Using a pencil to erase a mistake on a sheet of white paper.

Having a Mental Illness Doesn't Erase Your Good


Mental illness in general presents a host of challenges and difficulties. All mental illnesses have this in common: they negatively affect thoughts, feelings and behaviors/actions, and they can interfere in things like relationships and life goals.

Mental illnesses also have in common the fact that they don’t take away the good in people and in life.

To be sure, mental illness changes things, sometimes negatively. To deny that would be to minimize someone’s very real experiences and challenges. Also, we need to acknowledge the negative so we can address it fully.

When I sustained my traumatic brain injury and subsequently received diagnoses of bipolar 1 disorder and anxiety disorders, of course many things in both my inner and outer worlds changed. Acknowledging this played a big part in my ability to transcend it all, to deal with it, rise above it and learn to thrive in spite of it all.

Another realization was just as important in overcoming the difficulties: none of it — neither the brain injury, the bipolar disorder, nor the anxiety disorders — took away the good in my yesterdays, todays and tomorrows. Mental illness does add difficulties, but it does not take away the good.

In the novel “Leave of Absence,” Penelope Baker is wrestling with her diagnosis of schizophrenia and the effects it has on her life. Her lament here captures the sentiment of so many people who are living with the challenges presented by mental illness:

“‘I used to be proud of myself. I graduated from the University of Chicago and worked as an advertising executive at Anderson Fletcher.’ She paused and hugged the beach ball against her chest. When she resumed, she spoke quietly. ‘But then I changed, and I’m not the same anymore.’”

Penelope’s diagnosis of schizophrenia did change some things, including the way her brain functions. In some ways, she isn’t the same. But in most ways, the ways that really count, she is the same.

Mental illness truly can’t take away the good. Mental illness can’t:

  • Erase what you’ve accomplished
  • Remove your values and beliefs that shape your actions
  • Take away your character strengths
  • Make you less of a person
  • Change who you are at your core.

Living with mental illness does present challenges. But you can draw on what you’ve done in the past, who you are and what you value to address the challenges and discover new ways of living despite them. You aren’t your illness, which means mental illness doesn’t erase the core of who you are. You can use your accomplishments, vales and strengths in order to live a life driven by these elements rather than one dominated by difficulties.

The below video is a short reading from the novel “Twenty-Four Shadows.” The book is the story of Isaac Bittman and his family and friend. Isaac has been diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder. DID is a completely different mental illness than schizophrenia, but you’ll notice a similar theme to Penelope’s and Issac’s thoughts and feelings. Mental illness can feel like an eraser. It’s not an eraser.

Follow this journey on Tanya’s site.

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woman looking angry

When a Social Worker Suggested My Daughter Switch Careers Because of Her Mental Illness


I read a great article last week about the power of your mind and how you talk to yourself. The article chronicles a study done by researchers at the University of Houston and Boston College on the power of telling yourself “I don’t” versus telling yourself “I can’t.”

From the study:

Don’t and can’t may seem somewhat interchangeable, but they are very different psychologically. And if there is one thing that social psychologists have learned over the years, it’s that even seemingly subtle differences in language can have very powerful affects on our thoughts, feelings and behavior.I don’t is experienced as a choice, so it feels empowering. It’s an affirmation of your determination and willpower. I can’t isn’t a choice – it’s a restriction, it’s being imposed upon you. So thinking “I can’t” undermines your sense of power and personal agency.

The study reminded me of the most powerful lesson I ever received in the power of language and I can’t.

When my daughter was hospitalized at a psychiatric facility at the beginning of her freshman year of college, she was taken to the nearest location. This place. It was awful. They didn’t admit her for six hours. Don’t get me wrong — I absolutely appreciate her university’s quick response to her need for help. And I also recognize we are a privileged family that had never had to see the underside of psychiatric facilities in the United States. God bless those souls that only have that option (and shame on us all for accepting that our fellow human beings have to endure that kind of care).

On her third day inpatient, I finally met with her social worker. Before my daughter got to the meeting, he said, “You know, nursing school is really, really difficult. I can’t see anyone with a mental illness getting through that stress. Let’s talk with her about what she can and can’t do and start talking about different career choices.”

What. The. Hell.

I won’t go into detail about what I told this man. Suffice to say, my words caught him off guard… and I sincerely hope he will never tell anyone in that facility ever again that they can’t do something they want to do.

Listen, people with challenging brain chemistry: You chase those dreams. You can be what you want to be, travel where you want to travel, create the things you want to create. Do you have challenges? Yes. We all do. Take good care of yourself, take your medications or supplements if that helps you, make regular therapy appointments or whatever you can afford to do to stay healthy. Most importantly, school yourself in how you talk to yourself. Learn to recognize the words from others that limit you from being your best self. Then outright reject them.

Repeat after me:

I don’t let anyone tell me who I will be in life.

I will make my dreams come true.

I don’t let my illness define who I am.

I don’t accept others telling me I’m limited to their idea of mental illness.

I will do what I want.

Keep chasing your dreams, dear ones.

Image via Thinkstock.

Woman in cafe looking sideways

To the People Who Say ‘I’m Tired’ When Someone Asks How You Are


“I’m just tired.”

When people ask you what’s wrong, that’s what you say.

You say I’m tired.

Like you just didn’t get enough sleep last night. Like maybe if you get a couple extra hours tonight, or rest up this weekend, you’ll be better on Monday.

But deep down, deep beneath all the fake smiles and the jokes you make to lighten the mood, you know that’s not it.

You might be tired, yes, but you know sleep won’t fix it.

Because it’s life you’re tired of. You’re tired of people treating you like you don’t matter. You’re tired of feeling like you have no future. You’re tired of getting lost in your own head, of drowning in the thoughts and self doubts that pester you every second of every day, while you fight to keep your head above the tides.

Those same tides that threaten to wash away the makeup you carefully paint on every day so you look more like a person and less like a hollow shell of who you used to be.

Can’t they see that what you’re really tired of is pretending? How do they not notice that your porcelain smile is chipping more every day, your body armor has dents in it, your face paint is running, and the rivers in your eyes are bursting the dams you so carefully construct so as not to drown everyone around you.

So when they ask you, “Are you OK?” you just say “I’m tired.” Because you believe it’s the only way to keep them safe as you self-destruct on the inside, the only way to protect them from the disaster that is you. You believe you have to lie so the ones you love don’t look too close.

But you’re so, so tired.

And that’s OK. If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that it’s OK to be tired sometimes. “Normal,” even. And you don’t always have to have a reason. Because sometimes just keeping it together is exhausting.

When you feel like this, it’s important to know you’re not alone. You are not the only one who feels this way. In fact, I think most people would be surprised at the number of people around them who feel the same way. I was. I started reaching out to those around me who often answered with, “I’m tired” and found out they feel a lot like I do.

And the funny part is, knowing that others felt this way helped me start to feel more awake. It’s like we all share this secret code now — when we say “tired,” we really know it means “I’m not OK.” And then we talk, and maybe cry, and sometimes we laugh. And we feel better.

So to all of you out there who feel like being tired is just the way you have to live now, I tell you this: You are all members of a club, and yes, the key to membership is kind of awful. But the plus side is you now have hundreds of allies who fight the same battle you do. You know the code word. Reach out to them. Talk to them. Accept their support. And maybe tomorrow, you won’t feel as tired.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

Woman and dog touch faces

How My Dog Saves Me Every Day in My Life With Mental Illness


There are so many days I wake up and spend at least an hour talking myself into getting out of bed. There are also days, which could easily stretch into weeks, of not leaving my home at all. I’m not even sure I would get dressed most days. Showering? Ha, maybe but probably not.

To those who have never suffered with chronic pain, mental illness, chronic fatigue or a host of other ailments, those statements might seem disgusting. I would be called lazy. I would be told to pull myself together. This is one main reason I do not often share my stories. The labels, the assumptions, the ignorance and, most of all, the stigma silence me.

Black dog looking up to camera

Luckily for me, I have a hero in my life. A little, four-legged faithful friend who has been with me for almost 12 years. His name is Papi. He was named after David Ortiz, aka Big Papi of the Boston Red Sox.

My dog has been a godsend on more occasions than I would like to admit. When I wake with no desire to get out of bed, he will wait patiently. After a while, he will come up to my face, as if to say, “So, you ready?” If I roll back over, then he will crawl back under the covers until I am ready. Eventually, my love for Papi will make me drag my sorry behind out of bed, get dressed and take him out for a walk. When I first throw back the covers to get up, I am greeted with a fiercely wagging tail and an escort to the bathroom. How could anyone resist that?

During the periods of sleepless nights or when my mania dictates I stay awake for two or more days, he complains very little. He will put his paw on my computer chair, which means several things, one of which is, “Wouldn’t you like to go to bed now?” Because of my love for him, I will usually lie across the bed and rub his belly. On rare occasions, I may even drift off to sleep for an hour or so.

Without saying a word, Papi has been my cheerleader, confidant, shoulder to cry on and sounding board. He gives me unconditional love, no matter how I am feeling each day. One look at his sweet little face has stopped me from ending it all on more than one occasion. He knows when to stay close and when to scram.

During those times when my patience is low or non-existent, he will normally lie on the bed in the other room. He has had no formal “service dog” training. Rather, he learned just by living with me. I am also deaf, and he alerts me when someone is at my door or the phone is ringing. He is amazing.

It has been documented that having a pet can reduce blood pressure. They can be trained to become service dogs for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other ailments. Even without formal training, as my dog has proven, they can be lifesavers. Each and every day, I get out of bed, and I stay alive because of Papi. He is not just my dog. He is my lifesaver and my hero.

 

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page. 
 
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. 
 
Someone playing Pokemon Go, who found Pikachu

What You Should Know Before You Roll Your Eyes at Pokemon Go


It’s easy to look at new technology, especially extremely popular technology, and be judgmental. Video games in particular have taken a lot of flak for being a waste of time, for keeping people buried in their computer or phone and for getting in the way of socializing. What many people don’t realize is that as someone with a mental illness, technology is an integral part of how I stay healthy.

And while it might seem trite, Pokemon Go is revolutionizing my self-care.

So for those who might roll their eyes at why all these young adults are suddenly reverting back to children, here’s a little explanation of why Pokemon Go is more than just a video game: it’s a serious tool in my wellness toolbox.

I’m currently in recovery from an eating disorder and depression. It’s still pretty new, which means I have to pay careful attention to a lot of things in order to keep my mood stable and my food intake steady. Some of the most important pieces of my recovery are regular exercise, getting outside and connecting with other people.

Unfortunately, in the last month or so those things have been really hard to do. Sometimes you can’t explain why it’s a struggle, it just is. You can’t will yourself into just doing it when you’re fighting depression. You have to have strategies that get around the listlessness and disinterest. I’d tried nearly everything I could think of to get myself back outside and moving, to help get my energy up, to spend more time with my fiance and my friends. Nothing was working.

Enter Pokemon Go.

I love Pokemon. I played the games when I was a kid, so there’s a strong nostalgia factor, plus the obsessive side of my brain loves grinding to level up my characters. My fiance has been freaking out about Pokemon Go for months (so much so that I created a Pokemon scavenger hunt as our proposal, but that’s another story). It seemed like a perfect fit for us. And boy howdy was it ever.

I have literally never in my life walked as much as I have in the past week. I’m hitting my activity goals, or doubling them every single day. I barely even notice though, because I’m having so much fun. Exercise is a delicate balance when an eating disorder is part of the mix: it’s really important to mood, but it’s so easy to become obsessive. Now I’m not even thinking about the distance I’m going or the time I’m spending moving. Instead it’s all about catching em all, and I still get the benefits of exercise.

I’m even connecting with friends in ways that are challenging for me as someone with social anxiety and autism. I discovered one of my friends lives just a few blocks away, and we’ve gone hunting together, spending one-on-one time that would have been terrifying if we didn’t have these adorable creatures to talk about. My fiance and I are spending tons of quality time together. I’m even talking to strangers, which is basically number one on my list of terrifying things. I’m typically not a fan of talking to kids, and the other night as I was walking down the street one hailed me with “Pokemon Go?” and I yelled back, “Heck yes!” It’s amazing the kinds of connections I’m making that seemed not only impossible but unwanted just a few weeks ago.

All of this because a simple game has turned these events into something my brain understands. It has created a world I understand and enjoy — one that allows me to connect with the larger world around me. Sometimes when your brain doesn’t work in typical ways, you have to hack it a little bit. If a kids game is what works to get me outside, moving, connecting and having fun, then I will embrace it.

Thank you, Pokemon Go.

Follow this journey on We Got So Far to Go.

leadphoto source: PokemonGo

To My Husband, and Countless Others Fighting Mental Illness: I See You


To my dear husband,

I was thinking back to when we began talking six years ago about psychology, mental illness and our various struggles with what we’ve both been through. We connected back then through our shared enthusiasm for the mind and how far the medical profession has come in the advances within the mental health field. We shared our counseling experiences, our medication experiences and our desire to be better people who will work together to end the stigma attached to mental illness.

You made me feel safe and less broken. You understood a part of me no one had ever dared to acknowledge. You made me feel whole for the first time in my life. I had no idea at that time the depths of your own illness. You’d explained it to me, the diagnosis of bipolar disorder and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). You expressed your history in terms of the guinea pig syndrome we all go through when trying different medications, the therapy sessions and the attempts to take your life that you sought help for by going into a mental institution.

We talked at length about your recovery. You told me about all the things your therapist had done to help you and that you were on this path to wellness for the first time in more than 20 years. I did not know at that time what a roller coaster ride of emotions we’d ride together. I only knew I loved you with a fierceness that left me breathless. I wanted nothing more than to be by your side.

I’ve been here for six years and I’ve never contemplated getting off this roller coaster that is our life because I see you. I see you in the moments when you think no one does. I see you when you are striving so hard to fight your illness on a daily basis and it sometimes wins. I see you when you are euphoric because you learned something new or you’re in your element of directing, acting or asking the big questions from some of the biggest minds we admire.

I see you in the quiet moments when the world disappears and there is only you, me and some music playing. I see you when you are railing against the injustices of the world and declaring a war on ignorance. I see you in the moments of despair when it is so dark and your mind has left you drained. I see every part of you even when you think I don’t.

I want you to know you are so much more than your mind leads you to believe. You are the best part of all my days. You are the reason I am on a mission to change the face of mental health and why I know I will be successful. You inspire me to keep going even on the days when it’s hard and I want to rail against the world with you. You make me and so many others want more out of life.

You change minds even when you think you don’t because your mind won’t allow you to see it. I see it. I see the spark in people after they’ve encountered you. You don’t give up and that, above all else, is what I see. I love you with everything I have and am eternally grateful for you.

To the world, I am sharing this with, I want everyone who experiences mental illness to know someone sees you. You are not your illness. It does not define you. It is only a part of you, and, even though it may get the best of you sometimes, it does not have to take all of you. We, my husband and I, are fighting for you and alongside you. We are striving to make this world safer for those who wish to speak out by being open ourselves. We see you.

As I see my husband, I also see the mother working hard to provide for her babies while simultaneously juggling multiple diagnoses. I see the artist being driven half mad by the voices in his mind that tell him he’s not good enough. I see the anxious woman who wants nothing more than to enjoy her life but is plagued by constant doubt and fear. I see all of you who refuse to give up, just as my husband refuses to give up. I see you all put on brave faces and face each day. You are seen and you are so much more than you realize.

 
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page. 
 
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255

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