What Does It Feel Like?

Mental illness is hard to understand if you’ve never struggled with it. It’s even harder to explain when you’re in the middle of the darkness. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find a way to explain what it feels like to fight a mental illness. Friends, family, have asked but I haven’t been successful. Putting words to overwhelming feelings feels impossible, but I’m going to try my best. 

Please know, I can only speak for my experience with depression, anxiety, and CPTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder). I can tell you how I experience it and what it does to my body but we’re all different. Our experiences, our triggers, the way our bodies respond are uniquely ours. Please don’t take my experience as the golden rule. One size does fit all.

When my gremlin is awake, I feel an overwhelming sense of grief, fear, and dread. I’m depressed but it’s more than sadness. My anxiety is more than worry. It isn’t just a feeling or an emotion. It’s a full-body experience. It’s an exhaustion that makes my bones ache and my muscles cramp. There’s a weight sitting on my chest and it feels like my lungs are being compressed. I feel like I’m choking. I can’t breathe. I feel like I’m dying. My whole body hurts.

I just want to lay down and switch off because I don’t have the energy to think of anything other than the pain. I look for distractions. Something to take my mind off of this aching in my heart. I’ll put on my headphones and crank my music as loud as I can. If I can drown it out it then won’t hurt as much. It works for a little while, but the gremlin is resilient and adaptive.

If I don’t switch up my tricks then it’ll catch on and I’ll lose the high ground. When the music stops, I binge watch youtube videos or watch every episode of Doctor Who on Netflix. I just want to kill the hours between sun up and sunset but I dread the darkness. With the moon, comes the silence and silence is where the gremlin lives.

I’m so tired, and all I want to do is sleep. It’s the only time I don’t feel like this thing is kicking me in the gut. Sleep keeps the swirling darkness from taking over. It dulls the overwhelming hopelessness. It mutes the voice screaming, “Screw it! What’s the point?” 

But sleep is hard to come by because my mind is spinning too fast. It’s looking for something to latch onto. A stray thought or memory. Something I regret or dread. A stupid comment or a mistake. It’s looking for anything it can use as a weapon and when it finds something, it opens fire. Thoughts. Feelings. Fears. They come hard and fast. It drives every horrible experience into raw nerves and it burns deep.

The dark, with the growling silence, brings a worthlessness that’s so pervasive it physically hurts. It’s a noose around my neck. An invisible force cutting off my breath and it feels like I’m going to explode. Pain dances through my head, down my neck, and along my shoulders. Cramping. Spasming. A jolt of electricity. 

I want to cry, scream, punch something but again the gremlin growls and the darkness says, “Screw it! What’s the point?” Crying won’t make it feel better. I could scream, but no one will hear me. I could punch something, but what good would it do? I’ll just hurt my hand, and the gremlin will laugh. That little bastard doesn’t need more ammunition. It has plenty to hit me with all ready:

Everything I’ve tried has failed: “You’re pathetic.”

I’ve done things I regret, things I’m ashamed of, and said things I’d give anything to take back: “You deserve this pain.”

I’m short, square, and sometimes I walk with a limp: “Lookat you! Who could love you? You’re nothing.”

Then there’s a voice that whispers so softly I can only hear it at two am when I can’t escape the silence. It’s there all the time, I can feel it, but I can usually ignore it. When the sun’s up there are too many distractions and I can play pretend. 

The sun will set, exhaustion will win out, and I can’t ignore it any longer. I’ll close my computer, turn off the tv, and make sure my home is locked uptight. I’ll go to the bathroom, grab my toothbrush, and look at my self in the mirror. That’s when it starts. It’s ready to be heard.

It’s not a right hook to the jaw or a slap across the face. It doesn’t go straight for the laundry list of imperfections and mistakes. It doesn’t throw my failures at my face like daggers. It’s subtle. Almost gentle. Kind but in a cruel way.

It starts with a simple statement: “You made it through another day.”

Benign. Encouraging. Caring?

Yes, I made it through another day. Yeah me?

Then it cranks it up a notch: “Well, you could be dead right now you know.”

I’m aware of that but thanks for the reminder.

“One could argue that you should be dead right now.”

Ah, there it is! The slow turn. The happy clown peels off its mask.

“Why aren’t you dead yet?”

There’s a stumper. I’ve don’t know how to answer that one.

“You could you know.”

Its smiling eyes turn grey and cold. It waits for me to ask, but I don’t want to play its game. This isn’t a game I can win. You can’t beat a cheater or a liar.

Tired of waiting for me to take the bait, it takes charge. It has me where it wants me. I can’t escape. How can I escape my own mind?

Ah, there it is. The laughter. The glee. I asked the question and it has the answer. “Die.”

No. I can’t.

“Yes, you can.”

I don’t want to hurt them. I don’t want to hurt my family.

“Oh, they’ll be better off without you.”


“How much time, money, and energy have they wasted on you?”

I don’t know.

“I’ve done the math.”

Shut up. Shut up. Shut up.

There’s a stretch of silence. Five minutes. Five hours. It backs off for a while because the game just gets better the longer it goes on. It’ll drag it out until I drop my guard and then the same old gremlin will return. It’ll fill the silence but, for now, I’ll try to get some sleep. 

I love sleeping. I love to dream. In bed at night or just walking around during the day. Slipping off into that dream world feels so good. So free. So calm. It’s lighter. The air is cleaner. In my dreams, that’s where I find my moments of peace.

But the voice comes back for a second, third, fourth round. Each time it takes another track and tries another trick. Some shots go wide and others are easily deflected. Some hit the mark and my defenses weaken.

“How many people have you watched die?

I don’t know.

“One? Five? Ten? One Hundred?”

I stopped counting.

“Were they good people?”

They were my friends. I’d call some of them family. Yeah, they were great people.

“Better than you?”

Maybe. Probably.

“Then how come they’re gone and you’re still here?”

I have no answer to that one. The friends I’ve buried were incredible human beings. Kind. Loving. Brilliant beyond words. Most were too young to die. Kids. Babies. They never got a chance to live but here I am. Alive. 

A few years ago I lost a friend who was more like a sister. We grew up together inside the sterile walls of BC’s Children’s Hospital. We fought renal failure together. Laughed together. Played together. We used our dialysis lines as swords and pretended we were knights of the round table. She was the one person who understood what living with a chronic illness felt like. She knew the toll it takes on the mind and body. She was the one person I could talk to about this because she got it. God, I miss her so much!

Kidney disease took her away just like it’s taken so many others. She didn’t deserve it. She deserved a second, third, even a hundredth chance to live the life she wanted. They all did. They all deserved so much better.

She’s gone. They’re all gone. I’m still here.

God forgive me, but that voice makes a tempting offer. When it says that it would be so much easier to just give in; it’s not wrong. It’s not a lie. It would be so much easier. It would be easier for me to just let go.

I get so tired of living in this broken body and living this life. Maybe that’s why I like to sleep and why getting lost in a daydream just feels so damn good. Fighting is exhausting. It’s hard, and I’ll never live a life that isn’t a constant battle. That thought alone is defeating.

Giving in? Letting go? I understand why some people do it. I get it. I feel it. Respect it? I don’t know if I’d go that far. It creates a cycle of pain and suffering that, to me, seems too cruel. I don’t want to lay that burden on someone else. I just can’t do that to the people I love.

But I get it. I feel the temptation more often than I care to admit. I just can’t do it.

Besides, I’ve been doing this long enough to know that, no matter how horrible I feel at this moment, this moment won’t last forever. This feeling, these thoughts, that voice will go quiet. They won’t be gone. I don’t know if I’ll ever be lucky enough to have some better angels drown out my gremlin.

However, there will be a moment of peace. I’ll get a brief reprieve at some point. I will be able to breathe, smile, laugh again. The pain will take off its dancing shoes and rest for a little while. Sleep will go back to being a simple necessity rather than an escape. The good things, the beauty in the real world, will replace the hours wasted away in my dreams. 

I’ll get a day, week, month or maybe even two. The gremlin will get tired, it will need to rest, so all I have to do is hold on. All I have to do is fight. No matter how tired I am I have to fight back against the gremlins voice because I did get a second chance. I am alive. 

I’d love to know why I’m still alive but I can live without knowing. I don’t need to be better than those that were taken. I just need to breath. I just need to hold on. I just need to make this moment count for something. 

This beat. This breath. This chance. It belongs to me because I am alive and, God willing, that will be enough. I am enough. I just need to hold on. Hold on and wait for a few better angels.

If the fight is getting too hard and you feel like giving up; Please call your local suicide hotline, call emergency services, or take yourself to the hospital. You’re worth the fight and there are good people who will fight along side you. Don’t give up. Please, hold on. You’re not alone!


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