Please welcome Author Julia Ember to the blog today! I adore this post for two reasons: One, I can relate to it in more ways than I can count; and two, it gives me (and I hope all of you) hope that I too can overcome some of my fiercest self-doubt.
When Sophie and I called my parents to tell them that we were engaged, they sat in frozen, quiet shock. Later, they clarified that the reason for their surprise and silence was not in response to me marrying a woman (whom they had already met on numerous occasions), but to the idea that I wanted to get married at all.
As a teen, I had told them and myself over and over how vehemently against the idea I was. The only weddings I’d been to were those of my evangelical protestant family members – a religion I had already given up by the time I was a teen. I didn’t see that type of ceremony as for me, and I had limited familiarity with anything else.
But beyond that, I didn’t see myself as the kind of person who would ever find that kind of love. I was fat and at the time, undiagnosed bipolar disorder sent me through periods of spiraling depression followed by mania, a confusing pattern that pushed many of my friends away. I was a pretty serious teen, much more focused on getting out of the high school I hated and into college, than on cultivating lasting friendships. And when I did meet people who interested me sexually or romantically, low self-esteem convinced me that my interest would never be reciprocated. I feared failure — both in my academic life and in my relationships. The result was that on the relationship side, I convinced myself I didn’t want one, because admitting I might made me too vulnerable, it set me up to fail.
That same fear of failure followed me into my 20s, while on the flipside, my still undiagnosed, untreated bipolar disorder seemed to make that failure inevitable. The pattern of manic productivity and relative sociability followed by periods of deep depression continued. I was depressed for the first half of my senior year in college, barely able to get out of bed and to class, and so manic in the second semester that I wrote my entire 20,000 word history thesis in two days in the library, not sleeping between. By then, I had learned that my body was desirable to some and that sex was possible, but I continued to have trouble committing to partners because my anxiety told me that they would all eventually leave.
In 2013, I finally started seeking treatment for my mental health. But initial medical diagnosis as depression, followed by OCD meant that things got worse before they got better. The SSRIs I was put on made my moods even more erratic. I left my PhD program in 2014, after I started self-harming. I lost friends because I was too embarrassed to talk to them about how much I was suffering. I stopped going to social outings, couldn’t fulfill bridesmaid obligations I’d committed to for a friend, stopped caring. All I could think about was how badly I’d messed things up, but fear of rejection, and more failure, prevented me from taking steps to fix them.
Ironically, it was this low period and the harrowing querying process that finally allowed me to move past my fear of failure. Failure came rapid-fire in the form of dozens of one-line rejection letters. And every time, while it hurt, it reinforced the idea that nothing in my life really changed because I failed. I took the risk, and that mattered.
Getting a true diagnosis and coming off SSRIs in 2016 put me on a path to better mental health than I’ve had since I was a teen. I’ve learned to understand the phases of my illness, and with counselling and different medication, things have slowly gotten better.
Mental illness can make you put yourself a in box. You tell yourself, “This is what I am. This is what I can do.” Finally, in the last few years, I’ve crossed a bridge, and I know just because I’m mentally ill doesn’t mean that I will fail, or that I can’t have a full life. Instead of telling myself how failure is inevitable and avoiding situations, I’m slowly learning how to change my internal narrative and set myself up for success instead.
In two weeks, I’m getting married. I am doing a thing I thought I never could. And of course, the niggling doubt that it all could fail – that I could fail – remains, but it’s a leap I’m able to take.