Mental Illness, Success and Underachievement

We live in a society in which people are taught to evaluate themselves and their self-worth in terms of success. I was taught to equate happiness with achievement and learned that the core purpose of my life was trying to get good grades, win sports competitions, climb up the corporate job ladder and so on. I learned to compare my achievements to others and always find myself lacking in some respect. My brain always tells me that I’m not as popular, or attractive, or intelligent, or happy as I imagine other people to be. I always feel that I haven’t done as much with my life as other people. I haven’t reached the milestones that they have. I live for the future and hope that the next success will fill the empty void. I hope for this even though the happiness from all the previous successes did not last.

I have achieved so much. Yet despite this achievement I consistently feel like a failure. I consistently feel like I’m not good enough. I feel this way because I know how much I am capable of achieving and how much greater this is than what I have actually achieved. I imagine how many things I could be an expert on or how many books I could have written. I have not fulfilled my potential because I have been incredibly mentally ill. It is hard to read and write when you’re experiencing crippling anxiety or depression so profound you lack the motivation to eat, let alone get out of bed. I’ve lived in a vicious circle of planning to do things, failing to complete these plans because of mental illness and then hating myself for this failure which only makes my mental illness worse and so on. Despite knowing that my inability to achieve my goals is a product of mental illness my brain still views my failure as reflective of my own individual flaws. I will label myself as lazy or un-disciplined. I will attack myself for wasting my life.

Lately I’ve been realizing that this entire way of thinking is wrong. Why am I evaluating myself and my worth relative to these metrics? Why do I care about achievement? Why do I only consider certain things to be an achievement and not others? I never sat down and decided how I should evaluate my life. Instead I was evaluated by other individuals, such as my parents or teachers, and internalized the value system that underpinned their evaluation. If I am to live my life on my own terms, rather than the terms of authority figures, then I should decide for myself what I care about and what matters to me. Achieving externally recognized successes is not the most important thing in life. There are in reality other things that matter far more: I have survived, I have become less self-critical, I have stopped having daily panic attacks, I have become kinder, I have helped friends, I have stopped being afraid of going outside. Healing from trauma, forming positive social relationships and learning to freely associate with other humans are much more important successes in life than writing an important book or being large on youtube. Surely then I should center my life around these goals, rather than the goals I happened to pick up from society.

I think we would all be happier if we sat down and really thought about what matters in life, rather than uncritically pursuing the goals and values handed down to us by the adult world. We only have one life and it is a true waste of life to spend it pursuing goals that we feel we should aspire for. In our society so many of us spend our lives trying to live the life we feel we should want to live rather than the life we actually want to live or the life that would in fact bring us fulfillment, happiness and peace of mind.



Suicide and Wanting to Die

I have wanted to kill myself since I was 11. I will soon be 24. I never expected to live this long. I thought I would at the very least be dead by 21. Yet despite it all here I am continuing to exist. Suicide has in a sense been my permanent companion in life. The option is always there looking at me. I need only choose it.

I spent my adolescence looking at trains and wishing that I had the courage to jump in front of them. I would stand on top of bridges and imagine myself falling to my death. I would look down staircases and wish my corpse lay at the bottom. I would shift back and forth through the five stages of suicide. These are: wanting to no longer exist; wishing that something terrible would happen such that I die, such as a car crashing into me or a restaurant accidently giving me nuts and causing an allergic reaction; wanting to kill myself; and actively planning to kill myself. After this stage comes the act: attempting to kill myself. I have never attempted. I’ve always stopped at the planning stage.

I have wanted to kill myself for so many reasons. When I was a child it was because I knew that if I didn’t exist then I wouldn’t be bullied anymore and not having friends would no longer be a problem. Child me had to keep whispering to herself that no matter how bad things got things could in principle improve and so I should wait to see if they did. I did make friends but friends did not take away the pain. As trauma developed into insanity I wanted to die because I could not live with myself. I could not live with the constant sadness, the terror, the emptiness, the inability to feel anything, the inner scream that drove me over the edge day after day. I could not live with the shaking anxiety that would flow through my entire body every time another human looked at me, let alone spoke to me, let alone touched me.

I think David Foster Wallace, who killed himself in 2008, has provided the best description of what it is to be suicidal. He writes,

The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling. (David Foster Wallace 2008, 696-7)

It was the fear of falling that consistently saved my life. The only thing that terrified me more than life was dying and wishing that I wasn’t. I was terrified that I would go through all the effort of killing myself only to realise just before life left me that actually I wanted to live. I would then have a second of total regret and terror only to be consumed by nothingness. As a child I was terrified that my death would upset my family and so kept on living because, despite being in great pain, I didn’t want others to hurt as well. As an adult I didn’t want to hurt the person who found my dead body. I would lay awake at night imagining my post suicide funeral. In my imagination only my family would turn up and probably only out of politeness. I wasn’t a very good judge of heights and so was always worried that if I jumped to my death then the fall would only break my legs. This led to the even greater fear: that I would survive and then have to sit in hospital awkwardly explaining to my parents that I don’t like existence.

If I managed to overcome these fears and actively plan my suicide then I would by saved by my perfectionism. I would agonize over ensuring that my suicide was perfect and as painless as possible. I would write and re-write suicide notes in my head but they were never good enough and so I decided to wait. I’ve found that the key to staying alive is procrastination: why kill yourself today when you could wait until tomorrow. You keep saying this and before you know it you’re an adult and you no longer want to die.

My advice to someone who is currently suicidal due to mental illness is as follows: when suicidal it feels that the only option is death. It feels that the current pain will never end and that there will be no escape. But this is not true. Depression merely makes it feel so. It causes the window of possibility to shrink so that all you can see is a noose. This is, however, a delusion. Just because things are currently bad doesn’t mean that they will remain so. Things can in principle get better and so long as this is true there is still hope. Had I killed myself I never would have felt the genuine happiness that I currently experience. I never would have made the amazing friends that I have. I never would have read the books or heard the albums that I currently love so much. Life has the potential to bring wonderful surprises which you cannot and will never predict. For this reason alone it is worth continuing to exist and sitting with the pain. I know it feels unbearable but you can survive and learn to live.


David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest. London: Abacus, 2008.