The Sliding Scale of Mental Health

Words by Ari, 27 VIC

Mental wellness exists on a spectrum, not an all-or-nothing dichotomy of ‘ill’ or ‘healthy’. At the moment I’m floating somewhere in the middle, and that’s my normal.

I have anxiety. Using the word ‘have’ is an interesting experience for me, after recently coming to terms with the reality that despite a sudden and dramatic improvement in my condition, I’m not cured. Instead, I’ve been going through a process in accepting that my anxiety never really went away. Aiming to ‘fix’ myself just made it more devastating when six months ago it popped up again in the form of an inexplicable hesitancy, a belly-deep nervousness, a desire to withdraw—but this time, I recognised it immediately.

I had my first panic attack when I was eight years old, and as an adult my untreated anxiety became debilitating. When DIY self-care didn’t improve my mental illness, I turned to therapy. When a year of that did nothing, I unwillingly limped towards trialling medication. For me, medication was a last resort, and to ‘give in’ to a prescription felt like defeat.  

The fact that medication turned my life around within months changed my opinion entirely—and my perception of my mental illness as well. I started to view the anxiety as something outside myself, a virus or disease feeding off my nervous system. A parasite to be eradicated from my brain and nothing more. And, like a virus or disease, with enough medication and time it could be killed, and I could happily return to the world of ‘normal mental health.’

After feeling better for a few years I stopped ticking the ‘history of mental illness’ box on forms because I considered myself completely cured. Ticking that box felt as relevant as saying ‘twenty years ago, I had a cold for three days’. I figured my history would matter to nobody, least of all me.

But, almost five years later, it has come back. At the exact time I needed to care for myself most and be gentler, I felt immense blame. You let yourself get sick again. How did you allow this to happen?

I thankfully recognised this thinking will not help me move forward, Over the last six months I’ve reframed how and where my anxiety sits on my own mental health scale: So it has moved a little, or even a lot—but that’s why it’s on a scale. It’s not fixed, and I can slide back again. I’ve simplified the narrative and removed the guilt I was feeling. That way, it’s okay when my anxiety pops up again – for my brain, this is ‘normal’.

The other big revelation I’ve had is that the need for self-care will be ongoing for the rest of my life. Initially being ‘cured’ prompted me to drop all of my self-care practices like a hot potato. Frankly, I was sick of them. I was frustrated thinking of myself as someone with a mental illness, and therefore someone who needed extra help. Medication, a weighted blanket, a breathing app on my phone, or a therapist. I saw all these things as hassles – necessary but annoying. As soon as I was ‘better’ I rid myself of them, like throwing down unwieldy crutches after a shattered leg heals. But that’s not how this works. My support systems weren’t crutches, and I wasn’t fundamentally broken: just someone moving up and down a scale.

Illustration by AileenYou can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenetc

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