By Laura Romain
Last night I dreamed about my ex-fiancé’s new girlfriend. In real life, I know nothing except her name, but my dream turned her into everything I wish I could be: radiant, smiling, lighthearted.
I dreamed that I shouted at her. I cursed her relationship with my ex. I seethed with jealousy that I would never acknowledge in my waking life. Why did this woman—the product of my own imagination—trigger such animosity in me, such envy?
Here’s the truth: the worst part wasn’t that she was beautiful. It wasn’t the bright sweep of her hair, the perfect gleam of her teeth. It wasn’t even that she’d entered into a relationship with my ex.
The worst part was that she was happy. In other words: not anxious, not depressed. It wasn’t her looks or her relationship status that truly made me jealous. It was her mental health.
Somewhere deep in my subconscious, I believe that life is easy for people who don’t have fears and anxieties and merciless self-criticism strapped to them like sandbags. I believe that their work comes naturally to them, whereas my negative self-talk makes sitting at my computer feel like hurling myself in front of a firing squad. I believe that mentally healthy people are guaranteed fulfilling, successful relationships, whereas I second-guess myself to the point that I have no idea what I even think of the men I date.
But you know what? These are beliefs, not reality. Not truth. And it’s time to let them go. It’s time for me to erase the line I’ve drawn between myself and other people, which is really just a line I’ve drawn between “depressed/anxious” and “mentally healthy.”
My self-pity has blinded me to an important truth: I’m not the only person who struggles, not by a long shot. 1 in 4 women of reproductive age is on an antidepressant. Presumably these women didn’t waltz into a psychiatrist’s office because their lives were so damn easy they didn’t know what to do. They went on meds because they felt crummy. Because they could barely peel themselves off the bathroom floor. Or, worst of all, because they had nowhere else to turn.
The moment I forget this, the moment I decide I’m different from other people and fall silent about my issues because I don’t want to be judged, don’t want to be weird, is the moment I become part of the problem. Anxiety and depression aren’t weird. They’re not even rare. But sometimes they’re invisible. Sometimes they show up at work in a nice dress. Sometimes they swipe on lipstick, dab perfume on their wrists, and head out on a date.
I have no idea what anyone else is going through. Not the woman who shows up to the gym with her hair curled, not the barista who draws smiley faces on my coffee cup, and definitely not my ex’s girlfriend. The only decent way I can see to cope with this reality is to cultivate compassion toward everyone.
And everyone includes mentally healthy people. When I’m wrapped up in my poor-little-me story, I make people who don’t have issues “other.” Much as I envy them, I also devalue their successes, their happiness. I could have everything you do, I think, if only I didn’t have to deal with so much.
Last weekend, I went to a wedding—the first I’ve been to since my dad died and I canceled my own wedding. Somehow it didn’t occur to me that I might get upset. But as the bride stepped onto the dance floor with her father, my eyes teared. Soon I was ugly-crying, biting my hand to keep from shaking, unable to leave my seat without drawing attention to myself.
Eventually I made it to the bathroom, where two women desperately blotted drips of mascara with tissues. Both women’s fathers, it turns out, are dying of cancer. We hugged, we exchanged phone numbers, we stood together by the paper towel dispenser until the red faded from our eyes and we could face the world again.
Our grief doesn’t mean that the bride and her father don’t deserve happiness. It doesn’t mean that somehow they haven’t earned it. (They were far better dancers than my dad and I would have been, anyhow.)
In the same way, my suffering at the hands of anxiety and depression doesn’t mean that people without mental issues don’t deserve the good things that happen to them, nor does it mean that they don’t work for their successes, their good relationships. And if I fail to honor the troubles they do face, then I am unspeakably arrogant.
All of this should be obvious. But it hasn’t been, not to me. I was too lost in my own sad stories to see it.
There’s a common thread uniting these realizations: I’m not that special.
An important corollary: I can’t believe something is true for me but not for other people. So if I tell myself that anxiety and depression doom me to a miserable life—and God knows I’ve been telling myself that since forever—then I’m extending that same fate to anyone with similar issues. And that’s not fair. Who am I to say that hard times and lonely hours await anyone who’s been embarrassed by the unmistakable sound of pills rattling in her handbag, who’s worn the same outfit four days in a row because it’s too hard to pick anything else?
Maybe my ex’s new girlfriend falls into that category. Maybe she doesn’t.
Or maybe there’s no “category” at all, no buckets of healthy or not healthy that we can be sorted into like whole crabs from claws.
I like that belief. I think I’ll stick with it.
Laura Romain is a writer, editor, and writing coach from the wilds of suburban New Jersey. Her work has been published in Penny, Day One, The Hartskill Review, and Rust+Moth. In her spare time, she practices (and teaches) yoga, plays the harp, and goes to the woods to live deliberately. Laura can be found online at https://lauraromain.com, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/