Last year, I was voraciously reading forum posts and articles relating to mental illness. It was the early days after my wake up call and I was trying to learn as much as I could. From time to time I would come across someone voicing the question ‘Where do I end and my mental illness begin?’

It was reassuring to see others express this as it reflected what was going through my mind.

What is this thing in my head, messing with my mind?

I was experiencing a sense of horror; I was not clear which parts were me and which parts were the illness. It was overwhelming.

Considering the question of ends and beginnings further, I began to ask was this even the right question? It presupposes that there is a defined border between our true selves and mental illness. I think it is helpful to recognise what behaviours or thought processes can be attributed to a mental illness. And some people recommend treating your illness as almost a separate entity. Even naming it.

Unsurprisingly though, as time has moved on I have begun to view the relationship between me and the illness as much more complex. Sometimes it is really obvious that a thought or action comes from the illness. But often it is not until much later that I realise what has been behind some thought process or other. Automatic Negative Thoughts or ANTs are one of the things you learn about when researching mental health issues and as the name suggests these happen without you even realising. (They are also called Negative Automatic Thoughts but NATs is not so much fun as ANTs).

Probably due to living with social anxiety disorder for so many years, I have become adept at avoiding situations that I deem threatening, but presenting myself and others with reasons why I can’t do a thing that are totally unrelated to anxiety. A form of denial that I often don’t recognise until later.

So I do think the question is valid, it’s just that it is not always quite so binary but something more nuanced. Learning to discern what is rational and what is not takes a long time. And that’s just part of learning to live with and overcome mental illness.

Stephen James

Minding the gaps

© Stephen James 2021

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