12 Things I Wish I Had Known Sooner Than Later on My Mental Illness Journey
A preface to this piece: In no way is this meant to romanticize mental illness. In no way is this meant to be anything but a personal account of living with concurrent mental illnesses. I do not know who, if anyone, will read this. However, I felt compelled to share my story. It’s not a remarkable story, nor am I a particularly remarkable individual. This is simply the truth about what I have experienced. My greatest hope is that whoever is reading this will feel less alone.
As I sit here on my twin bed, I find it difficult to find a place to begin. After studying history at university, I developed the ability to write about events, people and their effects on the world around them. However, when it comes to my own story, my own decisions, I have a hard time doing so. As many doctors and psychiatrists have told me, I am an “interesting and unique case.” What does this mean? I’ve been trying to figure that out for a while. I’ve cried over it. Agonized over it. Gotten angry about it. Tried to avoid it. And now I simply accept that it is a part of who I am.
Being diagnosed with any illness is disarming and frustrating. There are knowns and unknowns. Fear and anger. Through the years I’ve been through the mental health system, I’ve had the majority of the ten dollar word diagnosis thrown my way. I will not list them all, but trust me when I say this – there have been quite a few.
I want to tell tell you what I’ve discovered along my personal journey. They are not meant to generalize at all. However, I know I would have liked to know a few of the following sooner than I did.
1. Just like any part of the human body, the brain can also get sick.
This is the most important and simple statement that changed almost everything for me. So simple right? Right. However, I look back on health class and can only really remember cringe-inducing demonstrations of how to put on condoms and not a whole lot about mental health. I learned to identify the symptoms of various illnesses and conditions through biology and health class – but do not remember learning to identify symptoms or early onset warnings of deteriorating mental health. If I had known that the brain got sick, maybe I would have sought help sooner. Maybe I wouldn’t have been afraid to disclose all of my diagnosis to an employer or romantic partner. I can’t be sure. But knowing that has helped me reach acceptance. My brain is sick. Just because I don’t have a bandage on my head saying so doesn’t make mental illness any less of a sickness.
2. Not everyone will understand.
This was a hard one to swallow. No, not everyone will understand that an eating disorder is not a choice, that depression can’t be cured by enthusiastically suggesting I “cheer up” and that anxiety cannot be reduced by simply being told to relax. I fear a rant coming on with this one, so I shall end the point there. However, for those who don’t understand, there are always going to be people who, although they may not understand the full scope of a mental illness, will be patient with you and listen and care and love you through it. Make sure you say thank you to those people. Those are the good ones.
3. Sometimes anti-depressants can make you really gassy.
That’s it. Would have been a nice to know.
4. It will take some time for medication to kick in.
I know other ways I used to provide myself a quick relief from the heavy feelings I was often filled with. These were not healthy. These were not sustainable. I told myself I deserved a chance to feel better, so I gave medication a try. I’m glad I did.
5. Sometimes the first medication isn’t the right one.
Or the second. Or the third. That’s OK. If a medication is making you sleep through 15 alarms every morning, give your psychiatrist a call. Chances are, there is a better match.(There was in my case.)
6. Treat yourself with the same compassion you would treat a loved one if she was ill.
You deserve it.
7. Do not attach yourself to a diagnosis.
This was another big one. Instead of allowing it to define me, I am working on accepting the fact that although it is a part of my life, it doesn’t have to define my life.
8. It can be scary to challenge a mental illness.
It will be scary to leave that dark place. Although it’s dark, it’s also known. Anyone who knows me at all will attest to the fact I don’t do well with change. However, to be totally cliché, it does feel much better.
9. Success in recovery is what you make of it.
Give yourself recognition and kindness. You went to a full day of program and managed to meet a friend for tea? Kudos! You got out of bed today and showered? Kudos! You enjoyed the flavor of a food you ate? Kudos!
10. My recovery has not been linear.
There have been many side steps and changing directions. Accepting this has allowed me to be more mindful and present. Through it all though, I have found lights to hold onto and darker things/places/people to let go of. My initial expectation of recovery was a straight line. Now I know it is a wiggling line that is always changing. And that’s OK.
11. You’ll meet incredible people.
The people I’ve met through various programs and groups are so incredibly special to me. Nothing is more refreshing than having someone say, “I know how that feels.” And you know they do. Hold onto these people.
12. “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”
I know this is a song lyric. However, a very special person in my life told me this when I was deep in the throes. It stuck and it was true.
Although at times it felt like so much was taken from me from my illnesses, I have also gained a lot. I know what triggers me. I know quite a bit about community resources for mental health in my area. I’ve met lifelong friends and can truly say, for the first time in quite some time, I’m starting to truly love myself for who I am. But most importantly, I know I am not alone. And if there is anything that you can take from this rambling about my life, I hope it is this:
You are not alone. You deserve help. If you are worried about a loved one who might be dealing with mental illness, please approach them with acceptance and an open heart. Above all, talk about it. Break down the stigma that silences/has silenced so many (myself included). Have an open conversation. Educate yourself.
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