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Ringing in the New Year With a Mental Illness

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For many of us who have a mental illness, the New Year’s holiday is a painful time. New Year’s Eve serves to remind us of our failed resolutions, treatment goals that weren’t met and all the reasons our past year was a black hole of misfortune and despair. The year 2016 was no exception. News and politics alone left us reeling, and for many it seems as if we now live in a country without hope, faith or love. This year was rough.

Flash forward to New Year’s Day and everyone around you is bursting with the excitement and joy of what is to come. Promises are made. Goals are set. Resolutions are cast. The populace as a whole erupts with the possibility of the unknown and you are left feeling the cynic.

Weren’t we just moping about time passed? I’m still mourning yesterday, how can I celebrate what is today? How can I be hopeful that the future will turn out different? And of course, we all have those friends who vomit positivity about what is to come, Instagramming their “nine best” of the past year when just last week they were posting to Facebook, beside themselves about the state of affairs.

The New Year’s holiday can feel dishonest and contradictory. What’s worse is the fact that social media has only inflated the façade. Broadcast as a time to look inwards and reinvigorate our efforts for tomorrow, in the world of Facebook and Instagram we can’t help but get caught in the death trap that is comparing our lives with that of our friends on social media. Who had a good year? Who failed? And how will we compare in the future? “My year was a shit-storm and now I have to wade through the onslaught of celebratory posts that is my newsfeed?”

To those of you who relate, I get it. I really do understand your frustration with a holiday born to celebrate self-improvement and growth. For people like us those things are difficult to achieve and often times they seem so out of reach. However, at the risk of warranting a punch to the face, I would like to let you all know that New Year’s is in fact my favorite holiday of the year. If you approach it with the right mindset, it can be a powerful tool in reclaiming your life and mental health.

On New Year’s Day I went to my favorite breakfast restaurant and wrote down my goals for the New Year in my journal. I brought my stress ball with me to help reflect on the past year. It’s funny. At this time last year I carried this stress ball everywhere I went. I never left home without it. I’d even squeeze it during activities like eating and driving. You can see the ball has become deformed over time from use.

I started carrying a stress ball around shortly after I had my great fall. In the past, during my darkest hours, I had become so anxious and afraid of what might happen to me if I were to “let go” of my fears, that my body quite literally forgot how to let go. A body can only take so much tension like that for so long. And after a lifetime of holding onto a fear that I couldn’t articulate into words, my body decided it needed me to let go even though I couldn’t.

As a result I experienced immense pain. At the young age of 23 I couldn’t walk up a flight of steps. My wrists and forearms became so inflamed I couldn’t fold a shirt at my part-time retail job without feeling excruciating pain. My anxiety left me physically disabled.

I started using the ball at the suggestion of a friend and found it relieved some of that pain. It made the muscles in my forearm stronger and it became a tutor for me in the art of “letting go.” By squeezing the ball and releasing it, I was able to retrain my body to “let go” of the tension I once carried inside me.

Over the past, year in addition to these things, my stress ball served as a gentle reminder for my brain of the importance of learning to “let go” and embrace the fear. With every squeeze my body practiced the art of “letting go” and my brain took note.

The ball came with me to my psychiatrist’s office and to the pharmacy. I held onto it when I went to psychotherapy at The Kansas City Center for Anxiety Treatment, an intensive outpatient rehabilitation center; it came with me to group therapy.

When treatment was hard and the challenges of life as a mentally ill person bogged me down, the stress ball was there to remind me how easy the equation of letting go of my fears could be. “Squeeze, release and the tension is gone. Squeeze, release and the fear dissipates. Squeeze, release and let go.”

As the year progressed, my health improved. All the while I continued to squeeze and release the stress ball, practicing the important lesson it taught me. With every squeeze I began to see the dominos in my life fall into place. Goals were achieved, treatment was successful and for the first time in my life the way of the world began to work for me, not against me. The moment was mine for the taking.

Today I no longer need the stress ball to function. I have learned how to let go and embrace the fear. Now I know that within my bones stirs the strength of 10 men and no amount of pain, physical or psychological, will hinder me the way it once did.

As I plan for the New Year, the stress ball now serves as a tool of self-reflection. When I hold the stress ball I’m able to look back and see how far I have come. The stress ball reminds me of a world that I will never go back to, a world in which I was afraid to let go of the fear.

This past year was hard. I will be the first to admit it. There were moments when I felt alone, hopeless and unable to move forward. I faced challenges I didn’t think I could overcome; I experienced profound loss and failure. But because I never lost sight of what I wanted, because I held onto my stress ball through the difficult times, life started to move in the direction I wanted it to. Now, I truly feel like anything is possible this year, and all the goals I have are within reach. I see the light at the end of the tunnel and I am sprinting towards it like the madman that I am.

I want that for all of you. I want you to feel the power and freedom I feel. I want you to experience the joy I know you are capable of achieving. So my advice to you is to take control of this holiday and use it wisely: Treat yourself to a nice breakfast alone, take your journal with you and recalibrate. Use this moment to reflect inward and begin anew. Scheme, dream and plan for a future where you are in control of your life. And as you write your destiny remember the lesson I have shared. “Squeeze, release and let go of the fear.” Remember that and you cannot fail.

This holiday belongs to people like us. So as I close my journal and begin tackling the new year, I will give my stress ball one last squeeze for good luck and wish you all a Happy New Year!

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Image via Thinkstock

Originally published: January 2, 2017
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