfilling my responsibilities even as I descended into a seriously dark place.

I repeatedly set and then walked into the same trap for myself, grinding myself down until I had no store of energy left. There weren’t years between my episodes of depression. As soon as I recovered from one I immediately began sowing the seeds of another.

This was a dangerous game. Over the years, the nadirs grew deeper and darker. During my last depression I became semi-catatonic. I finally realized that rather than continually trusting my ability to overcome my depression and anxiety at their worst I had to stop the process in the beginning. Not working allowed me to eliminate one huge source of stress that was often outside of my control (after all, no one considered my well-being when setting project deadlines at work). Secondly, the change slowed down my life so I could pay better attention to the early symptoms of anxiety or depression and take steps to end them before the white knuckling or hospitalization was necessary.

And for all the hours of therapy I had received over the years, it took being accepted for Social Security benefits to break through my denial and make me understand that I could not continue to throw myself back into environments that were ultimately harmful. I had long ago accepted that I needed to take medication and attend therapy. Lots of other people do those things and I didn’t feel a great deal of stigma about either. But qualifying for disability? That forced me to admit that my mental illness is bigger than me.

I have always supported the welfare state. I believe all people should share in the wealth of this country so taking the check doesn’t bother me nearly as much as the need to quit working. Work and school had always been a huge part of my identity. Social security benefits partially fill the financial hole of my lost career, but contrary to the right wing’s view, living on government benefits is not an identity or a way of life. Who am I if I don’t work?

I still don’t know the answer and that’s why I dread work-related questions. I don’t think this is a facet of my life I will ever outright accept—I regularly assess whether I could get a job again. I balance my wishes against my son’s and wife’s need to have a mentally healthy mother and partner. I rail at the fates over my mental illness even as I try to be grateful that my current lifestyle allows me to manage the symptoms. I try to make a difference in the world, but ultimately, being limited sucks and I have to find a way to incorporate this fact I hate into an identity I can be proud of.

Anne Penniston Grunsted writes about parenting, disability, and family life from her perspective as a lesbian mama. She has been published in The Washington Post, Brain, Child Magazine, Mamamia, and won the 2014 Nonfiction prize from Beecher’s Magazine. She lives in California with her partner and son.

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