I Have a Mental Illness, but I Am Not a Damsel in Distress

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In my experience, people who learn a loved one has a mental illness will react one of two ways; they either refuse to acknowledge it at all, or they take responsibility for the illness. They take the burden of happiness and mental health on their shoulders.

Now, at the great risk of sounding rude and ungrateful (I mean to be neither)… Neither of those reactions is helpful.

Why, by any stretch of the imagination, should my illness be your responsibility? Why should you believe it is, and why should I let you? Because it isn’t. It can’t be. You’re not in charge of fixing me or keeping me happy, that would be completely unfair. The people who care for those of us with illnesses like this, need to hear this, for them:

You cannot fix us. It isn’t your job, please don’t think it is. You are not responsible for our happiness, you can’t be. If we fall it is not, ever, your fault, never blame yourself. You cannot, no matter how much you want to, recover for us. You cannot take the hurt away any more than you could give us back an amputated limb. Don’t take the burden of our illness, and never let us make you feel like you have to. I’ve been there, over and over, hoping that someone will do something that flips a switch and makes me “normal”… It can’t work. Don’t let us convince you otherwise. We and only we are responsible for our own minds.

Now with all illnesses, mental or physical, there are people who are legitimately dependent on others for any kind of decent quality of live. I’m not saying that doesn’t exist in mental health, it does. And that’s OK. But not everyone. We need support, don’t get me wrong, we need acknowledgement and understanding of our illness, and if we say, “I am struggling, I need you to help me” then help. Lend a hand. Not a back. You cannot hold the broken pieces of us together forever, keeping us whole. One day you will have to leave and we will fall apart again and have gained nothing. You cannot be our glue. You can be our Band-Aid.

If your friend falls you reach out a hand and help them to their feet. You don’t carry them around on your back forever so they never fall… That wouldn’t work. The muscles in their legs would atrophy and they would be reliant on you for everything, and one day if you weren’t there they would be completely helpless. Unable to even get out of bed, and that’s not fair on anyone. Not them, and certainly not you.

It’s not your job to fix me. I’m not a jigsaw puzzle you are responsible for assembling.

I will probably never be “normal.” Depression, anxiety… These are things that don’t always go away. You learn to cope, to live with it, maybe you take drugs to relieve some of the symptoms, but it’s not a cure, it’s a patch. What I need, what most of us need, is to learn how to effectively manage our illness. To learn our triggers, and to implement emergency protocols to deal with it. We have to learn to intercept what we can, stop it in its tracks if we’re able, and if not to cope with it.

No matter how much you want to, you can’t do that for us.

I can only hope that I learn how to manage this illness. That the Very Bad Days will happen less, and the Bad Days will be easier to deal with. Your only job, as my friend, is to be there. To care. To support me. To be the hand helping me up when I fall, not the back I cling to. I will never learn to cope otherwise. I need to know what makes this easier, and when I have a Bad Day I need to know I can turn to you and that you’ll be there to keep me company while I ride it out. I may never love myself, and it isn’t your responsibility to change it and fix it so I do, but under my own steam, with your support, I may learn to like myself, and that is more than some people can ever say.

I am blessed right now to be surrounded by incredibly supportive people who help me at every turn. I will love you all forever, and I owe you so much. You make me laugh and smile. You raise me up. You inspire me. But never think, please, that you are responsible for my happiness. That you are responsible for making me whole. Never feel bad if I have a Bad Day and you can’t snap me out of it. You don’t have to, it’s not your job, and it wouldn’t be fair on you if I made you responsible for my mental health.

I don’t want you to try and fix me.

You are not my savior.

You don’t have to grip me tight and raise me from Perdition.

That’s my job. That’s on me and only me.

I love you for keeping me company. For getting me out of the flat. For making me laugh. For caring. I will do anything I can for you, because words cannot explain the magnitude of what you do for me every day, and I will never be able to repay your kindness.

But please don’t try and fix me.

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Thinkstock photo via ADK-photography

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Why I Decided to Change My Work Situation for My Mental Health

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Most of my life has been ruled by fear of others and what they might say about me. The more authority they have over me, the worse the fear. There have been times when this fear was so debilitating I could barely speak. At school it wasn’t so bad. Teachers were nice to me. In fact, their kind, encouraging words helped me overcome the teasing and name-calling from fellow students. The world of work, however, was very different.

It’s amazing that the words and attitudes of one or two people can have such a major impact on me. It takes so little effort to smile, yet that can make all the difference. You don’t know the difficulties someone may be going through and one smile or one put-down can have a profound impact.

Several months ago, my manager began treating me differently, as though I was not capable of doing my job, let alone train someone new. Furthermore, words were said and decisions made that severely affected my confidence. For the manager, it was about being in control of what her staff members were doing. When you struggle with mental health, these sorts of things make recovery far more difficult. I already felt inadequate and insignificant, there was no need to reinforce these views I hold of myself.

For these reasons, I think it’s so important to treat people with kindness, because words do hurt. They can break you. It certainly tore me down after a year of trying to rebuild myself. I used to use work as a distraction from the things I struggled with at home, but my manager was inadvertently reminding me of these things while at work. There was no escape and I didn’t think I could keep going for much longer.

Fortunately, I work in a large department with several different sections and was able to request a transfer in order to avoid this manager and her second in command. Some people are strong enough to deal with this and I applaud you. But the important thing for me was that I recognized my gradually deteriorating health and managed to act in time.

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Thinkstock photo via Sergey Khakimullin.

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Why Fighting My Mental Illness Isn't Like Fighting a Fellow Boxer in the Ring

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For a while now, I’ve struggled with various mental illnesses and have been lucky enough to have an incredible support network of some amazing people.

I’ve been told “we will win” and “people are on your side” and I have no words to explain how grateful I am for this. But the thing is, statements like this make it sound like I’m fighting another person, another tangible being that can be destroyed. I have people standing behind me, but in that way they must also be standing behind the evils consuming my brain. Because ultimately, the battle is between myself and myself. The illnesses and I are one and the same and it’s a strange concept to think you need to win a battle with yourself.

How can it be that the “me” who laughs and jokes and smiles is simultaneously the “me” who cries and shouts and has meltdowns? That the “me” who never runs out of nice things to say about others cannot think of a single nice thing about herself?

Through the encouragement and support of others, it’s suggested that my illness is somehow a separate, external existence. A fellow boxer in the opposite corner of the ring.

It would be easier if it was this way.

Instead, my mental illness is a parasite. A non-physical, intangible idea that somehow manages to steal from me the things I love and care about most. Mental illness are I are one and the same and it’s often near impossible to distinguish what is me and what is the parasite. I call into question whether we are in fact identifiable as separate. Surely anything in my brain is automatically me, because I am my brain.

But then I realize those thoughts — the hateful, negative, self-deprecating thoughts — are not me. I am a positive, upbeat, joyful person. I enjoy spending time with my friends, playing sports, eating nice foods and experiencing new things. I love learning and laughing and encouraging people to be the best they can be. So how has something so opposite to this become such a large part of my identity? But how can I in fact “win” against something inside of me, part of me? By battling this parasite, I seem to be battling myself. That is a strange concept. Something completely un-me has merged with what I believe to be me and I don’t know how to separate them.

How do I keep the parts I like while destroying the parts I do not?

Maybe that’s not the point though. Perhaps these parts can come together to create a “super-me.” One that is able to empathize with others because I am able to greater understand their pain.

I always understood “winning” against mental illness as eradicating it, killing it. But perhaps it’s not about fighting or battling or destroying. Perhaps it’s about twisting and accepting and utilizing. If I see this parasite not as something I must beat, but something that is there to improve me, it can become a positive part of myself. I can manipulate the negativity into a lesson. It has, in fact, taught me the power of a kind word. How many incredible people I have in my life. That struggling sucks, but when you think you’re being buried, you may instead be getting planted. I am stronger than I thought. I can’t be beaten.

So thank you to the people in my corner, the people telling me I will win. Because I will. But maybe winning doesn’t look like defeating. Perhaps winning looks like learning and improving and using. Like accepting this parasite and allowing it to become part of me, so I can bring it out when someone else is struggling with their own parasite.

You’re right, I will win and I am endlessly grateful to you all for remaining in my corner through thick and thin. But I’m not letting this parasite leave until it’s given me something. Something I can use to help others in the same way you have helped me.

I will not be beaten.

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Thinkstock photo via wabeno.

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The Mental Health Workshop That Changed My Idea of 'Wellness'

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Who are you when you’re feeling well?”

No one had ever asked me that before. In 14 years of receiving mental health services for depression and anxiety, no therapist or doctor had ever asked about what I am like when I’m not feeling anxious or depressed. The focus had always been on alleviating the symptoms — stop the crying, increase motivation to get out of bed, decrease the frequency of panic attacks.

I’d been so focused on my symptoms for so long that at first it was difficult to imagine myself feeling well. It seemed I had lived with these symptoms for so long I could not conceive of another version of me, a me who wasn’t defined by the sometimes debilitating effects of mental illness.

In 2011 I attended my first Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) workshop. Ironically, I was working as a mental health rehab counselor at the time and was sent to the workshop by my employer, so I could learn new skills to help our clients. I was completely unprepared for how this WRAP workshop would change my own view of myself and my illness.

One of the very first things our WRAP facilitator asked us to do was make a list of words describing ourselves when we are feeling our best. This wasn’t so hard. We shouted out various adjectives and the facilitator wrote them on an easel pad: “Happy!” “Productive!” “Goofy!” “Singing!” “Creative!” By the time we were done, our group had come up with a long list of words. I could see that many of us in the group described ourselves in similar ways when we were feeling our best, and we each had qualities that were unique to us as well. Our facilitator then explained we should each make our own individual lists titled, “What I’m Like When I’m Well” using some of these words to describe ourselves.

I was, at first, taken aback by this new idea of “wellness.” For so long I’d considered myself perpetually unwell, having been told by doctors I’d likely need treatment for the rest of my life. The idea I could be “well” was almost foreign to me. But by sharing my description of myself when I’m at my best, and by hearing others in the group describe themselves, I realized I do indeed have days when I feel well. In fact, as I’d become more stable on my medication, I was having many more days when I felt creative, cheerful, silly, and, yes, well! I learned for the first time that recovery from mental illness is possible. Even though all of us have good and bad days, it is important to keep in mind that wellness is a real and attainable goal for each of us.

In that WRAP workshop, I also learned about my early warning signs that signal when I’m not feeling well, triggers such as certain people, places or things that could potentially lead to me feeling unwell, how to recognize when things are breaking down and how to make a plan in case a crisis does occur. Learning about WRAP changed my life and gave me sense of greater control over my mental health and my life. I was able to identify the things I need to do each day in order to maintain my mental health, such as taking medication, spending time outdoors and sticking to a regular sleep schedule. The beauty of WRAP is that each person’s plan is completely unique to them. WRAP allows me to have the ultimate authority over my own wellness, whereas before I had always left that up to the doctors and therapists. Now, I see my doctors and therapist as being partners in my wellness instead of seeing them as the people who have all the answers. WRAP has given me my power back and now I have a vision for what my own recovery looks like.

Later that year, I completed the WRAP facilitator training and now facilitate WRAP groups myself. Having lived and experienced how WRAP can make a difference in my own wellness and recovery, I love sharing it with others. I hope more mental health professionals will learn about WRAP and integrate it into their practices.

Thankfully, this is starting to happen more and more as WRAP has been recognized as an evidence-based practice and peer support has been demonstrated to be effective in recovery. Who are you when you’re well?  Has anyone asked you lately?  If not, ask yourself.  You may learn a lot from your answers.

To learn more about WRAP, visit www.mentalhealthrecovery.com.

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Thinkstock photo via anyaberkut

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