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5 Practical New Year's Resolutions If You Live With a Mental Illness

New Year’s resolutions are an inescapable thing. Even if, like me, you don’t make resolutions, we are surrounded by advertising telling us we should strive to make ourselves somehow better in the new year and people who try to make small talk by asking what your resolutions are. So this year, as we face down a new decade, instead of sitting it out altogether, I’m going to make five reasonable resolutions. Resolutions that will benefit me and support my wellness as a person with a mental illness, and resolutions that are totally achievable.

Resolution #1: Be kind. Even to people with useless “helpful advice.”  

I don’t often tell people about my mental illness, just as many people living with any other illness don’t typically go around declaring their diagnosis for all to hear. But it does come up from time to time. And I try not to act ashamed or embarrassed as I tell someone I have bipolar disorder.

Then I hear, “Have you tried …?” Or, “you just need to …” I can feel the blood rush to my cheeks, and I have to bite my tongue.  I desperately want to sarcastically snap back with a “Oh, the oregano oil cured your second-cousin from an illness that has scientific evidence proving both structural and functional differences exist in their brain? Huh. I’d love to hear more about that! Silly me for turning to laboratory developed and tested medications, counseling and psychotherapy!”

But no. This year, I will be kind to this poor soul, and I will simply smile and say “Thanks! I will look into that.” (And then I will quickly scream into the closest pillow available.)

Resolution #2: I will advocate for myself when someone asks too much of me.

People with mental illnesses are not the only ones who struggle to say “no.” But we may stand to lose more than the average person when we don’t use the word “no” enough. Personally, I feel as a someone in recovery, I need to represent people with mental illnesses well. I want people to look at me and think “Wow, she has bipolar disorder, but she seems so ‘normal!’” (It’s a high bar to strive for being mistaken for “normal,” I know.) So, when I should be taking a day to rest, relax and let my mind be weird, I will often take on extra work or family obligations. Again, so do a lot of people. But for me, when I don’t have a chance to rest and relax, it puts me at risk of slipping into a depressive or manic episode. I have been in the bipolar game long enough that I am well aware of my limits. I just need to make sure I put my foot down and make sure I don’t push past those limits.

Resolution #3: I will advocate for myself when someone puts me down.

Yes, I have a mental illness. No, that does not make me unintelligent, incompetent or unable to make my own decisions. Please don’t tell me you are working on a way to help me. I don’t need you to figure out a solution to, well, me. If I am facing an obstacle or challenge and you want to help, then work with me.  You never know, you might learn something in the process.

Resolution #4: I will take better care of my teeth.

So boring. Despite what the magazine covers tell you, self-care is, well, boring. I’m getting the twice-a-day brushing in (most days). And that is a vast improvement if I look back on my depressive episodes. But I think I should floss more often. As in, I should floss more often than the two nights before I go in to see the dentist. I’ll take little steps, maybe aim for once a week. As with most self-care activities, I just need to aim to do better, not be perfect, just do a little better in taking care of myself.

Resolution #5: I will try to find the humor in my illness.

I kind of hate the idea of a “silver lining.” Has battling a mental illness made me a more patient, compassionate and empathetic person? Absolutely. Would I give that “silver lining” back to have the education, career and family I was on track to have when I first developed symptoms of bipolar disorder? In a heartbeat. But I can find the humor in what my illness throws my way without having to think about what I have gained or lost. Because let’s be honest, mental illness is illogical, annoying and ridiculous. For example, I am not afraid of bugs, snakes or the dentist. I don’t particularly enjoy any of those things, but I am certainly not afraid of them. Heck, I even downright enjoy public speaking.

Lettuce on the other hand … I have had a lifelong fear of nausea and vomiting. (I skipped kindergarten for three days after another kid threw up in the sandbox. I still remember his first and last name.) I went vegetarian years ago because I know the risk of foodborne illness related to improperly stored, cooked or handled meat is high. But this whole romaine lettuce thing lately? Now I am a vegetarian who has also given up eating uncooked, leafy greens. That is ridiculous. And kind of funny. I know when you are really struggling with your illness, whatever it may be, sometimes there is no silver lining and there is no humor. So, this may not be something you can commit to. And this resolution may be out of reach for me at points in the coming year. But on those days when someone may mistake me for “normal,” I will try to find something about my brain and its strange wiring to laugh at. A vegetarian afraid of lettuce — so weird.

Regardless of where you are in your struggle with mental illness, I know a new year presents as much anxiety and apprehension as it does excitement. So most of all, be kind to yourself. And take the new year in small steps, with the guidance of resolutions or without.

Unsplash image by Ian Schneider