Chronic Illness, Mental Health, and America’s Obsession with Self-Sufficiency

By Hailey Joy Scandrette

The last time I wrote about my mental health journey, specifically my experience of depression, I felt that I had finally found some stability from which I could reflect, learn, and grow. It felt freeing, like a breath of fresh air, and it didn’t last. Less than a month after completing and publishing that reflection I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia. Unsurprisingly, discovering that the increasingly severe pain and fatigue that I had been experiencing for the past few months is tied to chronic, usually lifelong, health conditions took a toll on my mental and emotional health.

People with chronic illnesses and disabilities often experience mental illness as well. In fact, depression and anxiety are often listed as symptoms of fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue. Despite this, mainstream conversations around mental health and the stigma attached to mental illness, often fail to recognize the intersection between mental and physical illness and disability, and, just as importantly, cultural factors that impact experiences of mental health. In my experience, while the pain and fatigue associated with my physical illnesses certainly wear me down physically and emotionally, it is the isolation of performing wellness and the inability to meet cultural expectations of self-sufficiency that most often trigger my depression and anxiety.

In attempts to shift away from a stigmatizing perception of mental illness as a personal failing, I think many of us, myself included, have tended to cling too tightly to purely biological explanations of mental illness. I believe this is in part due to mainstream (white) America’s cultural fixations on quick fixes and the desire for attainable, perpetual happiness. When I first shared my diagnosis on facebook I was inundated by recommendations for treatments and solutions, everyone wanted to help fix me. This reaction I’m sure is partly rooted in a sincere longing to see our loved ones feeling happy. But it has become clear to me that many people (especially Christians, in my experience) are also deeply uncomfortable with long-term, unexplained pain, or suffering, so instead of learning to sit with it, many of us try to “solve” it so that we don’t have to feel anything about it. However, usually a quick fix doesn’t “solve” mental or physical illness, so those of us living with them are often left feeling isolated and limit our expression of our pain, because we’re aware how uncomfortable it makes people around us.

Additionally, American culture has romanticized and idealized independence and self-sufficiency for hundreds of years, which has created a dominant narrative that casts those of us who rely on others for physical and/or emotional support as “less than.” Since my diagnosis I’ve often felt that because I currently can’t work a 40-hour work week, or live without a solid support system in place, or travel easily by myself that no one will consider me a “real adult,” that people will see me as a burden, and subsequently won’t want to be a part of my life. However, I also recognize that this ideal of “rugged individualism” has been socially constructed by white Western society, is used to uphold capitalism, goes against humans’ instincts as social beings, and isn’t an inherent measure of worth. So as I continue the process of unlearning this narrative I’m also trying to embrace a vision of community and belonging in which the inherent worth of spirit and human divinity is valued above cultural constructs and capabilities.

This, I feel, is one of the biggest challenges in seeking the kingdom of God in our day-to-day lives, not only for those of us struggling to thrive due to our mental and/or physical health, but for all of us. Although many of us are aware and engaged in fighting the dominant cultural narratives that lead us to behaviors we deem to be “sinful,” it is harder to fight narratives that hurt us by isolating us, shaming us, and setting arbitrary and harmful definitions of our worth.

As I learn to live with chronic illness and the mental health struggles that come with it, the constant practice of teaching myself that I can discover ways to thrive without regard to cultural definitions of success is among the most difficult and most important inner work I do. I have a long way to go, but I can envision the liberation of leaving societal pressure behind and embracing what is true and beautiful. The more I let go of comparisons and expectations for myself based on narratives of individual self-made success and perpetual personal happiness, the more I will be free experience life, love, vulnerability, and community in all of their intricacies. I don’t know if I will ever be “healthy.” But I know I can be free.

1011422_10153857559713000_7316683471716666265_nHailey Joy Scandrette is the editor for Ignited magazine. She has recently graduated from San Francisco State University where she studied US History with an emphasis in gender and race relations in the social movements of the 19th and 20th centuries. She is passionate about community building, storytelling, social justice, and pretty much anything else she has an opinion about.

 

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