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Why I'm Learning to Love My Mental Illness Diagnoses

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I love my diagnoses.

The bipolar disorder.

The anxiety disorder.

The depression with psychosis.

The post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

I love them all.

I never thought I would utter these words or even come to this place of saying my diagnoses out loud. That changed after I tried to kill myself.

I had been off my medication for months. I had convinced myself I could achieve a happy and normal life without my medication or therapy. I convinced myself people had it worse and I just needed to buck up and be a “normal functioning” adult. This was the worst mistake ever.

It didn’t take long before I went manic and made risky choices. It didn’t take long till I isolated myself and spent my days off in bed. It didn’t take long till I was finding any way I could not go to work. It didn’t take long till I started hearing and seeing things I knew were not real. I was hanging on by a thread.

The thread held till I lost my job. Then the thread snapped, and the fall felt unbearable. The voices were stronger than ever. That’s when I tried to kill myself. The voices were finally quiet. Thankfully I have my guardian angel, and I survived.

Now I saw two choices. The first was to be miserable about my diagnoses and just go along with the program till I made the same mistake again. The second choice was to love my diagnoses.

By loving my diagnoses, I am accepting my diagnoses, finally, as a part of my life. By loving my diagnoses, I am going to go to therapy and talk about my abuse because it does matter. By loving my diagnoses, I am taking my medication every day, so I can function like a “normal” adult. By loving my diagnoses, I do my best not to isolate myself. By loving my diagnoses, I am loving myself and taking care of myself finally.

I love my diagnoses, and I am proud.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Thinkstock photo by iYuliya

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When Your Picture Tells a Thousand Words, but They Are All Lies

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“A picture can tell a thousand words.”

But what people often fail to mention is that it doesn’t necessarily mean the words are telling the truth about that picture. Actually, a picture can do the exact opposite. A picture can tell you a complete lie.

It can make it seem like everything is perfect.

It can make it seem like you have never been better.

It can make it seem like you are having the time of your life.

The key word is “seem.” Because there have been countless times, at least for me, when things are so far from perfect and I have never felt worse. But if you look at my pictures, they will tell you a thousand different lies.

What if I told you my pictures from Halloween I added this past week don’t tell you that a couple of hours before taking them, I was alone in my room crying so much that I couldn’t physically get myself out of bed? What if I told you the picture at the top of this page doesn’t tell you that the night before it was taken, I stayed awake for a long time and wondered if anything would be different if I wasn’t alive? What if I told you my pictures from high school don’t tell you that most days I felt like I was hanging on by a single thread?

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What do all my pictures have in common? They have always shown me wearing a mask.

I have used this metaphor of wearing a mask whenever I speak at a school or conference. When you look up the definition of a mask on Google, it comes up with this definition — “a mask is a manner or expression that hides one’s true feelings.”

I have worn a mask since my freshman year of high school. And, if I do say so myself, I am extremely good at it, too good at it. They say practice makes perfect, and I have had a lot of practice.

Back in high school, I would lay in my bed curled up in a tiny ball under all the covers, silently sobbing into my pillow for hours, after reading horrible messages on Facebook from both people I considered good friends and from people I had never even met before. I would hear my cell phone’s ringtone next to my bed and wait for the torturous notification sound to go off after, letting me know I received another voicemail from a *67 anonymous caller, telling me no one liked me, that I was ugly, or that I should kill myself.

After pulling myself together, I would “put on my mask” and walk downstairs into the kitchen, acting completely normal, as if I had just finished my homework. My mom and dad would usually be cooking dinner, and my brothers and sister were talking about what happened to them that day. I joined right into the conversation, ate dinner, went back up to my room, and proceeded to cry myself to sleep every single night. I thought by asking for help, it showed weakness, so I buried it all inside, keeping a fake smile on my face.

I would drift through the school days, sitting next to some classmates who had said terrible things about me the night before or, even worse, sitting next to classmates that knew it was going on and never once said anything or simply asked how I was doing. If one person, just one person, had asked, “How are you?” I would’ve broken down crying, let it all out, taken off my mask, and said I was far from OK. That I desperately needed someone. Anyone. That I was drowning. But, that didn’t happen.

So, I just kept the mask on. I acted like I was completely fine, still wanting to fit in and be accepted by people who I should have wanted nothing to do with, and pretended that everything was OK… that I was OK. Wearing my mask from one location to the next, with nowhere to take it off.

I came to college and wore this mask the second I stepped foot on the campus. Absolutely no one knew that two months before I moved into my tiny dorm room, I was sitting in an even tinier room in the psychiatric unit of a Philadelphia hospital after attempting to take my own life.

Instead, I pretended to be this confident, positive, extremely happy person, not showing any signs of weakness or insecurity. I got chosen to be in a sorority and had the most votes out of every freshman who ran in the SGA election. For anyone else, this would probably make them feel like they fit in quickly, but I felt like I was still hiding behind my mask.

I would go to therapy secretly each week of freshman year. I was so embarrassed to show I had struggles, that everything in my life was far from perfect, that I was far from being happy.

My therapist I saw freshman year asked me this past spring if I was interested in speaking to the campus about my personal experiences with mental health. I would be opening up this personal information to 10,000 fellow classmates. A school-wide email, to both faculty and students, was sent out and flyers were hung all over the campus with a blown up picture of me and a bolded paragraph that stated:

Suicide Survivor Emily Torchiana will speak about her experience dealing with severe cyber bullying throughout her time in high school. She will speak about her struggles with depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder and surviving suicide attempts. Emily found support through her time at a treatment facility the summer going into college. She will speak of how she overcame her struggles and has worked to integrate herself positively in the college community. Today, she is an advocate for mental health and speaks at middle and high schools about cyber bullying and suicide prevention.

Well… talk about getting to know someone real fast. Within a few sentences, strangers knew more about me than some of my best friends and family members did. I felt this mask slowly pulling away, and at first, I absolutely hated it. I had been so used to wearing it, allowing me to hide what I was really feeling inside, and now it was starting to come off.

The reason I am writing this is not to discuss my past, as I always do. If you notice, the flyer only uses the past tense: how I overcame my struggles and how I found support.

But if I am being 100% honest with myself and with you, I am so sick of hiding the fact that I still struggle today. My illnesses are very much in the present, and I have been so afraid to share that with anyone. Why? Why should I hide my current struggles? I am just contributing more to the negative stigma that surrounds mental health. That is why people feel so alone. They don’t know anyone else is feeling the same exact way as they are, and so they keep it all inside, behind their masks.

So, for the first time, my mask is coming off completely. I want to be honest and tell you there are times I still feel so depressed that I cannot get out of bed and I sleep for 15 hours at a time. There are times I still wake up in a cold sweat and cry from vivid nightmares and flashbacks I cannot control due to my PTSD. There are times I still feel like I need to leave a party because I’m afraid of having panic attacks from my social anxiety disorder.

I still push those who love me away, and I still isolate myself. I tell people I am fine when I am so far from that. This past week, for the first time since senior year, I have not been at all OK, and I am OK with admitting that to you.

Mental illnesses can be lifelong battles. They do not just go away like the common cold or a stomach virus, as much as I try to convince myself or wish they do. They may never go away, but you can learn to cope with them and deal with them in positive ways.

Although I have not overcome everything and still struggle, I know I have overcome a lot and I will work to overcome everything I am faced with in the future. I have learned a lot about myself this past week. I have learned that it is OK to show weakness. It is OK to cry. Sometimes you have to struggle and feel empty to appreciate the days you feel full. You can’t always be strong and put on a happy face for other people.

Most importantly, you cannot and should not be afraid to ask for help. There is nothing weak about needing help. It takes strength to realize you need help.

It is OK not to be OK.

If you are reading this and going through anything that I have felt or am currently feeling — know you are not alone. Don’t you dare give up on this life. Not tonight. Not tomorrow. Not ever. We are in this together, and if I am going to keep fighting, you are too.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

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3 Things I Learned After Getting a New Diagnosis

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Getting a diagnosis can make symptoms and the struggles those symptoms bring, more real. A diagnosis can help us by validating our physical or mental experience, but it can also limit how much we can deny the impact of our illness. Diagnoses, while beneficial to receive in many ways, can be tough to come to terms with, especially when the diagnosis is chronic, terminal or life-altering.

Just recently, I’ve been faced with a combination of diagnoses—relating to both physical health and mental health. The toughest was learning I have a serious dissociative disorder. Every “horror story” (true or fictionalized) I had heard about this disorder hit my mind when I was diagnosed. I was flooded with fear, confusion and anxiety.

Then I realized some important things. These are the ideas I want to share with you.

1. A diagnosis means we can take action.

They can be terrifying, sure, but a diagnosis can also be empowering. We can research symptom management techniques, find communities and read about other inspiring people living with the illness we have.

Of course, it’s important to focus on looking up positive information, rather than just falling into the wormholes a search engine can drag us into. Focusing on how our diagnosis can empower us to take charge of our health can make the news easier to bear.

2. A diagnosis may mean a “new normal.”

Our inner (and perhaps outer) world has changed with this new knowledge. It will take us time to accept and acknowledge this. It’s OK for this process to take a while. Sometimes, we expect ourselves to leave our provider’s office with a completely understanding attitude, but it’s usually not this easy to accept.

In truth, a diagnosis means we can let go of how we saw our “old” life and start to embrace a new life. We can think of it like a “new normal.” That’s what it really is, after all. It’s like moving to a new city, getting a pet, starting a job and various other major changes. It’s OK to be nervous, unsure and hesitant. Let’s try not to shame ourselves for these very real feelings. They are valid and it takes time to adjust. We can learn, one step at a time, to adjust to our new normal.

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3. A diagnosis does not change your worth.

You are an amazing and incredible individual. Every single one of us living with an illness and choosing to figure out this new lifestyle is incredibly powerful. Society sometimes tries to knock those of us who live with mental or physical illness down, but we are just as worthy and awesome as anyone else. Even if your new diagnosis means you stop working, let go of friends or make serious changes, your worth remains the same. It’s infinite. Living with or without an illness, or several illnesses, does not change how worthy you are.

These things have helped me settle into a process of adjustment, a time of healing and acceptance. My hope is these ideas will help you also find some peace in the chaos of any new diagnoses in your life.

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Thinkstock photo via Grandfailure.

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The Self-Portraits That Show What My 'Invisible' Illnesses Feel Like

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Why do I always say “fine” or “good” when asked, “How are you?”

Why would I muster up a smile on the bad days when I feel like crying? Why would someone who prides herself on being a morally upright and honest person deliberately lie so often?

Because, if I was to really explain to people how I truthfully feel on the bad days, they would be shocked. They probably wouldn’t even be able to believe it if I was to show them that the girl they think is always bright and bubbly, put together and strong, is actually feeling battered and bruised, to drop the mask and let them see the tear-stained face and quivering lips that often appear behind closed doors.

Those who do not experience depression, anxiety, or chronic pain do not understand the daily challenge of simply acting normal. Most try their very best to empathize (like my amazing husband) and be kind, but there are some who seem irritated or uncomfortable if you express painful and deep emotion – I like to hope this is because they do not know how to react or what to say. Personally, I am so thankful many of my friends and acquaintances do not understand because I hate the thought of others living life with this challenge, especially those whom I care deeply about.

If only there was a way we could make the invisible visible, to help others to see without them experiencing the pain themselves.

Up until last year, I was a professional photographer. It was not just my career, it had been my passion too. To be able to capture memories and emotions for others was rewarding, to see their surprise and joy when they received their images was heartwarming. There is something beautiful and haunting about the way the camera can capture feeling, the magic of emotion.

Today I wanted to do something a little different to what I would have done for a client – a project that wasn’t about joy and wouldn’t be heartwarming. This collection of images would be about understanding, to show what it looks like when the inside is displayed on the outside. I set about taking a series of self-portraits that showed how I sometimes feel, the overwhelming emotions I wish I could express if I could guarantee the person I was sharing them with wouldn’t be upset or judgmental of them.

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Images that show what it feels like to suffer from mental illness. Bringing the inside to the outside.

Tearful.

Overwrought and exhausted. The tears come without sobs, just silently spilling out, trying to ease the pressure inside. There are times these quiet messengers continue to seep out for hours after the worst is over.

Images that show what it feels like to suffer from mental illness. Bringing the inside to the outside.

Battered.

The hurt inside is so vivid, like a darkening bruise or the redness and smeared makeup from trying to dash away the tears. The thoughts swirling in your mind assault you and cause scars that will take years to heal, if at all.

Images that show what it feels like to suffer from mental illness. Bringing the inside to the outside.

Ashamed and silenced.

Avert your eyes, close them, hide what you feel.

Silent for fear of judgment or criticism, of not being believed, or for contaminating someone with your pain.

Afraid. The hope you cling too seems to slip away on these bad days when everything is crashing around you. Unsure which way is up and which way is down. Heart racing and head spinning, unsure if things will ever be “normal” again.

Images that show what it feels like to suffer from mental illness. Bringing the inside to the outside.

Alone.

The emptiness is consuming. The loneliness clutches at the heart like a trap, holding on tight, making it bleed, threatening to stop it beating. The tightness in the chest is painful and numb at the same time. Scared you will never shake off this feeling of isolation and pain, that you will never feel whole.

I wonder what those people would say if they could see the inside on the outside like this. Would they try to be more empathetic and understanding, maybe ashamed or sorry for the times they thoughtlessly commented things like, “You just need to think positive,” “It will be OK in the end, just don’t worry so much,” or “Pray more,” and left it at that, suggesting they were thinking that someone’s ailing mental health was all a little dramatic to be believed?

The problem and the blessing with having a so called invisible illness is that to most people the symptoms are impossible to see. If we did wear our emotional pain on the surface, chances are those of us with these conditions would never leave the house – so ashamed of our “disfigured” bodies that we would hide away from others eyes.

I am thankful my art can be used show how it can feel, to maybe help others to understand in some small way what those of us with mental illness can experience. My photography can be helpful in giving me a creative outlet for the emotional deluge. But even more so, I am grateful I can mostly choose to camouflage my distress – make my mouth smile and my lips tell the little white lie of “I am fine, thank you.”

Follow this journey on The Art of Broken

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Tables Turned: How My Mental Illness Helped Me Take Care of My Partner

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In the beginning of my relationship, my girlfriend was unlike anyone I had ever met. She was unrelentingly kind and empathetic. As we began our journey, I had a strong wall up to protect myself and more importantly protect her. To avoid any misunderstandings, I was quite adamant she know I have a mental illnesses, specifically rapid cycling bipolar disorder and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

I knew she was special when I had my first panic attack in front of her. I was dizzy, disoriented and desperate to leave the shopping mall we were in. She immediately put back everything she was carrying, guided me by the arm to my car and drove me home, no questions asked. Her clear-headed approach, in combination with her empathy, made her my other half.

However, little did I know I would soon be in that very same role. After dating for some months, my girlfriend began to experience insomnia, crying uncontrollably and unable to concentrate at all. Recognizing something was amiss, her good friend suggested she see a medical professional. I came along for support and sat in the waiting room at her request. She was prescribed an antidepressant.

Devastated I had not seen the warning signs of her spiral, I was determined to be vigilant in reminding her to take her medicine, taking her to the gym with me and anything else I could think of or Google to help her. I had taken on the role of caregiver for a moment. She had cared for me in moments I did not think I was worthy enough to be alive, and I would be the rock she needed. While I was not the “perfect” partner she needed, she knew I had been in that place before. That dark place we all know too well, devoid of any stimulus, save for our racing thoughts and deepest fears lying to us. I had battled it since I was a teenager as part of my cycles. I helped her navigate the ins and outs of the doctors, medicines and the treatment plan her medical professionals outlined for her.

There are days we struggle with depression. Her “good” day might be my “bad” day, or vice versa. Showing your love can be as simple as showing up. Show up to that doctor appointment, show up with takeout when we are too tired or in pain to cook or show up with an open heart and mind. Her example of loving someone through the crying jags, mania, anxiety attacks and unpredictability allowed me to use her as inspiration so I could help her too. Love is sometimes simply being there.

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Editor’s note: This story has been published with permission from the author’s partner.

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What Two Bags of Potato Chips Taught Me About Mental Illness Recovery

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Recovery is a journey. Yet, no map or compass is provided to aid in this journey. I alone each morning have to figure out the steps I will be taking that day. I have to decide on the supplies I’d like to carry with me as I’m trekking and leave the unnecessary behind.

Setbacks happen, because logic. And sometimes those missteps are overwhelming and affect my ability to see how far I’ve come on my journey. Setbacks make me believe I am at the starting point all over again. They make me believe fighting isn’t worth it, that my effort in holding on is futile. I forget I am so much less suicidal today than I was six months ago. I forget, when I am feeling suicidal, that I am so much stronger now in fighting those thoughts. I forget I used to be in the ER every other night for anxiety and severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. I forget. I forget. I forget.

And when setbacks are overwhelming, all I want to do is curl up in a ball, stay in bed and just cry until my tears run dry. And sometimes, I do just that. Like yesterday. I was depressed and angry at myself that my schedule became messed up again. I’ve worked hard to keep a schedule, and I’m trying to adjust to my meds. And yesterday, sleep wouldn’t come and at that moment, that meant my hard work was pointless.

I stayed in bed all day, ate two family-sized bags of potato chips, didn’t shower or brush my teeth and delayed my medication intake by a few hours. Not good. Not good. Not good.

I woke up this morning feeling horrible. I figured I might as well stay in bed another day and have another bag of potato chips. As I was debating the idea, I remembered how far I’ve come in my journey and the small successes I’ve celebrated each day. I remembered my old self and the newer one who incorporates coping skills to the best of her ability. I remembered the warrior in me, the obstacle fighter, the mountain climber, the untrodden path hiker. Real hikers pause their journey too sometimes. They set up their tents for the night and resume when they feel recharged. I must not let my bad choices of yesterday influence my choices of today. I will accept my yesterday because it’s part of my recovery. It is a part of my journey; my life.

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One day I will tell the world how two bags of potato chips made me realize that setbacks are OK and I can fight again tomorrow.

I ain’t giving up that easy. My journey is important to me, setbacks and all. And I am slowly learning to make new and better choices each day.

Follow this journey on Tea or Lemonade.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo by Pavlo_K

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