By Steve Austin
I used to live in an I-have-it-together illusion. But waking up in ICU after a failed suicide attempt left me with no choice but to admit that I suffer from mental illness, specifically depression and anxiety. It’s been a long three years, but instead of living in shame, I am now embracing the life I have been given. In doing so, I have found several surprising gifts.
1) My brokenness is beautiful.
All my life, I’ve heard that we must spend our energy working toward brokenness, like some sort of crown of humility. Perhaps the greater reality of brokenness is this: We are all broken, and as a result, equally imperfect. I am finding belonging, not in spite of being broken, but because of it.
2) My faith is more authentic.
When I knew I wasn’t going to attempt suicide again, that I wanted help and wanted to live, my goal changed from constantly keeping up appearances to embracing my life with grace. I had lived in fear of anyone knowing about my illness. Pre-recovery, I was masking my pain and faults with smiles. As a result, I was also judgmental, using religion as a measuring stick. Now, I use my faith, along with my illness, to encourage and support others with similar struggles.
I did not find greater purpose in trying to be perfect. I tried to serve men and rules and ideals, but it didn’t save me. Instead, it almost killed me. I couldn’t please everyone any more. I felt empty, isolated, and defeated. Depression is human. It is an illness like any other and needs healing, doctors, and often medication. There is no more shame in mental illness than for the newly diagnosed cancer patient.
Mental illness has shown me a greater purpose in living. I can hide my arrogance, greed, insecurity, and my false humility, but I can’t hide my illness. Through my mental illness, I have found the greatest faith of all: faith in self and others.
3) I parent with more patience.
My own struggle with anxiety has given me a greater empathy for my children’s behavior. Lately, my son has had some outbursts in class and at home. I struggled for two weeks, guilting myself into believing I have passed down my anxiety to my four-year-old. The truth is, he acts out like any other child and never questions where he belongs. My son knows I will never stop loving him. He is completely comfortable and safe, expressing himself, knowing all I want to do is help.
Because I have triggers no one can comprehend, it helps me relate to the sometimes irrational tantrums of small children. Instead of being humiliated by my little boy’s actions, I hope I can follow in his footsteps, living my life honestly, never fearing rejection. Instead of telling them to calm down, I listen and help them find words for their frustrations.
4) Facing it doesn’t mean I have to fix it.
Many men are “fixers.” I always have been one, too. But these days I do less fixing and more facing. When depression or anxiety wash over me, I try to name my emotions. I face what I feel, but that doesn’t mean I can or try to fix it. I don’t always have to be happy.
Neither do my loved ones. Mental illness has given me the gift of being quiet. We have all been guilty of trying to comfort a friend going through a hard time. Sometimes a hug or simply our presence is all anyone needs.
5) I am an advocate.
I have been called a mental health advocate, which I embrace, but more than that I want to be an advocate of second chances. Because really, doesn’t everyone long for another chance?
Mental illness has given me more empathy for my fellow man. I am now driven by love that reaches beyond the labels. Because my life once crashed all around me, I am able to inspire others and cheer them on.
6) I now have boundaries.
I had no boundaries before my suicide attempt. I was a “yes man” to any person or project willing to stroke my ego. Blogs, a radio show, a full-time job, a part-time job, and holding down the fort at home were all a part of my daily life. After my suicide attempt, I accepted my limitations and my need to say “no.” Now, I decline more projects than I accept, and I am happier as a result. I have learned to do only those things that add value to my life, my marriage, or my family, instead of feeling like I owe something to everyone.
7) I’m learning to make every word count.
As a writer, this is our mantra. Editors repeat it while we pour over every sentence for excess. Because of my struggle with mental illness, I work to make every word count. I want to spark dreams, plant hope, and lead others toward wholeness.
I am grateful for my mental illness. Because of these surprising gifts, I have grown personally and relationally. It has made me more open and honest about who I am.
Steve Austin is a writer and blogger from Birmingham, Alabama. Steve is passionate about capturing stories that point to God’s purpose and the power of second chances. Connect with Steve at www.iamsteveaustin.com.
A version of this article was published at the Good Men Project.