What I Wanted vs. What I Needed as a Student with Mental Illness

With today being National Teacher Day and this week being Teacher Appreciation Week, I wanted to share my experiences as a student with mental illness.

In high school, when my struggles with mental illness began to surface, I sought out teachers for support. I think looking at it from a surface level, there were peers and staff who thought I was just attention-seeking. My experiences are more complex than that though.

In general, I truly don’t think any one person’s behavior anywhere can be summed up as “just seeking attention”. There is usually so much more to the story, especially when it involves the person at hand having mental health struggles, as there are countless triggers, underlying problems and circumstances — most of which outsiders simply are not aware of. It’s just not as clear-cut as it’s often assumed.

So, as a teenager in high school, I 100% sought out teachers for emotional support. “Sought out” has its negative connotations, of course, so let me explain further.

Although I feel like I’ve dealt with anxiety and eating disordered issues almost all my life, I began therapy at 15 years old.

Looking back at that time, I can say, without any doubt, that I could have gone to the most expensive, the most well-known, the most intensive and hands-on and personable treatment center on this earth, and I still think I would have relapsed.

A huge problem I used to face is when I began therapy, and continued to face through different treatments and therapists for some time, is that I felt weary to even trust in one person solely because they were being paid. It was the external voices that made me weary to begin with.

The stigma, shame and doubtful voices that came along with mental illness diagnoses echoed in my mind during sessions, “Therapy is only for people to bitch about their problems”, “People pay people to care about them — how sad”, “You must be so weak if you need therapy”. 

That whole premise was such a shame to have bought into because I wish these worries hadn’t taken control of my mind for so many years. It also brings up the, “You wasted so much time” thoughts inside of me — another external pressure. I have been told so many times that I wasted “x” years of my life, or that I haven’t progressed at all in “x” years. Hearing it so many times, I began to buy into it myself.

One of the hardest lessons I’ve learned is that I can’t buy into and tell myself I’ve wasted years of my life, or that I haven’t progressed at all. I know for a fact that even a couple years ago when I was still struggling, I was still progressing. I don’t think it’s possible to not progress. Even the times I closed myself off emotionally in therapy and wouldn’t speak, I still was growing and learning. Granted, my recovery wasn’t fast or easy. But I don’t think recovery can even work that way. Everyone’s journey is different, so it’s impossible to compare one person’s experiences to another. Not to mention, therapy is fucking hard. I do enjoy therapy because it helps, but you best believe that there are times I want to cancel. There are times in session I have the urge to shut down emotionally and hold back tears. Therapy is hard because you’re being challenged to better yourself.

Going back to the school piece of this situation, I sought out teachers because I knew they weren’t paid to care about me, beyond helping students academically. Honestly, that may seem selfish or silly to some, but in my mind at the time, it made perfect sense.

Another part to my struggles is that I wanted to be saved — at least that’s what I thought I needed.

I always had this desire to just be taken away from my home and life and be given a new life — a fresh start. I wanted this because I thought it would make me happy.

During my times in inpatient and residential treatment, I got a glimpse of what this looked like. I was in and out of treatment for years, constantly in hospital settings trying to make a short-term program my home. There’s a lot of problems with what I wanted. Logistically speaking, a child can’t just stay in a short-term treatment program for long-term. And what I began to realize as I began to separate myself from my illnesses and see who “Lexie” actually is, is that I didn’t want to live out my life in a fucking hospital. In my struggles, hospitals kinda began to feel like home. I didn’t find home in every setting, but I really found comfort in eating disorder centers especially. It felt calm, people understood, I was heard and validated. It began to feel like a place I could call “home”.

While I noticed places like The Renfrew Center felt like home, it took me some time to also realize that maybe treatment for life isn’t what I wanted.

Just another aspect to this is that (ideally) you’re taken good care of in treatment. People care about you. People listen. It may seem that some places even baby you. While I believe I needed that comfort and safety in my life for a couple months of my life, I began depending on it because I couldn’t emulate that feeling of comfort in the real world — outside of the Renfrew “bubble”.

What I thought I wanted was to be taken care of 24/7. So, I secretly made that my goal.

What I truly needed was to be shown love, but maybe more tough love. I needed to be encouraged to also take care of myself. I needed to be shown how to care about and respect my mind and body — beyond someone caring for me because recovery will never come from someone else; it has to come from within.

In my struggles, especially depression and eating disorder wise, my illness taught me to loathe every part of myself. I despised who I was. The thing is though, I didn’t even know who I was. It was this giant illusion. And getting 24/7 support was a goal I was chasing, but I would never reach it because it never will fulfill me. But I couldn’t see beyond what ED or my depressed thoughts told me because I was constantly numbing out and trying to not experience emotion because it felt all so overwhelming. It felt like a hopeless situation, and being that I needed to help myself first, I felt helpless because I didn’t trust or believe in myself.

So, in high school, I would often go to teachers because I wanted support. The thing with that though too, is that it’s also not what I wanted!

I thought that I wanted them to support me as a therapist would. But looking back, I think I wanted and needed basic support. I wanted them to just ask how I was. I wanted a genuine friendly connection. I didn’t want them to save me, nor did I want to talk to them about all of my problems. I wanted some type of adult (because no one my age seemed to understand) to hear me.

I may have initially thought I wanted to talk to my teachers about my struggles, so I did a few times, but I actually wanted to talk about nothing. I wanted to talk about random things and friends and my dogs and art and other interests I had. I didn’t feel like I had adults in my life that I could talk to with like that, so I think that’s what I wanted and needed. But it became this thing where it was assumed I wanted to talk about deep topics because I did a few times and got in trouble for doing so, but it all got blown out of proportion so fast.

There was also a sick part of me that wanted to play into this idea that I was ill and needed help. The reality is that I was sick and needed help. But especially with eating disorders, sometimes people experience wanting to be sick in their illness — to be the best at being sick. So, I thought I wanted to be dizzy from restricting, because that would draw attention to me and people would be worried. I wanted to be emotional because people would ask me what was wrong if they saw me crying. It’s hard to perfectly explain but it makes so much sense if you look behind the surface. I did want attention — that’s clear. But I needed attention on my basic human needs. I felt alone and anxious and scared. What I needed was validation and simple support. I didn’t need to tell my war stories to anyone who would listen back then. I didn’t want to see a teacher as a therapist. I just needed basic human interaction. I thought I needed the world, so I put up a fight for it, but what I needed was already in plain sight.

Ultimately, therapy is not bitching to someone about your problems. It’s not paying someone to care. Therapy is hiring an experienced professional, who is trained to help those in crisis and through the specific problems you face, so you can improve your quality of life. Therapy is so far from a walk in the park. You’re paying someone, yes, but you are paying them to uproot everything you thought you knew and thought was healthy, so you can plant a solid, healthy, and happier foundation. It’s not an easy process. And to do this work, it’s definitely vital to be talking to a professionally trained therapist or counselor.

Thank you to my favorite teachers who put up with my bullshit! And I say that kinda jokingly/lovingly about myself!! It is so frustrating to look back at all of this because I think, “Lexie, you are able to tell someone your darkest secrets, but you’re unable to ask for what people can definitely give you?! Get it together, girl!! Ask for what you actually need! Speak up!”.

I wish I realized back then that all I had to do was ask for what I needed. Instead, I blurted out things I was talking about in therapy because I was ashamed to ask for what I needed (people sometimes assume it’s pathetic or stupid to be friendly with a teacher, but it’s fairly normal and isn’t the biggest deal if they have time to reciprocate), and because I also wanted attention, but not that kind of attention, but then everything got muddled and confusing so fast — for everyone.

I’m only in contact with two teachers I had in high school now (hey you guys!! I love and appreciate you so much!!!). I can’t even imagine how they feel having seen me at my lowest to seeing me able to express this now! It is pretty wild to think about all of the setbacks and relapses and tears that somehow brought me to today.

Who knew that the crazy, troubled, broken girl would one day find her voice and herself? Who knew that out of everything she assumed, was told and was made out to be, she didn’t want or need them to save her life; all she needed from her teachers was for them to stand by her and root her on as she worked with her therapist to save herself. 

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