door in a brick wall

When Mental Illness Finds a Back Door


While I’ve spent the last nine months fighting anxiety and a recent episode of depression, the last three months have been fairly easy. Depression can be episodic, so it recently fell by the wayside, but I still remember what it’s like to be in the full swing of it. While I feel better, I can sense it lurking somewhere not too far off in the distance. For me, anxiety isn’t necessarily episodic. It can be more intense at times, but for the most part, it’s always there.

Recovery is never easy. It isn’t always easy to put coping mechanisms and other strategies in place when you’re in the throes of mental illness. The last few months have allowed me to practice coping skills, setting my own boundaries, deep breathing, mindfulness and implementing routines. Mental illness isn’t a “take a pill, feel better” sort of illness. It’s a full-time job that forces you to change your habits, thinking patterns and life in order to survive.

You know how you start going to the gym on a regular basis? You’ve been going for two weeks, and you’re starting to like the routine. Then, something comes up or you aren’t feeling up to it. So you slack off for a day. Then, it’s two days. Before you know it, you are restarting the routine a month later, kicking yourself for letting it slide. It’s hard to start new things. However, slacking with coping skills when you have a mental illness can be dangerous, not just a small sense of guilt for not doing something healthy.

So what happens when you’re implementing everything you know to fight mental illness, but it finds a backdoor anyway? I can be mindful of my thoughts, breathe deeply until I feel more at ease and take my medication. But what about when I am sleeping?

When I was dealing with my worst episode of depression to date, I realized after a while I never remembered my dreams. When I did sleep, it was a blackout kind of sleep that left me feeling more exhausted when I woke up. When I started to realize I was dreaming again, I was excited. I found myself smiling in the morning at the ridiculous and funny things I dreamed about. Dreams were another aspect of life that had somehow been hidden from me, but I hadn’t noticed its absence until I had them again.

As some stressors present themselves or I see them in the near future, my dreams have looked to my stressors as inspiration. I dreamed I had missed my first class of the school year, and the professor gave out a writing assignment. I had no way of knowing what I was supposed to write or do. I was going to fall behind already. My dream-self panicked. I found myself counting pennies in fours to try to calm myself down. Hello, weird anxious habit I have. But alas, it was not working.

I have had other dreams pretty similar to the one above. There’s always some aspect of me being late for something important. I can probably thank my career choice of journalism for that one.

I wake up feeling anxious even though the dreams weren’t real. I am worried my depression and anxiety will come down as hard as they did last semester. I am worried I will not do well, but I can cope with these emotions and thoughts when I am awake. Not so much when I am asleep.

The thing about mental illnesses is they are persistent. They take up residence in the mind, and so do the coping mechanisms. They’re going to find a way around them. That’s why mental illness recovery isn’t a one and done kind of thing. You have to cultivate your mental health. Spend time learning what helps keep you healthy, whether that be checking in with your thoughts, implementing new self-care routines, seeking out therapy, taking medication or a mixture of everything.

These dreams are just a part of my illness trying to gain back control. Mental illness can evolve, but so can the recovery process. So while dreams are a concern now, I can, in my conscious self, be aware of this problem. I haven’t quite learned how to stop or fix these dreams just yet, but I know I’ve made it through worse. These won’t keep me down.

Image via Thinkstock.

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