For four years, I have been actively focusing on recovery from a suicide attempt, childhood sexual abuse, religious abuse and addiction. I have learned that recovery for me is about digging. About finding. And about facing realities. And, equally as important, recovery is about self-care.
For me, recovery and self-care are inextricably connected. My recovery has required dump-truck-loads of self-care. In simple ways, sometimes self-care means knowing it’s OK to have a good, hard cry. Maybe it’s closing the office door and taking some deep breaths. Or taking a “mental health day” because you just cannot push through another minute. Self-care is giving yourself permission to be first for a little while. It’s not making excuses about why you can’t do what you know in your gut you need to do. I’m a Christian, but I have found myself in a desperate place at times, needing something other than Jesus. Something like a nap or a friend who will just listen.
There are no overnight fixes, but here are three tips that have ushered self-care into my life and made my life better:
Folks with mental illness tend to be extremely compassionate toward others, but we often do not show ourselves the same grace. But self-compassion is absolutely necessary to have a whole, healthy life. We must be kind to others, and we must also be kind to ourselves. As Brene’ Brown says, I must learn to speak to myself the same way I would speak to someone I love. It’s helping to heal my own shame.
2. Shame no longer gets a vote in my life.
The flashbacks from my childhood sexual abuse have haunted me for decades. When buried memories begin bubbling up, the worst thing we can do is shove them back down and close the lid. All that pain has a way of seeping back to the surface. It might take months or even decades, but in time it will always ooze out.
So what do you do?
Take a step toward deliberate “safe relationships” with people who will not shame you through the process or gossip about your recovery. And take a step away from hiding and performance. I tried to keep up appearances for 30 years and it nearly killed me. Don’t let it hurt you.
3. I am more than my diagnosis.
Labels are important, especially from a medical standpoint. They give us a plan of action. They show us a lot about our limits. They teach us which medications may help and what substances or situations to stay away from. But when we focus more on the label than the person behind it — a human being in need of love and belonging — we miss an opportunity to live a full and meaningful life.
My diagnosis doesn’t define me. I am much more than a label or the stigma attached to it.
If you have ever felt hopeless, if you have ever believed all the bad things in your life were beyond redemption, if you have ever felt unworthy of being loved or accepted, if you have ever feared what would happen if people found out whatever it is that haunts you — I get it. I have been there, too. Maybe you are recovering from abuse, addiction or a suicide attempt like me. Maybe you are struggling with anxiety or depression and don’t know why yet. The tools in my brand-new book, “Self-Care for the Wounded Soul: 21 Days of Messy Grace,” are meant to help with answering the question, “Now what?” Get your copy today at graceismessybooks.com.
If you or a loved one are affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-0656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.
While living with a mental illness can feel scary at times, it shouldn’t provide inspiration for a Halloween costumes. That’s the message mental health advocates are trying to spread this Halloween by sharing their selfies with the hashtag #FaceofMentalIllness.
“We created the #FaceOfMentalIllness campaign as a response to the recent (and sadly, annual) occurrence of retailers selling costumes depicting self-harm and suicide, and the amusement park industry portraying people with mental illness as something to be afraid of inside of horrible and terrifying mental hospitals,” Jennifer Marshall, cofounder and executive director of This Is My Brave, told The Mighty. “Mental illness is nothing to make fun of, or use as a frightening attraction. Doing so only reinforces the social discrimination that still surrounds mental illness. We wanted to show the world the true face of mental illness — everyday people who you know and love.”
As part of this is my Brave’s callout, people from all over the country have shared their selfies and stories of living with a mental illness.
Approximately one in five Americans lives with a mental illness. The stigma attached to mental illnesses often keeps those who need help from getting it. “Sometimes mental illness feels scary, but it’s not a horror show,” Marshall, who lives with bipolar disorder, said. “A diagnosis doesn’t mean your life is over. Whether we’re touched by it directly or indirectly, mental illness is something we all need to understand. The more we’re able to empathize with each other, which we can do by sharing our stories, the more we can learn to support each other through facing mental health challenges…By sharing our stories we’re saving lives.”
You can participate in the campaign by sharing your selfie with the hashtag #FaceofMentalIllness.
Mental health advocates are sharing their selfies along with the hashtag #FaceOfMentalIllness campaign to show that mental illness shouldn’t be used for Halloween costumes or scary theme park attractions.
Today my daughter and I celebrate a holiday we created a few years ago. We call it “Chrisoween” because it is a hybrid of Christmas and Halloween. It is loosely inspired by the Tim Burton film “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” But the movie was not the reason we started to do what they do in the film (make Christmas). The reason we started to make Christmas early and start a new holiday is we both have mental illnesses.
I was diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder almost three years ago, but the symptoms of that disease have been present in my life since childhood. I simply did not have adequate psychiatric care in the rural, small town where I grew up, so I wasn’t properly diagnosed for many years.
My daughter has had anxiety and depression since childhood. Her first extreme struggle came at age 9, and after she managed things relatively well for several years. But she has struggled much in the past four years to maintain balance and remain in a positive space.
Because of our mental health challenges, we both have lists of coping strategies we utilize when we need help staying positive or coping with depression. Those lists contain all sorts of things, and my list is different from hers. I use yoga, mindfulness, coloring mandalas, writing, baking, and more. She uses Morita therapy, going out with friends, composing songs, and more. We usually use different strategies to get to the same sort of balance.
One of the things that we agreed on four years ago, when Chrisoween came into being, was that we both needed some joy. We needed a reason to celebrate, and one of our favorite celebrations involves the twinkle of lights and the love of giving.
We don’t love presents because we want things for ourselves. We love them because we each cannot wait to bring joy to the other. In fact, even though we exchange gifts a full two months before anyone else, we still sometimes don’t wait for the calendar to reach October 25. My daughter opened some of her presents on Sunday because I just couldn’t wait to see how excited she was to receive them (despite the money I needed to borrow to give those gifts). And we love to give in other ways and to other people as well.
We are generous to a fault. We unfortunately at times get stomped on by narcissists. But we would rather have big but wounded hearts than have tiny well-protected hearts, I suppose.
Anyway… the point was not and is not the presents.
The point is we created what we needed when it did not exist. And doing so changed us and the way we look at life and at need and at ways to cope with our mental illnesses.
Depression, anxiety, hypervigilance, self-deprecation or self-harm, perfectionism, and the like are extremely good at stealing hope and joy. No matter how you try, there are times when you cannot consider rationally the way your illness is affecting your patterns of thought. You might know you are in the pit of despair, but you still can’t find the strength to climb out because the pit tricks you into doubting whether you are even in it or convinces you staying down there would be easier or better somehow than attempting life outside of it. These symptoms of illness make it unimaginably difficult to find hope or feel joy.
With Chrisoween, we created a reason for hope and joy. Even though people question or mock when our tree goes up and is decorated long before Christmas, we feel so much joy. Even when salespersons give us strange looks as we ask for holiday gift-wrapping in mid-October, we look forward with hope to the day when the recipient opens their gift and is ecstatic about the contents. We start being excited for the
holiday season by the end of September. And you might think starting the celebrations so early makes the season drag on or seem less significant, but that simply is not so.
We love Chrisoween, and Halloween, and Sinterklaas Day (the Dutch version of Christmas), and Christmas, and New Year’s Eve and Day. We keep on feeling joy through each tradition of the winter season. And when it is all over, we even keep our trees and decorations out for a few extra weeks in January, just to bask in the twinkling lights a bit longer. (And the twinkling lights are everywhere — even
in the bathroom.)
We focus on all the hope and all the joy that begins on Chrisoween. We sit by the tree and drink cocoa. We watch favorite movies. We wear our Santa hats and take all the selfies until we have the perfect one to share. We chase the cat and dog around the open boxes as we decorate. We ooze happiness.
Now, we don’t become magically cured by the “magic” of the season. That isn’t how these things work. We still have mental illness. Thinking our illnesses will disappear because we brought extra joy into our home is unrealistic. That would be like thinking that your diabetes would disappear because you ate a plate of vegetables. Ridiculous.
We know we don’t cease to be sick because of Chrisoween. We know the holidays also bring huge challenges and many struggles, with grief and flashbacks and all sorts of ilk we cannot avoid without escaping to Barbados or Greece. (And one of these years, we may just escape to Barbados or Greece.) We know I still can’t work, and she still works hard without adequate compensation. We know my physical illness is more affecting in winter, so I might flare and struggle. We know any event can trigger her and put her into a dark place.
We know we still need to keep fighting for our mental health and keep using strategies and coping skills to manage our minds and bodies in the best possible ways. We know we won’t always fight and won’t always cope, even though we know we should. We know there will be pain and challenge.
But because of Chrisoween, we know we can work together to create a space we need— a space that helps us heal and find hope and feel joy.
The tradition of Chrisoween hasn’t caught on much as of this moment. We now have a couple of friends who come to celebrate with us. Some of the salespersons we tell about the holiday comment with, “I love that!” rather than giving us questioning looks. I don’t know if we will pass on this tradition through generations. I don’t know that it will become as popular as Hanukkah or Christmas or Kwanzaa because it doesn’t have a particular faith or culture with which to associate.
Maybe it will catch on with others who, as we do, experience a lack of hope and joy as the skies gray and the leaves fall. Maybe it will catch on with others who find, as we do, that seeing relatives on Christmas is one of the most stressful and difficult times of our year because we feel pressure to meet expectations or think ourselves being judged unfairly. Maybe other families or groups will determine they need to create their own holiday as well — not a Chrisoween celebration, but a March 12 Day, or a Good Tuesday, or a Pretend We Are French Natives Day, or whatever the heck they want to invent.
Because owning a time and space that offers you the health and the happiness you need, even amid the chaos and struggle of mental illness, is a beautiful, empowering, enlightening, and inspiring thing.
It doesn’t need to be a holiday. It could be a corner of the house that has scented candles and poufs and favorite stories. It could be a yoga or meditation space. It could be an altar at which you worship. It could be a coffee corner with hot beverages and little chairs where you engage in conversation. It could be a hallway you cover in inspiring quotations and images. But having that time and space is so necessary to our mental health.
Having Chrisoween means having a time and a space where we commit ourselves to joy and hope, no matter what else is going on around us, and that inspires so much that is good.
Today is that day.
That joy and hope fills our home and our hearts. And as we share with others what this day means for us, that joy and hope can be multiplied. Others hear the excitement and elation in our voices. Our giddy jumping and clapping and laughing makes others laugh — whether in sarcasm or not. Our dancing to pop carols and punk covers of songs from Nightmare Before Christmas, with Santa hats and fake beards and sparkling garlands wrapped like boas or much-too-long necklaces around our necks, begs you to attempt being a Scrooge. It’s impossible not to be infected with something akin to joy as we twirl and sing and sip cocktails and smile.
Today that is ours, if only for a little while. Today we own hope and joy.
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No one escapes childhood unscathed. I don’t care how incredible your family was or your home situation. You could have experienced good friends, good family, a healthy income and vacations to Maui every freaking summer. You will still have the stains of life on you when you enter into adulthood. Why? Because what makes us human, what makes us strong, is also what causes the brokenness in every life. We are entirely fallible, which is not bad at all.
However, it can leave its marks. Those who are in their 20s and early 30s had parents from a generation that wanted so desperately to create a world where you had the freedom of choice, education, career, spouse and the list goes on. We were told we could be anything we wanted if we worked hard enough.
Yet, we inherited a different kind of world, one that has created more struggles than we expected, student loan debt, a shrinking middle class, the uprise of certain social issues and conflicts, economic decline, a less diverse job market and rising housing costs. These things make it so much harder to be what we wanted to be. I know many, many qualified hard-working, educated adults that had to move back in with their parents in their late 20s and early 30s because they couldn’t find a living situation or a job that allowed them to have their own lives. I myself have a full-time, reasonably, well-paid job and all I can afford is to rent a room.
So, how do we reconcile this? How is that we can accept the mounting obstacles before us and still chase after the things we dream of most? Well, we learn to be stronger and work harder. We get to know ourselves inside and out so we might heal the things in us that have become deterrents from healthy, robust lives. That is where therapy comes in, folks.
I started seeing a therapist a little more than a year ago. I was (and had been) struggling with debilitating anxiety and periodic bouts of depression and wanted to get a hold on it. I later found out my problems were more medical and chemical in nature and sought the help of doctors and psychiatrists. However, during the time I was seeing her, I learned so much about myself and how I process things, about my triggers and fears and about how to be a healthier person. I recommend therapy to every adult.
The tools I learned there helped equip me to handle my past, my present and my future. I took it as an investment into the new relationships I was forming, the current relationships I had and especially the relationship I had with myself. Part of the reason, I believe, that more people don’t seek therapy is both that it’s not always financially feasibly, and it’s become culturally stigmatized. We marginalize those “in therapy” as somehow less strong than those who have never sought it. It’s an important process, and it should be readily available to all of us.
However, private therapists can be pricey. Most of us can’t afford that. I had to stop seeing my therapist (as wonderful as she was) because I was not financially able to work with the extra strain in funds each month. I do, through my insurance, have access to a caseworker at my local mental health clinic, but it isn’t the same bond, I will admit. You form a relationship built on time and trust with a therapist.
My advice is to ask your insurance provider if this service is covered. If it isn’t, save money. Cut a little down on your going-out funds or buy one less pair of shoes. See a therapist once a month if you can. Find someone you trust and invest in yourself.
I understand. I understand what it’s like to feel as if a part of you is missing, to feel as if you’re so broken you’ll never be able to pick up the pieces. I understand what it’s like to look in the mirror and not recognize your own face, because you’re not who you used to be or who you thought you’d become. I understand the fear and trepidation about whether you’ll ever be able to live a full life again, or if you’ll feel like this forever. I understand what it’s like to feel so fragile the wind could blow you away, or one wrong move could shatter every bone inside you and leave you struggling to take even one more step. I understand what it’s like to feel so weak you can’t even sit up. I understand what it feels like to be limited by an absence of emotional and physical wholeness and well-being. I understand the overwhelming hopelessness and despair that can consume you and clothe you in darkness. I understand the torrent of tears that can’t quench your unyielding thirst for hope, happiness and tranquility.
I’ve been raped. I’ve attempted suicide. I’ve been scorned. I’ve been misunderstood. I’ve been forgotten. I’ve been excluded. I’ve spent countless hours and days tiptoeing around myself, because I wear a too tight dress of fragility and sensitivity that’s bursting at its seams and suffocating me. I’ve allowed myself to live a distorted life, because that’s easier than accepting the hellish reality I live in.
I’ve lost all hope. And yet, I’ve survived; I’ve survived it all. I’ve woken up day after day with my heart beating and my chest rising and falling with each breath. Some days, I wish I hadn’t. Some days, it feels as if each inhale and exhale is an ironic, painful testament to the fact that I keep on living even when I feel like a hollow corpse.
A broken person may be seen as despairing and hopeless. While it may seem as if you’re going to feel incomplete forever, you won’t. But you do have every right to feel this way, and you are not alone at all. I believe to feel broken means you’re living; you’re not holding back from life. You’ve opened yourself up to a level of vulnerability that few might ever experience.
When you begin to pick up the shattered pieces of your life, they can turn from glass into diamond. You can get increasingly stronger with the healing and mending of each individual fracture.
While you may eventually heal, the scars on you and your memory cut by the sharp shards of the fractured glass from your worst days will never fade, reminding you of how you kept going and how you keep going. You keep waking up day after day with your heart beating and your chest rising and falling with each breath.
Whether you wanted to or not, you’ve already survived all of your bad days. You’re stronger than you could ever imagine.