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How I've Learned to Cultivate Gratitude for My Mental Illness

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I’ve struggled with mental illness for as long as I can remember, since before I had even heard the term.

I was told I was sensitive as a child. I was fidgety, I couldn’t sit still. I would sit for hours on end preoccupied by the tiniest of details. Some days it was what I’d be like as an adult. Some days it was over-thinking something someone has said to me. Some days it was nothing at all. But my brain kept me stuck, running circles around me while I looked at everyone around me moving as if nothing was wrong. But everything felt wrong to me.

 I had big fears. I had nightmares. While this isn’t “abnormal” for any child, the amount of time I spent obsessing and ruminating on any possible chance of those things occurring in a day, was.

One of my most vivid childhood memories involves my biggest fear as a child: needles. I was 6. My parents, two brothers and I had piled into our vehicle and headed off to get a new van at a used car dealership. For some reason, although to this day I don’t know why, the salesman made a joke about needing to draw our blood to make sure we could get the van. I remember instantly bawling, afraid of this jovial and probably charismatic used car salesman. The unpredictable nature of when my fears would come true, haunted me.

My battle with mental illness involves more than just my lifelong struggle with anxiety. My story involves eating disorders, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and more. While these things have caused me tremendous amounts of grief, many days I do not dwell on what these battles have cost me. I choose not to list everything my illnesses have taken from me. 

These battles have also given to me. No, “given me hardship” is not where I’m going with this. Struggling with mental illness has had its benefits, as strange as that might seem to say.

I have an immense amount of gratitude for the small things in life. My struggles have given me the opportunity to not take for granted. Things like the first sunny day after a long dreary winter, the unexpected text from someone who just wants to check how you’re doing, freshly washed sheets, the view of the city from work. All of these things — things that are often overlooked — these things my mental illness has robbed joy and appreciation of in the past. These things mean more to me because of my struggles.

My mental illnesses have made me more attuned to others. I am so often aware of other people, first because I think my temperament lends to that, but also because of others. In tough situations or hard conversations, I am always aware of how others experiencing the situation may be feeling. Even just day to day, I reach out to check on others, because I know I appreciate it myself. I know to listen after I ask, I learn what my friends appreciate when they’re struggling.

My mental illness has also has also helped foster something I’m coming to learn may be one of my biggest strengths: writing. I’ve always loved writing, especially as a kid. I wrote poems upon poems in journals, short stories, books for “Young Authors Day” in elementary school. We bound them as real books and I dreamed of having my own real book on a shelf someday. That dream faded for a while, drowned by my struggles. It reemerged however, in a new form when working in therapy and treatment for my eating disorders. Unable to fully process verbally, I turned to writing. And in recovery, I’ve let my writing flow outside of the confines of my journal. Sharing my words and experiences in the hopes of someone reading on the other end relating, and feeling less alone.

I’ve been given unique perspective because of my mental illness. Having endured and battled my own demons, I am able to offer a different view of the world than a lot of others. I am able to know dark parts of the world and my mind, able to speak to the dark and offer advice and encouragement to those who may still be stuck there. I have insights I wouldn’t otherwise have. I have arrived at conclusions about topics I may not have otherwise come into contact with. I know so much more about myself because I have had to inspect every inch of my mind in therapy.

I choose to focus on these things, I choose to cultivate this gratitude because I know what is at stake. I have learned focusing exclusively on the negatives of any situation will only lead me to dark places. I have learned yes, the cliché is true: there is light even in the darkest of stories. 

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Thinkstock photo via ARTQU.

Originally published: April 12, 2017
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