A Response To ‘An Open Letter to Those Who Are (and Aren’t) in My Group’

Recently, you wrote a letter to those inside, and outside, of your group. And I shared it, because I wanted you, and everyone else who’s in your group, to know that you’re seen. loved, and not alone. I shared it with these words:

“Hey, sister, I see you. And I’m proud of you. Because, despite the fact that right now you feel horrible— that right now it takes all your energy to convince yourself to get out of bed, to convince yourself not to crash into a tree on the short 5 minute drive from our house to your home away from home, and to convince yourself not to harm yourself again— you’re still here. Despite the fact that sometimes you fail— sometimes your depression says “screw you 6 years of no self harming! It happened again because I’m feeling too much,” you also have the ability to wake up and scream at your anxiety “screw you! I got out of bed today!” So, I’m proud of you. Because, you’re right, there is nothing beautiful about mental illness. But, there is incredibly indescribable beauty in your ability to look it in the face and say, “I won’t let you define me. Because I’m going to ask for help and I’m going to admit when I’m not ok.” And your strength is incredibly beautiful. Some days, I worry that I’ll wake up and you won’t. Or I’ll make it home and you won’t. But, most days, I wake up relieved that you opened up to Facebook about your struggles because it means you’re still here— it means that maybe you won’t open up your own wrists. And, Kaleigh, know that I will always fight for you. And I will always drop everything to fight someone for you. Because often, I feel like a ‘feelings sponge.’ Every time you cry, or break, or panic— I want to too. Except usually, I end up wanting to fight the thing that made you feel that way. Because that’s how I soak up feelings— I absorb them and then fight like hell to get rid of the thing that caused them— I fight like hell to fix it. So, I’ll fight like hell for you.
And everyone else, know this is true for you too. Know that I, and others struggling alongside you, will always fight for you. Know that we hear you. We see you. And we’re proud of you. And I do not have the ability to completely and totally understand. But, I have the ability to listen. To pick up the phone. To give a hug. To tell you how proud I am of you and how much I love you. So, know that you’re heard. And know that you’re loved.”

So, here’s the thing: I’m not in your group. I’m not in your group therapy sessions, and I’m not in your group of those who’ve been through what you’ve been through and understand you. But, I’m in your group– I’m in your corner. I’m your sister, friend, loved one, fellow student, neighbor, church member– I’m your fellow human being. So, I’m in your group– in your corner.

And I see you. Make all the blind jokes you want, but I do see you. I see the way you struggle. I see the way you’re fighting just to get out of bed. I see the way it hurts– the way that, sometimes, it takes more strength than you even thought you had to convince yourself it’s even worth getting out of bed. I see the way it takes you half an hour to pull out of the parking lot to travel five minutes down the road because you have to talk yourself into not crashing into a tree on the way. I see the way you don’t seem to be yourself– the way the world doesn’t excite you as much as it used to, the way your favorite food or drink or novel doesn’t appeal to you, the way you can never seem to shut the voices up long enough to get a full night’s sleep. “Shut up, Fred! It would not be cool to jump off the fifth floor of the parking garage. I’m here because I want to live, not because I want to die. I don’t care that it’s a hospital and it would be kind of poetic to die at the place where I drove myself so I could live. And no, Gertrude, I’m not going to take the entire bottle of pills. They’re supposed to help me fight you, not make me give into you. They’re supposed to keep you from controlling me, and it would not be funny at all if I died from the things that are supposed to help keep me alive”  I see how you give them names because it’s always easier to fight something when it has a name– when you know what you’re up against. And giving your demons names means you can talk to them, which means you can defeat them.

I’m not in your group. But, I, too, tend to be a feelings sponge. When I was little, I couldn’t watch my friend fall down and skin her knee without feeling as if I had skinned my own knee too. I used to think that all the world’s problems could be solved if the entire world would just join in one big group hug. As I grew older, I didn’t feel as if my knee was skinned every time a friend fell, but I did start feeling broken every time they broke. I started taking on the problems of the world because it was all I knew how to do to help them— if I could feel for them. So, I don’t understand completely what you’re feeling. But I feel that you’re feeling.

Here’s the thing about me: whenever I’m dealing with something, I fight through it. Even when I’m physically sick, I just suck it up, get up, and fight through it until it disappears. I face my challenges and obstacles head on, fight through them, and then look back at the wreckage left behind and laugh. I’m stubborn and I hate letting things define me or take over my life without my permission. So, when I become a feelings sponge, I absorb all the feelings of everyone around me and then I do the only thing I know how to do– I fight. I fight to get rid of whatever hurts. I fight to get rid of the thing causing harm. And if that’s a person, I’ll fight them too. Once, I called a friend out because they said something about people with mental illness having to eventually get to a point where they just need to buck up and continue on with their life. They have to get to a point where they go on and stop allowing illness to control them. And I fought them. Because of course they shouldn’t allow it to control them, but don’t you think they are trying? Don’t you think they wish they could wake up one day and just “buck up” and be over it? Sometimes, getting out of bed is the only thing they can do to keep their illness from controlling them. Sometimes they get out of bed simply out of pure spite, and ‘the blatant desire for revenge.’ So, sometimes that’s all they do because it’s all they can do. And now. if you would be so kind as to fight me, that’d be great.

And you, Fred and Gertrude, can fight me too. Because I don’t really care if they’re in your head– I’ll fight them anyway. And, I’ll fight anyone who’s not in your head and tells you that “it’s all just in your head.” Because yeah, Tiberius, it is in their head, and that’s what makes it all so annoying– they can’t get away. That’s exactly why it’s called a mental illness. Because if it weren’t in your head, then maybe you’d be able to think straight and figure out how to calm it.

So, I’ll fight for you. I”ll fight like hell for you to stay alive, and I’ll fight anyone who tells you that you’re not fighting hard enough. Because sometimes, the worst hell we can ever face is the one we live with in our own mind. And if anyone tells you that ‘you don’t pray hard enough, read your Bible enough, have enough faith, or are just not a strong enough Christian,’ I’ll fight them too. Because I pray everyday you’ll wake up the next morning, and you pray everyday that maybe today will be the day. Because you don’t have to read the Bible to know that hell doesn’t have to be a physical place. And nothing is stronger than a faith that still exists amidst the hell of your own mind. And honestly, it takes a Christian who is a whole lot stronger than I am to live amidst hell and still say “God still loves me.” If you’ve ever read the Bible, you’d know that it’s those amidst the sting of death– of hell– that God died for. So, I’ll drop everything to fight for you, or to fight someone for you. I don’t care if I’m in class, chapel, or bed. Because how can I learn about the beauty of art or math or science if you’re struggling to recognize your own beauty? How can I learn about God’s story if I can’t prove to you that Love wins, and that your story isn’t over? How can I sleep if I can’t be certain you’ll wake up?

And please don’t be sorry if you can’t always fight for yourself. Because growing up you always fought for me. You always tried your hardest to protect me from the monsters under the bed, because that was your job. But, listen– I’m grown up now too. And I grew up stubborn, visually impaired, the youngest of 3 girls, and with undiagnosed ADHD, which means that I grew up learning to fight for things– even if I didn’t know I was fighting for them or even that I had to fight for them. So, now, let me fight for you and protect you from the demons inside your head– even if you don’t think I should have to fight for you. Because Fred and Gertrude ain’t got nothing on me. And they’ve got nothing on you. Because God is bigger than the boogie man, He’s bigger than Godzilla, or the monsters on t.v. And He’s watching out for you and me.

I’m proud of you. I’m proud of how you ask for help. I’m even proud that you failed. I’m proud that you went years without self harming, until one day, you didn’t. Because you said something, and you tried. Your depression may have won for a moment, but you’re determined not to let it win forever– and that makes you stronger than your failures. And I”m proud that you had a panic attack in the middle of Wegmans because there were too many choices of cottage cheese. Because, if we’re being perfectly honest, there are too many choices of cottage cheese (I mean, what the curd? How many wheys can you prepare cottage cheese??) But really, I”m proud of you because you picked up the phone and called mom. Because if you hadn’t called her, Fred may have called you, and Fred’s kind of a jerk.

I don’t understand what you’re going through. I don’t understand how it must feel to have a panic attack because the cars are parked in the wrong place in the driveway and someone is going to have to move someone else’s car in the morning before they leave. I don’t understand what it feels like to be anxious about everything– all the time. I don’t know what it feels like to have depression that’s so overwhelming even your own hilarious jokes that always make you laugh don’t make you feel any better. I don’t understand how it must have felt the day, so many years ago now, when you walked away from a place you were supposed to be safe– a place where they weren’t supposed to be– having been made to feel so unsafe. I don’t understand how it must feel to be at the gym and suddenly have flashbacks, or to be at work and suddenly be unable to control your heart rate because you’re in a safe place but every time you reach out your hand they make you feel unsafe. I don’t understand how it must feel to feel like you’re too broken for even the place that’s supposed to represent the One whose body was broken for you to accept you. I don’t understand how it feels to be so filled with terror that all you can do is wrap yourself up in a blanket and rock back and forth– hoping to get a little bit of relief and comfort. I don’t understand what you’re going through because I’m not in your group.

But, I’m still in your corner. And I may not understand your anxiety, depression, or suicidal thoughts. But I do kind of understand what it means to have a brain that can’t seem to function properly in order to stop me from doing something I might regret and how it feels to feel ashamed because of it. But, unlike you, the inability of my brain to function properly results in late nights with regrets of not having started earlier, handled the situation better, or paid more attention. And my shame is because I can’t seem to control it without the medication that I was, for the longest time, too stubborn to take, because I am “too smart” to have that issue, or because people don’t believe my issue actually exists. Unlike you, the inability of my brain to function properly doesn’t end in panic attacks, tears in public places, suicidal thoughts, or 20 hours in a Psych ER. (Although, ADHD, anxiety, and depression like to travel as a pack, because, apparently, one just isn’t enough. But, I’m glad I just have the one. Because growing up, I wanted to be like you, but I’m not sure that if I’d been through what you have, I’d be as strong as you are. I’m not sure I’d have made it as far as you have.)

But, there should be no shame in any of it. There should be no shame in asking for help. There should be no shame in admitting that you failed and that it all became too overwhelming so you took it out in a way that makes you feel in control– by taking it out on yourself, your own skin. There should be no shame in saying to the world, “I’m not okay.” There should be no shame in admitting that you’re alone, or at least that you feel alone. Because, I’m proud of you. Because you’re beautiful. Not because of you’re mental illness (quite frankly, I’m a little tired of all the romanticizing of mental illness that happens today, and I think that’s not a message that should be promoted), but because of your strength. You’re beautiful because of your ability to wake up and say, “Hey, Gertrude. Screw you!” and get out of bed because you’re just that stubborn– because you’d do anything before you’d admit defeat. You’re still the little girl who grabbed a box of animal crackers after being told not to since it was almost dinner time, and who, after being caught, just grinned mischievously. (If you think I’m stubborn, think about this: I had to get it from someone). Because you’re the one who grabs Gertrude, Fred, and whoever else haunts your mind, and grins mischievously as you get out of bed– just to spite them. I’m proud of you because you sit down in front of your pastors and dear friends and say “I feel like my life has just fallen to shit… I’m having a hard time even staying alive, and there are many days where I doubt God.” And despite all that, you wake up, go to church, and praise God. And I’m proud of you, because you praise God, and more importantly, because you woke up.

I’m proud of you. I love you. Whether you’re in my group or not, whether I’m in yours’ or not, I see your story unfolding. And I see that it is not over. So, I may not have the ability to understand you fully. But, I can feel. I can listen. I can send you photos of Quiz practice to reassure you, because your anxiety was too high for you to go, but not going made you more anxious that the other coaches wouldn’t be able to handle it all. I can text you and reassure you that, no, that photo you posted was not too cliche– it was beautiful– and, no, you coming to the small group meetings for an age group you’re not in is not infringing– we all need you there. I can pick up the phone when you call. I can sit with you, cry with you, hug you, buy you coffee. (although maybe not, because caffeine is bad for anxiety. So, maybe I’ll buy you chocolate or grilled cheese or smoothies instead). I can get talk to you about football, or school, or literally anything at all so you don’t have to think about whatever you’re thinking about. I can tell you how proud I am of you for allowing your story to continue, for continuing to share your story, and for fighting to reclaim your story.

I see you, and I love you. Because, despite your darkness, you have a light in you– somewhere. And you’ve got a community around you, waiting to help you bring in out.

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