I Don’t Owe You An Inspiring Ending - Toxic Positivity and Mental Health Dialogues
Updated: Jan 30
By Elliot Mears
When people are open about their struggles with mental illness, it seems to be far more socially acceptable to do so if you can offer a grand moral lesson and an inspirational happy ending - a story about how you overcame your illness, you learnt, you grew and you wouldn’t change it for the world. I don’t want to dismiss the experiences of people for whom this rings true, the problem comes when these are the only stories we hear. Negativity is so vilified that even discussions about one’s ill health are expected to come neatly packaged with a happy ending and an uplifting message. I believe everyone should be able to speak candidly about their mental health, even if their story doesn’t reach a neat and happy conclusion.
For so many people there simply isn’t a point at which the battle is won, the mountain is climbed, the lessons are learnt and life is all the better for it. The version of recovery we are shown is one where you go to therapy for a while, maybe take medication, do some mindfulness and yoga, and come out having overcome your illness, come off medication if you were taking it, developed a newfound appreciation for life and acquired some grand wisdom. These rose-tinted stories are often touted as inspirational - and I don’t want to discredit the experiences of these individuals - but this polished kind of story just isn’t representative of the majority of people living with mental illness. Recovery, for most, is not a consistent and easy process of getting better until your symptoms disappear or become negligible. Recovery is gruelling; it’s a process of trial and error treatments, setbacks, slow progress which can feel like no progress, and with many conditions there may never be a clear cut end point. Of course, it’s worth doing and people do get better, but it’s also far from plain sailing and to gloss over that is to give an incomplete picture. You don’t have to ‘overcome’ your mental illness in order to talk about it, there is power in accepting that it may always be present, you are allowed to feel sad about that and you are allowed to voice that. You do not owe anyone an inspirational ending.
I’ve heard many proclaim that they wouldn’t change what happened to them with regard to mental health because it’s made them who they are - that is a great way to feel I’m sure, but it’s not a sentiment I share. If I could I would absolutely remove my mental illness - any positive impacts on my personality are drastically outweighed by the amount it has robbed me of. My body will forever be damaged and scarred. I spent my adolescence wishing life away, I was hospitalised, isolated from the friends I should have been finding my feet in the world with. My illness wreaked havoc on my relationship with my family. My grades were hindered hugely. I will never get those years back and I will always have to live with the consequences of the hijacking of my formative years - I am allowed to be angry about that. I am allowed to grieve for the person I could have been and the life I could have had without my mental illness. I don’t doubt that for many empowerment comes in finding a reason and purpose in their suffering but for me, empowerment comes from being able to be angry and sad about everything I’ve lost and everything I’ve had to endure. Those ‘negative’ emotions fuel my efforts to recover in a similar way to finding a reason or deeper meaning behind it all but one is praised and one is not socially acceptable. Negative emotions serve a purpose, being angry and sad about the impact of mental illness on my life is justified and I do not have to force myself to put a positive spin on it in order to talk about it, because there is simply nothing positive there and that is okay. Neither outlook is objectively better or worse than the other but I seldom hear the voices and stories of people who like me are angry and grieving, and I think our stories are worth hearing too.
I want to stress that I’m not telling anyone how to feel - finding comfort and empowerment is important and can take many forms. However, you do not owe anyone an uplifting conclusion and you don’t owe anyone a rose-tinted view. If we are going to allow sufferers to speak authentically about their experiences we have to stop assigning more value to narratives which make us feel good, everyone’s perspectives are worth hearing regardless of whether they have anything uplifting to offer you. Expecting everyone who speaks about their mental health to fit the mold of ‘ill’ to ‘recovered’ in a linear fashion and expecting everyone to provide you with a nugget of wisdom is to ignore the experiences of so many.
There is no right way to feel, everyone deserves to be able to share their story should they choose to do so.