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How ‘Learning Not to Be an Expert’ on My Mental Illness Helped Me in My Own Recovery

Living with a mental illness for a time can teach you many things, but the biggest thing it taught me is that the illness is never the same; it is constantly changing, growing, shrinking, morphing. I reflect how I’ve struggled over the years with depression, starting with not knowing at all about mental illness but having the emotional maturity even as a kid to know I wasn’t handling emotions the right way, and that I was constantly feeling insecure and worried about abandonment. I am still bemused over my 10-year-old self, who walked into the counselor’s office alone to ask to be counseled, oblivious to the stigma it can bring among my friends, for all she knew were the tears and the constant pain and emptiness in her heart.

Fast-forward 10 years later — years of counselors after counselors and plenty of Google searching, and I discovered what I may actually have been experiencing all these years. I went to see a psychiatrist, and my hunch was confirmed. I wasn’t heartbroken though. In fact, I was elated to finally be able to not only put a name to the demon that reigned within me, but to have someone acknowledge and affirm that I wasn’t flawed as a person. Now that I had a name to my mortal enemy, I did everything I could to learn about it. I diligently continued therapy, agreed to start on medications, and did lots of independent research to understand what it took to defeat this demon. I felt I finally had the upper hand — that I could tame this demon, or better yet banish it for eternity. And that was when it all went terribly wrong.

For you see, the smarter I got, so did my depression. Just when I thought I figured out what helps me get better, what anchors me to wanting to choose to stay alive and see this battle through, my depression craved a new alternative path into my body and mind. And with that, I would crash with stronger self-belittling thoughts and outlook over life that spiraled into more dangerous ways of self-harming and suicide attempts. Then, like a baby, I found I had to go back to square one all over again, digging desperately into myself, scraping to find a new anchor and going through the tedious process of finding new means and new activities to keep myself from drowning. And the cycle repeats with each crash, harder than the one before, and getting back up is also harder than before because the old activities and anchors do not work anymore. The demon knows as much as I know, and it’s a constant war of finding new ways and new means to sustain myself again. I’m 27 now and the battle is far from over. In fact, in just the last 6 months, I’ve been admitted twice into inpatient psychiatric care, the first in all my years of battling the illness as an outpatient. I’ve also got a new diagnosis to deal with — don’t we just love labels!

But it’s not all bad. While it may seem I have gotten worse, I have gotten better as well. I’ve spoken up about my experience over the years and have been recognized by peers and organizations as a mental health advocate. My support, both social and medical, has gotten stronger. I attended formal peer support training to become a certified peer support specialist, helping me to better use my experience to support others in their journey of recovery. And it was in this course that my facilitator introduced the idea of what it means to be a peer support specialist, and I think it is also applicable to my journey of recovery: “To learn to be an expert of not being an expert, and that takes a lot of expertise.” It takes a few rereads for the sentence to sink in, but what it meant to me was that the answer of what works and what doesn’t for a person lies in that person. Our role is not to come across as an expert and prescribe to the person what they should do, but rather to facilitate the discovery for the person so they are empowered to get better.

I thought all these years with my illness rendered me an expert in what it takes to be free from it. Whenever I failed, I beat myself up so much that, on hindsight, I was shackling myself more toward the demon than away, doing its bidding without realizing. When I stopped beating myself up for making wrong choices and for not getting better, I began to develop an open mind toward all the demon threw at me. I observed it like a curious scientist. I gave it space, but not power. I took on the hat of not being an expert, but instead acknowledging I may fall into potholes I missed as I try and find my way out of this maze of thoughts and emotions, and that’s OK. I’m still learning; often the illness gets the better of me, but that’s OK. It doesn’t make me a failure — I am not an expert of my illness and recovery, and it takes expertise to know it.

Photo by Joshua Rawson-Harris on Unsplash