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Mental Illness on Display.

26 July 2016

At the Democratic National Convention last night, several speakers talked about their history of struggles with mental illness. Pop singer Demi Lovato, especially, gave a compelling and heartfelt talk. Aside from being an inspirational figure on the world stage talking about her personal story, it’s a proven fact you can lift 30% more weight at the gym while listening to her song “Confident“. A former mayor of Boston spoke about his alcoholism.

I never know quite how to feel during these personal testimonies on television. Lovato’s speech had tears in my eyes. It was courageous and moving. Her personal troubles, as a celebrity, had been well-documented. And they’re quite similar to my own. Addiction, eating disorders, and self-harm. In addition, Lovato suffers from bipolar disorder, a condition I have no personal relationship with.

It is good to see people who have recovered go forth and say that recovery exists and can be accomplished. The need for alcoholics to hide our addictions for fear that even in recovery we would be mistreated is no longer quite so acute. Though we still suffer stigmas and misunderstanding, it tends to be of a softer sort. Being told “good for you” is grating, and minimizing, but it’s not nearly as bad as being told, “you’re fired,” because your boss doesn’t believe your recovery is stable.

But I fear that there can also be something self-aggrandizing and ego-feeding about these public testimonials. Recovery from addiction requires us to defeat our own out-of-control egos that tell us, even in our darkest moments, that we are the only thing that matters. So much so that it can drive us to suicide: nothing beyond the self exists, so it doesn’t matter if we end the self.

I have a toxic ego that I am constantly battling. During the difficult final 5 km of my triathlon, I kept telling myself, “I’m not special. There’s no reason I shouldn’t hurt like everyone else.” I need to deflate my ego constantly in order to maintain my recovery. My ego leads me to inflate my importance, to think I’m in control. As soon as I think that my recovery is about my own efforts, I am lost.

Don’t get me wrong. I work like hell at it and I have pride in those efforts. Recovery is a parade of contradictions. But they resolve themselves into a few simple concepts. I cannot recover alone. I am not God. Forces bigger than myself must be mustered for me to have hope for a normal life. And I hope that what I write here is helpful to some, and I believe it has been. But I can’t cure anyone. And I can’t take credit for anyone else’s recovery.

My addiction is not a lever to public acclaim. Nor is my anonymity a cloak of invisibility. I hope that those who speak publicly help people. And I know the courage it takes to stand up and say, “I am ill, and that sometimes makes me feel weak. But I have recovered, and that hope is available to everyone.” It is moving to see that strength from people – especially those who have much to lose.

Because that’s the truth of it. I am ill. My illness led me to make many terrible decisions. I harmed people I can never repair. I gave up many things I’ll never get back. But I have recovered. I make better decisions, most of the time, now. I harm people less frequently, and I repair the damage I do promptly when I can. I share my disease and my recovery from it.

But I don’t think you’d find me on a stage, if someone offered one to me. I could far too easily make it about myself. My life. My story. And I do not doubt that could lead me rapidly back to the abyss.


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