Why Mental Illness Was the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me
When I was younger, I hoped my 20s would be like the television shows “90210” or “The Hills.” Based on what I saw on TV, I thought I would be tall, confident and in a high-paying career. All the women I saw in the media had perfect hair, flawless makeup and expensive clothes. But as I got older, I was left with tangled locks, cystic acne and thrift store finds.
I grew up aiming to be loved by men, liked by other women and most importantly, as “perfect” as possible. I based my worth and happiness on how others saw me — which is what I believe society unconsciously tells us to do. But when everything started falling apart, from my health to my education to my career to just being able to enjoy day-to-day life, I was finally forced to take a good look at what made me happy and how I could achieve it.
At 17, I saw my high school boyfriend’s bedroom walls covered in bikini models. He told me he “loved my boobs even though they were small,” and that I “would look hot with blonde hair.” Because I grew up feeling unloved, I was scared he would no longer find me attractive and lose interest in me — so I started wearing push-up bras, bleaching my hair and slathering self tanner all over my body to look like the models he got off to. When I moved into his mom’s house after I ran away from home, he was the only family I had. Like so many other women, I picked up on the social cue that my worth was in how much men found me attractive, and this outlook carried me into my 20s and the relationships I had with men that followed.
Soon, I was living in an apartment paid for by student loans and working part-time. But my undiagnosed mental illness was slowly starting to chip away at me. I was going to university for writing, but even though I was excited about having a career as a writer, I was having trouble getting out of bed. I started failing classes because I couldn’t concentrate on studying. I went from job to job because I kept getting fired, and the stress made my mental health worse. I drank wine on my couch in the middle of the day while listening to depressing music and writing god-awful poetry. I thought I was an artist, but I was just sick. And I kept getting worse.
I dropped out of school. I went to therapy. I tried antidepressants. I saw countless doctors. I moved to my parents’ home, then to a homeless shelter, then back. I went on welfare, and that gave me time to focus on my health. I was obsessed with trying to understand why I felt like I was dying — why I felt like a ton of bricks, why I was terrified of being around people, why I would cry for no reason or became so enraged I wanted to smash everything — why I couldn’t just live a “normal” life like everyone else. I felt like my body was attacking itself, and nobody wouldn’t take me seriously.
I started feeling anxious all the time. I went to the hospital for panic attacks endlessly because the chest pains made me worry I was having a heart attack. One time I called 911 because I woke up with a migraine and thought I was having a brain aneurism. I felt feverish and was bloated and grumpy. I used alcohol, food and sex to try to cope with my ever-changing emotions. Finally, while living with my parents and after a night of drinking, I started to have delusions that they were going to hurt me. My dad would walk with his hands in his pockets, and I would think he had a needle he was going to use to stab me and bring me to the hospital. I knew the delusions weren’t real, because I’d grown up with similar dreams that once made my high school counselor refer me to a psychologist. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was unsafe living there.
I left my parents’ home and stayed with a friend. I turned my obsession to my diet. I watched documentaries and YouTube videos about how people healed their illnesses through food. I cut out gluten, diary, sugar and alcohol. I focused on eating plant-based foods instead of processed ones, and swapped junk food for healthier version of snacks that I would binge eat. And although I was still trying to be “perfect,” I was taking it from one extreme to another.
The change in diet started to make me feel better. I started to feel lighter and more cheerful. My skin began to clear up. I began to have more energy to get out of bed and work out. I started choosing better ways to spend my time instead of drinking and having sex — although at first, I felt incredibly isolated because all my friends hung out in bars. I was beginning to move my lifestyle into a more positive direction. I felt better about myself, more confident — happier.
And then something else happened. When I began feeling better mentally, I began changing my perspective.
I started caring less about looking sexy and more about feeling confident. Instead of a pretty dress, I would buy a warm sweater. Instead of going out to pick up someone at a bar, I would stay at home to work on freelance projects that made me feel good.
I started caring more about what I thought of other people instead of what they thought of me. When I began losing friends because they thought I wasn’t trying hard enough to keep a job or have money or attend events, I realized it was time to meet new people who were more supportive.
I started being more patient with myself when it came to my progress. Whether it was my health or my career or my relationships, I was kinder to myself when it came to how I was feeling that day, and let myself just feel instead of pushing myself to fix everything in that moment.
I went to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and learned how to deal with my emotions. I worked through the emotional baggage I had collected up until that point. I started to let go of the expectations and the guilt for not being where I wanted to be in life. Rather than focusing on feeling better now, getting a job now, having money now, being successful now, I focused on what I could do that day, that hour, that minute to get to where I wanted to be.
I focused on feeding myself nutritious meals, exercising daily, doing housework. And often when I couldn’t get all my homework done, I would have to learn to be OK with that and congratulate myself for taking care of myself that day. When I worked on worrying less about the future, my anxiety would lessen. When I worked on eating a healthy diet, my fatigue would disappear. Soon I was exercising regularly, a few times a week and finally, every day of the week. Working out gave me more energy to do the things I wanted to do — and soon I started making lists of things to do every day — often considering how I was feeling and what I could reasonably get done.
People talk a lot about “toxins” as a buzzword, but to me, toxins are things like stress, junk food and negative people. For me, getting rid of the toxins in my life helped my sickness. It’s not something I just did once and never had to do again — For me, eating healthy, working out and reducing stress is just as important as medication — if I don’t do it every single day, I start to feel sick again. But since I changed my lifestyle, I haven’t been to the hospital for a single panic attack since.
Because of mental illness, I feel more beautiful and confident than ever before. Through getting sick, I discovered the tools I need to take care of myself — which never would have happened if I had continued the way I was living. I’m grateful I’ve had these challenges because I learned early on that no matter how hard I tried to please others, to fit into the system, to be the woman society wanted me to be, I was miserable. I felt like I was dying. And it wasn’t until I changed everything I was brought up to believe that suddenly I began to feel like I was finally living.
So no, I didn’t grow up to be like the women on “90210” or “The Hills.” I’m not tall, I’m still working on my confidence and I live on social assistance. But I don’t care. Now, I embrace my natural waves. I wear clothing that makes me feel comfortable. And while sometimes I wear makeup and push-up bras, I feel just as sexy braless and bare-faced. Because what really makes me feel fabulous is when I take care of my body and my mind — and nothing can take that pleasure away from me.
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Thinkstock photo via Volcania.