I’ve wrestled with being open, honest and vulnerable about my recent diagnosis of bipolar II disorder. From battling the stigma, guilt and denial that comes with a mental illness diagnosis, to practicing self-care, recovery is not simple or quick. While it’s easier with family and close friends standing in my corner, most days I’m trying to be better for them. Only recently have I tried to be better for myself.

Here are five ways I’ve been able to embrace my mental illness:

1. Acknowledging its presence in my life.

I think bipolar II was a secret I kept from myself for years. It seemed to sit there quietly in my unsettled mind, occasionally making an appearance just to remind me it was still there. I always willed it to go away, but denying its existence only brought more pain. In the depths of my most recent major depressive episode, I resorted to self-harm and began cutting my wrists. I wanted my outside to match how I felt on the inside. This left me with four scars on my left wrist, and I ultimately reached a point where I could no longer hide my struggle from family and friends. As a result, I spent a week in the psychiatric unit at a local hospital.

Sharing this struggle and my subsequent diagnosis with close friends and family was the best thing I ever did for myself. People came out of the woodwork to support me. I didn’t realize how much I needed all of them until they appeared. By finally admitting I needed help, I was no longer alone in my journey. I realize now how crucial family and friends are in my recovery, and I’ve found that by acknowledging my mental illness, I’ve laid the groundwork for a dependable support network.

2. Making friends with fear.

I was plagued with fear when I was first diagnosed with bipolar II. Fear that people might judge me or think I was different and weird. Fear that the free-spirited, adventurous qualities my friends and family loved about me were just the byproduct of being hypomanic. Fear of the realization I would live with bipolar for the rest of my life, leaving me wondering what “the rest of my life” would even look like. However, admitting I was afraid and voicing my fears brought an enormous amount of relief. I started to view my diagnosis as a blessing — it meant I knew what I was dealing with. Armed with that knowledge, I can use fear to understand what I need to do to manage my illness and continue living a healthy, stable life.

3. Acknowledging my current state of health.

In my most severe depressive episode, I stopped taking care of myself. I didn’t shower. I didn’t cook. I didn’t clean. The thought of doing any of these things nearly debilitated me, and as a result, I stunk, didn’t eat and slept in dirty sheets for months at a time. It wasn’t until I went to the hospital that I became mindful of how poorly I was functioning in the everyday world. I needed medication to stabilize my mood, and help doing even simple things that seemed so overwhelming. The only thing I seemed able to manage in the initial weeks after my hospital stay was taking a shower. I was too exhausted to do anything else. But even though it was a small task, it was something.

Understanding my abilities and limitations is important to my recovery process. I can’t think about where I want to be or how I ultimately want to function. Instead, I continuously have to ask myself where I’m at and cut myself some slack. I know now I might need help getting through rough patches, but I’ve found there are people in my support network who are willing to help, even if in small, but significant, ways.

4. Participating in the recovery process in a meaningful way.

When I decided to take an active role in my recovery, I began educating myself about my mental illness and joined several support groups. The support I give and receive in these groups has been the biggest blessing in my recovery. They are my brothers and sisters: my comrades. They are the few people I know truly understand what it’s like inside the mind of someone living with bipolar. Writing has also been helpful. It’s given voice to my worries and fears and helped me process and grieve my diagnosis. Taking an active role in my recovery process has empowered me to seek help and find purpose and meaning in a post-diagnosis world.

5. Not letting it define me.

As soon as the psychiatrist diagnosed me with bipolar II, I thought others would stop seeing me as the free-spirited, adventurous, sometimes sad and lonely writer and instead start seeing me as that crazy girl. The pervasive stigma that exists regarding mental illness is an issue I’ll constantly fight. Some people will embrace me while others will shy away, but I can’t let how others perceive me define my existence. Yes, I am different, unpredictable, impulsive, at times reckless and at other times seriously depressing, but I am also so much more. I am a strong person with a giant heart. I am a loving daughter and caring friend. My mental illness is a part of who I am, but it is not me. For that reason, I decided to use my mental illness as a vehicle for change.

If you live with a mental illness, know you are not alone in your journey.

A version of this post originally appeared on The Scenic Way Home.

The Mighty is asking the following: What was the moment that made you realize it was time to face your mental illness? What was your next step? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio.

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I have a rare neurological condition called Moebius syndrome, and for me, the biggest transition in my life was going to college. I never saw myself going to college, honestly. I was in a dark place for a long time and thought I’d never have any success in life. I’m sure a lot of people with different conditions can relate. It’s hard to be “different” in the society we live in.

In March 2013, I received an acceptance letter to a journalism program at a local college. That letter changed my life forever and for the better. There are so many new avenues open for me right now, so I want to help others find their way out of a dark place like I was in.

Here are my tips on making and dealing with life changes, such as going to college, for anyone who feels “different” or experiences self-doubt:

1. Put your fears behind you. You have to do this. As I learned, you won’t grow as a person until you step outside of your comfort zone. Going to college was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it also had the greatest payoff and impact on me.

2. Don’t worry about what others might think of you. We can spend a lot of time dwelling on how others perceive us, especially if we have physical differences. The truth is you have no control over what other people think, so why let them steer your life? Make decisions for yourself, not for others.

Because of my speech issues, I thought my teachers would ask themselves, “Why is this girl in journalism?” I could not have been more wrong. All they did was support me and tell me I’m going to do great things. People aren’t always thinking what you think they are.

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3. Find a support system. When I went to college, I didn’t know a single person there. Not one. As the days and months went on, I bonded with my classmates and teachers. I became really close to my teachers and friends who were there for me. They supported me through it all. My classmates even helped me run a Moebius syndrome event on campus, and the event was incredibly successful because of them. No matter where you go or what you do, it’s absolutely imperative to have a support system. That support system can be comprised of teachers, coaches, friends, family, counsellors, coworkers, etc.

4. Explore new horizons. Dabble in something you’ve always wanted to try. I always wanted to write and get my story out there, but I never had the avenues to do so. College opened up so many doors for me. Now I have more ways to get my story out there.

Always keep your life moving forward with momentum. There are so many things to do and see in this world, and we have such a short time on this earth. Make every single day count. Do things that scare you. For example, being interviewed on the news was terrifying for me, but I really wanted to get my story out there. It was amazing to see the result.

5. Always be true to yourself and know who you are. Know your values and morals and, most importantly, know what you want out of life. Never, ever stop chasing your dreams. I never thought going to college would be possible, but I found people who believed in me, and they’ve helped me believe in myself.

6. Remember that your biggest obstacle in life is yourself and the limitations you put on yourself. Find ways to overcome those obstacles. There is always a way. Like the old adage goes: Where there’s a will, there’s most certainly a way. Please don’t waste years doubting yourself or your abilities like I did. Create the beautiful life you’ve been dreaming of and never stop chasing those dreams.

The Mighty is asking its readers the following: Describe a time you saw your disability, illness and/or disease through the eyes of someone else. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected]. Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio.

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Before Ethan was diagnosed with Hunter syndrome, there were plenty of other diagnoses made by all kinds of doctors and specialists. Sensory processing disorder was the most recent one, leading up to Christmas 2007. During that week, the atmosphere in Galway, Ireland, was magical. The boys were anticipating the arrival of Santa Claus himself.

“Let’s take the lads into town for an hour and soak up some of the atmosphere,” my husband suggested as the cold winter winds shook our leafless hedges.

“Why don’t we just go as far as Smyths Toys?” I said, nodding toward Ethan and J., who just happened to be leafing through the toy store’s catalog.

“Why not? Let’s get these kids super excited,” my husband replied, grabbing their coats.

Neither of our boys ever needs any motivation to get excited, but there’s something about Christmas. We bundled ourselves up and faced the dark wintery evening.

“Santee, it’s Trissmass,” Ethan yelped while sitting in the car. It was quickly followed by his infamous, “Whoo hoo!”

“We’ll go in for five minutes. If it’s crazy, we’ll just leave,” my husband said, patting my leg as he opened the car door.

If you ever have a half-hour to spare on December 23, I beg you to visit a toy shop — without the kids. You will never see anything like it — fully grown adults shoving, grabbing, rushing and shouting.

But in hindsight, that’s when we should’ve turned and left. We had our giggle. There was really no need to actually step into the madness, but, as always, J. had a different idea.

“Spider-Man, Spider-Man. Please, Daddy? Spider-Man, Spider-Man,” J. repeated over and over. He was on the verge of a toddler tantrum.

“Whoo hoo!” Ethan screeched.

“Do you want to go to the teddies, and I’ll bring J. to look at Spider-Man? Meet you back here in five,” my husband said, scooping J. up.

“Come on, buddy, let’s go see Mickey Mouse,” I told Ethan as I held his hand and braced myself.

The crowd was dense at the teddy bear aisle entrance. Ethan began to wriggle, trying hard to break from my grip. I held tighter. Pushing my way through a group of arguing parents, I decided midway through it wasn’t a good idea, so I swiftly changed direction. Suddenly, Ethan’s hand jerked. He was gone.

I pushed harder through the crowd. My heart was racing.

”Ethan!” I roared, my eyes beginning to well up.

The crowd suddenly grew quiet. “We’ll find him,” I heard a few say. “Close the doors,” someone else shouted. I didn’t have time to thank any of them. My husband ran toward me with J. in his arms.

“Over here,” a woman motioned for me to go toward her.

And there he was under the escalator, rocking himself back and forth, his chubby hands covering his ears, his eyes shut tight. Next to him sat a security guard who was humming gently and rocking slightly slower than Ethan. We didn’t interrupt.

My heart rate slowed down as other shoppers nodded and smiled at me. We waited by the escalator, unsure of what to do.

The man slowly got up, all 6 feet of him. I thanked him for keeping my baby safe.

“My son has autism, I get it,” he said. “Little man will be fine in a minute.” He shook my husband’s hand while nodding at me.

Another diagnosis. This time, though, it was made by a wonderful special needs father, who, at that moment in time, was an angel.

He put the word autism out there for us, so we took that information to Ethan’s doctor, who diagnosed him with autistic traits. That led to Ethan’s final diagnosis of Hunter syndrome.

We were able to arrive at the diagnosis sooner because of a caring security guard working on a busy December evening in a toy store.

Thank you, kind sir. Thank you.

A version of this post originally appeared on geraldinerenton.com.

The Mighty is asking its readers the following: Describe the moment a stranger — or someone you don’t know very well — showed you or a loved one incredible love. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio.

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books Sometimes my kid annoys the hell out of me.

There, I said it.

I know as I write this, there will surely be mothers out there clutching their pearls in shocked outrage over my horrible faux pas. How can I say such a thing about my precious child, they’ll say. I never lose my patience with my child, will be the mantra of others. Positive reinforcement would solve all of your problems, the “helpful” mothers will offer. Regardless of the judgment and the advice, I stand by my initial statement. Kids can be annoying as hell, and it’s OK to admit that.

There seems to be some sort of unspoken rule in mommy-land. You’re never supposed to say a negative thing about your child. Bless your heart if you ever admit to being frustrated with them. Though I have a special needs child, I find this to be an across-the-board rule that encompasses all breeds of mom. Admitting that your child is sometimes obnoxious is unacceptable. Acknowledging that you get frustrated with said child is akin to saying you can’t handle being a parent. You must be doing something wrong.

Except that’s not true.

We’re all human beings. Human beings get annoyed sometimes. They get annoyed over big things, and they get annoyed over little things. Some of the things you get annoyed about might make you feel a little guilty. That’s OK. That just means you have a capacity for self-evaluation.

You also might feel justified in feeling the way you do. That’s also OK. Again, you’re a human being. It’s OK to have feelings. That doesn’t make you a bad parent. It simply makes you an honest one.

So, next time little Johnny is pulling the cat’s tail for the 200th time in 30 minutes, realize it’s OK to feel a moment of frustration.

Just take a deep breath, and hold on until bedtime.

Read more from this blogger on Mama Crazycakes.

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Like a story from a fairy tale, my daughter was born at the stroke of midnight. But she didn’t wear glass slippers or sleep through the night like Aurora. She came with unmatched hunger and beauty. She was poised to be my heroine. A love for the ages. Then her two brothers came and that love, though no less, was shared.

Her brothers both have rare diseases. One has a central nervous system disorder called Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease, while the other has fibrous dysplasia, a rare bone disease. Instinctively, our attention turned to doctors, research, prayers and arguments and counter-arguments about their care.

Two years have passed, and we’re still adjusting. In life, like a rugged mountain trek, we continue to encounter steep hills, rocks and tree roots. I believe God has been the trail guide who makes sure we don’t go off-course. And it’s on this terrain that my daughter have will no choice but to mature quickly and to endure.

My daughter is forced to concede the center of attention to her brothers. She tries to make sense of it all now, but in time she will be our guide. Though today I hold her hand, tomorrow she will hold all of our hands. This is my princess, the sister of two special boys.

1. She is Alice in Wonderland. One day she woke up and fell in this hole. Everything is upside down. Cats disappear, rabbits have clocks and there is more than one Mad Hatter wearing a white coat.

2. She is Cinderella. At least she feels like it sometimes. “Clean your room! Help your brother! Keep an eye on the baby!” She does her best to help. She traded gymnastics, ballet and painting lessons for trips to physical, occupational and speech therapies for her brothers. And with forged kindness, she tends to her brothers after surgeries, brings them food, protects them from falls, becomes their playdate and hauls them along.

3. She is Ariel. A romantic at heart, she loves music, flowers and forks. She’s passionate about the sea and has a profound desire to explore the world. Someday she will. Maybe with us, maybe alone. I am convinced that during those travels she will appreciate more, laugh more, live more and pray more.

4. She is Jasmine. She loves animals, but doesn’t own a Rajah, an Abu, a Lady or a Tramp. She has just one humble and inconspicuous fish, Cleo. This humility will set her apart. She will see the value of people for who they are and not for what they own. She has come to learn that truth early on.

5. She is Belle. Books are her escape from this world. She immerses herself in spectacular prose where heroes fly, maidens are rescued and good always wins. By now, she has seen firsthand the heroic hearts that lie inside little children with illnesses. Valiantly, she steps off the sidelines and joins them in nightly prayers, kisses and hugs.

6. She is Merida. A little bit of a rebel with a cause, she questions and expects insightful explanations. She doesn’t take a simple no for an answer. Like a mother bear in training, she defends with all her might those she loves and those who are overlooked and frowned upon.

7. She is Elsa and Ana. A sisterly bond exists in her heart. Though she was not blessed with a sister confidante, she seeks one. Sometimes she finds it in her mother, her cousins or her friends. Her heart is not frozen, and the perils she faces will give her the fairest, strongest and bravest of all hearts. She will understand true love like no other.

8. She is Sofia the First. Her world has been turned inside out. She’s part of a world she doesn’t understand, but she tries her best. She doesn’t know the rules and makes mistakes. But she makes up for them with absolute kindness to those around her. In time, she’ll find her place in this world and will become her own princess. She will be my very own Samantha the First.

Though she possesses qualities of a number of princesses, she’s in her own league. She’s perfectly imperfect. I pray the tribulations of our rare life do not pull us in so deep that we are robbed of living the extraordinary moments. I have faith that when all is said and done, she will know she matters, that she will make a difference and that she will know that she is loved. And more than anything, that she is just as special, if not more.

The Mighty wants to hear more about relationships and special needs parenting. Can you share a moment on your special needs journey that strengthened your relationship? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio.

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Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an “unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system” thought to affect 2.3 million people worldwide, according to the National MS Society. The condition presents itself in a variety of ways, so much so that you may not realize a loved one has it.

To learn more, The Mighty asked its Facebook readers and contributing writers to tell us the one thing they wish others could understand about MS. Here’s what they had to say:

1. It’s a disease most people wouldn’t recognize.” — Jason Tanner

2. “For me, MS means facing the unknown every day, wondering and worrying if a new feeling or sensation is a normal thing or an MS thing. I don’t want this disease to run my life.” — Jessica Adrianna

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3. MS can go undiagnosed/misdiagnosed. If it seems someone you love is quietly enduring symptoms, please encourage them to speak up.” — Angelica Catalano, senior producer at The Mighty

4. “So far, the embarrassment has been tough. Embarrassment when I’ve wet myself, when I fall over, when I can’t participate due to the wheelchair not fitting wherever I need to go, when I need help taking care of my own baby.” — Tristen Wuori

5. “It’s not the end of the world! There are lots of things people with MS can do to improve their health through diet and lifestyle choices.” — Rachel Hogg

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6. “I wish people understood, not just for MS but in every situation in life — if I did not ask for help, don’t! That’s interfering, not helping. I stumble a lot, my balance sucks; adding another person’s unpredictable movement by holding my arm makes it way worse. If, if, I need help, I will ask.” — Tim Schaub

7. Every single person with MS has his or her personal combination of symptoms. It depends on where the inflicted parts of the brain and/or spinal cord are situated. So if you ask people with MS about it, you will get a huge variety of answers… When you deal with someone having MS, ask questions about how he or she is today or right now. Never pity him or her, just deal with him or her naturally, like you would with anybody else.” — Annettte Hillringhaus

8. “The wobble only adds to my swagger.” — Jason, from Nadine Friedman-Roberts’ photo series, “Whisky, Waterfalls, and a Radio Preacher.”

9. “Every setback and every challenge can make it feel like we’re back at square one, but I constantly remind myself to make the choice to thrive.” — Stephanie Butler

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10. “[MS is my] frenemy because, in hindsight, there are lessons I wouldn’t have learned without [it] entering my life.” — Jenna Blackwood

11. “I may be walking slower, but I’m racing.” — Jason DaSilva

12. A life with multiple sclerosis is not a death sentence.” — Daryl H. Bryant

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13. “No, I’m not resting. I’m living a full life within the abilities I have. Having multiple sclerosis is not within my power, but what is within my power is refusing to let MS gain the upper hand.” — Cathy Chester

14. “I am not multiple sclerosis, and even with it, I can accomplish so much.” — Samantha Stambaugh

15. “I can choose to be miserable, or I can choose to do something good with this.” — Kaleigh D’Anna

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Related: Self Portraits Show Disability in a Way It’s Rarely Seen: Honestly

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