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19 Things I've Learned in Mental Illness Recovery

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1. This is not my fault.

I did not choose this life. And never would I ever have stood up like Katniss from “The Hunger Games” did and yelled, “I volunteer as tribute!” if someone had offered it to me. Don’t take that the wrong way, though. Just because I didn’t choose it or volunteer for it, it doesn’t mean I haven’t come to appreciate this life I’ve been given. But I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t pop my knuckles too much, or drink too much Sprite as a kid and develop a mental illness. I have to stop trying to blame myself for my brain.

2. I am not alone (and neither are you).

If you’re reading this, it might mean you’re searching… searching for advice, support or just the sheer knowledge and comfort that you’re not the only one who struggles. This leads me to number three.

3. Mental illness can make you feel alone in a world with billions of people.

Even the people closest to you sometimes can’t make sense of it all… the random fatigue, the cracks and pops, the depression or anxiety that is caused by your biological makeup and environmental factors. No matter how many times I tell my heart not to race and send adrenaline freely overflowing every time I stand up, it just still does not understand. And most of the time other people don’t understand either. That’s a very lonely feeling. That’s probably one of the things I’ve struggled with the most.

4. It’s important to persevere.

Hearing that you might be combatting this for the rest of your life can be one of the most devastating things to hear. It can just make you want to give up. But you can’t. You know why not? Because then it wins. And though it may be difficult and extremely bleak, you have to push on.

5. Life will be different, but that doesn’t mean your life has to be over.

What do you do when you’re a high schooler who has been told this disease will be with you forever? What does that mean for the picture of your life you had? Will I ever be able to function properly again? Will I ever be able to live on my own? Or finish high school? Or go to college?

Trying to figure out how your life is going to look is kind of like tie-dyeing a shirt at home. You think it’s going to look just like the picture on the front. And then you tie-dye the shirt, you let it soak in, you rinse it out, you let it dry. I don’t know about you, but whenever I’ve tie-dyed, it has never looked as “perfect” as the one on the cover, but it still looks cool and sometimes turns out even cooler… and it’s unique, I’ve made it my own. That’s kind of how life shifts when you get diagnosed with a mental illness. And just as a spoiler, I did finish high school, I do live on my own (with a roommate) and I’m a full-time student in college. It’s not exactly how I envisioned things. Actually, it’s nothing like I saw it. But it’s OK, it’s almost cooler and I definitely made it my own. I struggled along the way, but I made it here.

6. Listen to your body.

Try to take inventory of how you feel your best, worst and in between. Then listen to your body when it tries to tell you things. If you’re feeling dehydrated, take extra measures to combat that, if you’re having a flare up, take it easy.

7. Sometimes you shouldn’t listen to your head.

I would bet one dollar (and only one dollar because I’m a broke college student) that your head sometimes tells you that you can’t do something because of your mental illness that you actually can do. Sometimes you just have to tell your head to stop.

8. The power of “No.”

This a big lesson I’ve had to learn. It’s OK to say no to that lunch invitation, that invitation for a hike or that extra project. It’s OK to miss out on things other people push you into. It’s going to be OK.

9. There is power in saying “no” and not trying to explain yourself.

To elaborate on point eight, you don’t always owe people an explanation, even though it may feel like you do. You don’t need to explain to a stranger or even your closest friend why you don’t want to do something. 

10. Treat yo’ self.

Did you get out of bed on your most painful days? Treat yo’ self. Did you ace that test? Treat yo’ self. Remember to treat yourself even if the victory seems small or insignificant. Positive reinforcement can be effective. Don’t base your self worth on what others see.

11. Have a “someone.”

For me, my someone is my best friend. He’s seen me sob many times because of my illness. But he encourages me to do what I can and to not lose faith in myself. He has held my hand in the hospital while I was told I needed to get more help than I was getting. That being said, he’s also seen some great successes. Find someone and really inform them, let them in, lean on them, be brutally honest about how you feel, mourn with them, celebrate victories with them, live this mental illness life with them.

12. Set realistic goals.

You probably can’t run a marathon without any training. I did, with a lot of training. Maybe your goal is to go to class all week even if you don’t feel your best. Maybe it’s to rest when you need to. Maybe it’s to go out and be social once this week. Learn to set goals and follow through.

13. Be honest about your goals.

Are they unrealistic? If not, see number 12.

14. Be upfront.

Let the people you’ll be around know about your illness and help to educate them. They can’t be supportive, compassionate or understanding if they have no idea what you’re going through.

15. At the end of every flare up is some beautiful relief, if only for a moment.

16. Pick some songs that instantly put you in a good mood.

Have them ready to go when you start to feel down about your mental illness. Music can be so so so therapeutic (and distracting, if you can’t get pain off of your mind).

17. Don’t try to compare or compete when it comes to mental illness.

I’ve come into contact with people who seem to want to keep some kind of “sickness score.” Please don’t try to tell me your experience is worse or drag me down into your pity party just because we both have the same disorder. It’s not a competition of whose experience is harder. They both are hard. Respect other people’s experiences and realize it’s different so they can’t really be accurately compared. I am only trying to improve my life and the lives of those around me.

18. It’s OK to be sad and have hard days. Be kind to yourself.

19. You are not your illness. You are you. And you are great.

I am not my illness. I am not my illness. I am not my illness. My illness doesn’t define me. My illness doesn’t define me. My illness doesn’t define me. C’mon, everyone together…

This is another hard hard lesson to grasp. It kind of has that Teflon quality. It just doesn’t stick. If I’m not careful, I can slip back into this mindset where my mental illness is all that I am. But that’s wrong. Just continue to remind yourself every time your mind starts to go there. Repeat it over and over again if that’s what it takes. My mental illness will no longer confine me or define me.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Thinkstock photo via Dreya Novak.

Originally published: August 18, 2017
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