Living with mental illness |
Living with mental illness
by Autumn Braack

Mental illness is a legacy in my family. Fear, pain, addiction, obsession, emotional extremes, instability, unchecked passion. These are the heirlooms passed down through our generations. I watched my parents wear them with wild abandon. Felt the scars they left on my grandmothers’ lives. Heard stories of great-grandparents brought to their knees with the weight of them. As a child, I dipped my hands into them, and felt their heat and cold pouring through my fingers, begging me to assume the mantle.

"As I grew, I wanted to refuse this legacy with its jagged edges, scarred surfaces, and veins of poison."

But I also wanted to accept it, so iridescent and luminous, with a beautiful fragility that was more, so much more than simple, plain normalcy could ever hope to be. Choices, though, are limited. When insanity is bred into your genes, when your brain is forged in, unchecked emotional fire when the thrill of MORE is sung into your heart. As you grow, the choices you are left with at the end of this childhood are few.

There was no escaping this legacy. My genes, the trauma that influenced my developing brain, the lessons of my childhood, all of this ensured there was no escape. But I quickly learned there were choices. They may be fewer than what others with healthier and stabler pasts may have, but they are still choices. I can choose how I view this legacy and how I wear these gifts. I may not be able to change my roots, but I can choose what light I choose to grow towards. These choices, though, require strength, dedication, and knowledge. They require skills that I had to learn to survive my legacy and myself. I have spent 27 of my 39 years learning and honing these survival skills so that I cannot only live with my legacy but use it to create a life full of meaning and beauty that I want to live.


We all have internal programming. Insidious messages whispered in our ears by parent and culture that effect out thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and behaviors daily. If you grow up in a healthy environment, this programming will likely work for you long-term. If you grow up in a skewed environment, this programming will end up hurting you once you leave that environment. A lot of the “acceptable” behaviors I learned from my family turned out to be harmful or outright illegal. The patterns I developed to survive a decade of trauma did not work in safe environments and often created trauma where none had been before.

The first step I took toward sanity was to explore my inner workings. I trained myself to question everything. Why do I feel this? Why do I think that? Where did this thought/feeling come from? Who gave me that message? Is that message true? Does it work in this context? What about that one? My natural inclinations and programming had set me up to live as a mentally ill, low functioning individual in a traumatic environment. That was not who I wanted to be or where I wanted to live. So I had to learn to change my programming. I examined everything that happened in my mind, and once I got to the core of it, I worked to make it healthier.

It always comes as a surprise to me when I ask someone why they did that, or why they think that, and their answer is “I don’t know.” I have the ability to tease out the majority of my reasons for any thought I think, a belief I have, or action I take. I have self-analyzed for so long, that it is now second nature. And it is a second nature that has served me well over the years. It is the key to the lock of change inside of me. Without it, I would be stuck living the same patterns again and again and again. Or possibly even dead by my hand. Analyzation has stripped the mystery and romance out of life in a lot of ways, but it has allowed me to make the changes I needed to survive


While the optimist in me wants to believe that we are all full of infinite possibility, the realist in me knows that no matter how hard I try, I will never spontaneously grow wings and fly to Jupiter. We all have limits to what we can obtain and who we can be. Psychological debate aside, our physical nature has created limits that are difficult, or sometimes impossible, to change. The physiological structure of the brain, the levels of neurochemicals the body produces and how effectively they are used, the patterns of homeostasis established by body systems, all of these factors are altered by genes, by the environment during development, by trauma. For me, it has been critical for my mental health and functioning to know my limits.

In some cases, my limits are, as one would expect, well below the threshold of “healthy” or “normative”. For example, I am hypersensitive. Driving at night in an urban area is nearly impossible for me. With all the lights and movement and noise, my mind sees and hears EVERYTHING and struggles to identify what is relevant and what is not. After too many sudden stops to avoid hitting a car (or pedestrian) I didn’t perceive because my mind was too busy trying desperately to not just shut down, I realized driving in a city at night is not something I should be doing. On the other hand, though, some of my limits far surpass the majority of people around me. My mind analyzes and connects information the same way my body breathes. I can learn certain types of concepts within seconds and understand them within minutes. I will make connections between data points that take coworkers or fellow students days or even months to establish. My limits are different than the norm. Sometimes they are less limiting and sometimes they are more.

In addition to simply understanding my limits, I needed to understand how and why they fluctuate. There are hundreds of factors that influence my state of being from one moment to the next. And where I am during that moment will greatly influence my capabilities. On a bad day, I may be too anxious to even consider leaving the house. The idea of driving the 15 minutes to my small town (population 1,790) grocery store and having to encounter the masses of people and the array of choices offered there makes me panic. On a good day, I think nothing of it and may look forward to the trip. On a bad day, the pressure and responsibility of washing a single dish could result in an episode of self-harm. On a good day, I can clean the whole house. Both bits of knowledge of my limits and awareness of how they change are critical for the actions I need to take to shape my life. When it comes to my limits, I have two choices: challenge or acceptance.

"I have the power to challenge my limits."

There may be boundaries to my capabilities that I will never pass, but I will never know if I don’ try. I NEED routine and safety, and financial security to function. But I have always dreamed of living off the grid. A dream that I could only achieve by diving into the unknown. The final move to my land was stressful beyond belief: months living out of a tent with spiders and grasshoppers crawling on me as I slept, living paycheck to paycheck and still being short, not knowing when/if I would eat that day. I had panic attacks and migraines and crying jags that felt like they would never stop. But it was worth it. I pushed against the edges of what my mind and body said I was capable of, and I came out the other side stronger. Because it was worth it for me.

Sometimes, though it is easier and better to accept my limits. I live in the 4th least populated state in the “suburbs” of a 1700-person town and I rarely travel. It is not worth my time or energy to learn to drive in a city. So I have taken the easier route and simply accepted that I can’t drive in the city. Other limits have taken me longer to accept. I’ve learned again and again that working for others more than full time will make me suicidal. I pushed the boundary for years, working and going to school full time or holding more than one job. No matter what I did in my life, how I changed, what responsibilities I juggled, the feeling never changed. I don’t like being suicidal. I don’t like constantly obsessing about ways to dies. I also have no interest in going back to school or pursuing a career. So I have accepted this limit. I put in the hours I can at work, and I fiercely guard the rest of my time. I have learned also to not resent my lack of money or prestige. I have to accept not only the limit but also the consequences of my acceptance.


We all know we need to take care of ourselves. Diet, exercise, sleep, says the endless drone of doctors and health blogs. Many of us ignore these concepts, don’t take the time, and just accept the consequences of living unhealthily. For those of us whose systems lend themselves towards disorder and chaos as a natural state, however, self-care is not something that can be easily ignored. It is a daily regimen that must be religiously followed to maintain basic functioning.

I must take care of myself daily: 8-9 hours of sleep, a decent diet, time with my pets and in nature, herbal supplements to help balance my mood and various body systems, meditation, yoga. If I skip these things, become lazy with my health, I feel it within a couple of days. Physically, I end up with headaches, nausea, and gastritis. Psychologically it’s mood swings, depression, angry outbursts, increased sensitivity to my environment, and anxiety so bad I chew on my lips until they bleed. I can’t NOT take care of myself and still be the person I want to be. Do I want to be able to wake up in the morning? Brush my teeth? Hug my boyfriend? Earn a paycheck? If the answer is yes to any of that, I have to invest time and energy into self-care.

Diet, for me, is a huge piece of my self-care and one I struggle with daily. A few years ago, on the recommendation of my sister, I cut out sugar. I love sugar! It was one of my biggest forms of pleasure. It took a few weeks, but once I came out on the other side the differences were amazing. Headaches that were a constant presence for over 20 years reduced in intensity and frequency. The anxiety that felt like a hive of bees being harassed by an over-caffeinated squirrel that always lived in my chest eased to a dull thrum. I could have an emotion that lasted longer than 30 minutes and didn’t push me towards maniacal laughing or intense sobbing. Cutting sugar did not magically cure me. But it made things a lot better. It gave me space to work on myself and to make changes. The problem is, even after 3 years of being relatively sugar-free, I still crave it daily. So somedays, my self-care feels like punishment.

Being Emotional

I once overheard a small group of people talking about drug addiction and suicide. They all agreed quite emphatically that they could not fathom this kind of escapism. How could a person feel so much that they would willingly give up their lives (and damage the lives of those around them) to escape it? What I could not fathom was how all of these people had never experienced such depth of emotion, of pain, of life, that they couldn’t understand. My internal life is raw nakedness in a seething, storming ocean. I fully understand and relate to the idea of feeling so much, so big, so often, that you feel compelled to escape no matter the consequences.

It took me years to realize that most people do not FEEL the way I do. A feeling, for most, is just a feeling. For me, sadness is a weight so heavy I cannot breathe. Happiness a light so intense it shines from me, coating everything, filling the world with color and sound and beauty. My emotions are deep, extreme, erratic, and reactive. They have little to do with what is going on around me, and everything to do with what is going on inside of me. It is exhausting, but I don’t know any other way to be. And, honestly, I don’t want to be any other way.

I’ve found that my emotions are also cumulative. If I do not express them when they are small, they will grow to frightening proportions. And there is a point where my emotions become so large, I no longer have control over my actions. Anxiety that is not expressed turns into a panic attack. Sadness shoved away becomes a pain so intense I lie on the floor screaming and writhing, gasping for breath between my sobs. Anger morphs quickly into primal screaming, broken dishes, and knuckles bruised and bloodied from self-harm. My emotions rarely last long, but they can hit with a force of a hurricane if I am not careful.

So, I have learned to work responsibly WITH my emotions. A good portion of my daily energy goes towards ensuring I do not escalate so far that I explode. I monitor myself constantly, mind and body, working at maintaining a calm-enough state. I also make clear to anyone I let close to me the extremes of my emotions, how I handle my emotions, and what I need from them when I am emotional. The reality of living in a society means that occasionally I have to stuff my emotions down to get through a day. So I plan for this, adjust for this, and make sure that at some point I let myself feel whatever it is that I need to feel while I still can choose my actions.


Imagine that we all have a certain amount of points with which to deal with the craziness life throws at us. The points that you are allowed are dictated in part by your genetics, by your childhood, and by your life experiences. Let’s say individual A has amazing genes, a supportive childhood, and a support network full of families and friends that love him. He has 10 points. Individual B has genetic markers for all sorts of mental and physical illnesses, a childhood full of trauma, and a support network consisting only of an abusive girlfriend and an over-worked case manager. He has 5 points.

 So let’s say the exact set of life experiences that happen to each of these individuals. They get into a fight with their girlfriend (1 point). They get a common cold (1 point). They get laid off from work (4 points). Individual A is struggling, but still able to deal with life, he has 4 whole points left with which to deal with daily tasks. Individual B can no longer function, he has given everything he has, all 5 points, but life still demanded more than what he could offer. There is nothing left to be able to deal with even the most basic of daily life tasks. And unlike individual A, who has a support network and a secure foundation, Individual B does not even have the resources with which to easily or quickly replenish his spent points.

While this is an over-simplification, the analogy is fitting. Mental health, much like money, is not equally distributed amongst us all. And just as an individual that holds a medical degree has an easier chance of earning higher wages than a high school dropout, so do individuals with healthy, stable, supportive beginnings have a better chance of creating and maintaining a stable foundation of mental health. I have worked very hard in my life to increase my “earning potential”, as it were. My work has increased my foundation of mental health, and it has ensured that I have resources to help me replenish my dwindling supplies. But there is still a definite cap to my spending abilities. And unless I want to spend hundreds of thousands of real dollars on psychotropic medications and therapists and completely change who I am, I will never be able to gain the equivalent of a doctorate degree for mental health. I am very much ok with this.

But, just as I have to work responsibly with my emotions, I also have to work responsibly with my mental health. Routines are my primary means of budgeting. I layout in advance all the tasks that would be expected of me daily, weekly, monthly. And I make sure I do the work needed to be able to pay the cost for doing these tasks. Every week I need to clean the house. Knowing this, I make sure the day before I do extra self-care and reduce any stress I expose myself to. This way I can help ensure that I have the energy and attitude necessary to do basic housework tomorrow.

Large breaks in my routine, like travel or parties, are very stressful for me. I spend the majority of my mental health allowance on simply daily things like working and meal preparation, so there is little left over for anything else. A lot of times, to be able to deal with the big things, I have to let other responsibilities slide. The house won't get cleaned that week, a shower is missed here or there. I also have to ask my loved ones for help and support, emotionally or domestically, so that I can handle these big events. I have learned to love my routines. They are the structure and safety that keep me functioning.

A Reason to Live

Based on the things I hear people say in daily conversation, the lyrics to songs, and the dialogue from movies and books, I assume that life, in and of itself, is reason enough for most people to live. There is some internal drive in most people that encourages them to desire life, to avoid death. This has always been a novel concept for me. I understand it on a genetic primal level, but I am unable to truly comprehend this on a personal, intimate level.

A thirst for continued existence on this earthly plane is not part of my family legacy. It always felt to me as though most of my family saw life as a DMV waiting room. Some of them were content to just pull their number and wait until God called them up. Others actively jumped the barriers and pounded on the window demanding to be seen immediately. But nobody particularly wanted to be there.

I have struggled out from under the suicidality of my teens and 20’s and I no longer actively want to die, but survival simply for the sake of avoiding death does not make sense to me and is honestly not that appealing. I agree with my family about the DMV waiting room, but I think they got something wrong. The waiting room is not life, it is what society wants us to believe life is. It is the world of ticky-tacky houses, big business, regimented scripts, and expected paths. It is the world of both parents working 60 hour work weeks just to make ends meet, of ever climbing mountains of debt needed just to keep yourself in the waiting room, of expectations and definitions of normal that none of us will ever achieve. It is not, however, life. Life is the whole big wide world outside of this tiny, constraining, dreary enclosure. And that kind of life, that interests me. It is an ideal that keeps me pushing through my bad days. A goal that keeps me struggling forward even though I am exhausted just from just functioning.

"It took nearly 3 decades, but I found a reason to live. A life where success is measured by my standards. Where I have the freedom to breathe and explore. Where laughter is worth more than money. Where love holds the highest power."

It took me another 5 years, to complete the tasks necessary to open the front doors to that waiting room. And I am hoping that soon I will finally be able to walk out those doors. I feel happier already feeling the wind and sun on my face. And I know someday, the big DMV agent in the sky will call my number, but I’m not going to be sitting idly in an uncomfortable chair in a stuffy room waiting. I’m going to be out playing in the grass and the trees. Turning my family’s legacy into a beautiful story of survival and creation. And growing toward my own light.

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