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3 Things I Wish I'd Known Before I Started Struggling With Mental Illness

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They say hindsight is 20/20. I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently, mainly about things I wish I’d known before all this mental illness malarkey happened. I’m only a 20-something, but I have about a decades worth of mental illness experience. I think it’s probably fair to say I’ve learned a lot. There’s lots of advice I wish I’d had access to as a teenager with emerging and worsening mental illness; but for now, here’s some of the key things I wish I had known:

1. Talk before it’s too late.

I was terrified of talking about my mental illness — to the extent that I struggled in silence for about five years. I thought my friends would disown me, my parents would be angry and my life would be over if anyone knew.

Fortunately, I was wrong.

The first time I spoke about my mental illness, I was terrified. I’d gone to the doctor expecting them to cast me off as “hormonal,” but I was actually met with compassion and care. I started talking to my friends next – people I thought would “get it.” They did. I spoke to my parents, who were considerate, attentive, caring, loving and sensitive; although, these words seem far too weak to express how wonderful they truly were (and still are).

But I spoke out too late. By the time I had started therapy, individually and in groups, it became clear that I’d let things go on for far too long without seeking help. Patterns of behavior and thoughts had festered long enough to become deeply rooted — to the extent that talking therapy and medication wasn’t enough. Stays on acute wards and help in the community wasn’t enough either. Incidence after incidence, suicide attempt after suicide attempt — nothing seemed to recuperate my mind from years of torment. Now, I’ve had to go down the path of being assessed for a residential unit, a path I never wanted to go down.

I honestly don’t know what things would have been like if I’d spoken out earlier. Maybe my thoughts and behaviors wouldn’t have been so damaged; maybe I wouldn’t have caused myself, my family and my friends so much pain, having been so acutely and publicly unwell. I thought my life would be over if anyone knew, but little did I know that the closest my life has come to being over has been the times I’ve stayed silent, the times I’ve chosen to fight against the beast of mental illness on my own.

“Would be’s” and “could be’s” aside, what happened next was that I started sharing my thoughts and my “journey” (sorry, I hate needless use of the “J” word) online through social media. On the whole, people were completely and unexpectedly supportive. So many people came forward saying that they themselves, or someone close to them, had been going through a similar thing. So many people shared the same fears and doubts, and so many just accepted it. Not all rosy, of course – some didn’t. Some actively distanced themselves from me, and some just fizzled out of contact.

2. You will grow apart from people, and it won’t just be because of your mental illness.

It’s worth saying here that I am terrified of losing people from my life. The thought of driving people away, of annoying people, or, even worse, of arguing with people, makes me feel sick to the stomach. It’s part of my illness, but I think it’s also just genuinely a part of my personality that I want to please everyone. Logically, I know it’s impossible. Logically, I know that if someone doesn’t reply to a text immediately, they are (a) not dead and (b) don’t hate me. Logically, I know that not everyone will like me and I don’t have to get on with everyone. It’s all well and good, but I think the crux of it is that I’m just terrified of being alone.

What I didn’t fully appreciate before was that I would grow apart from people both because of and regardless of my mental illness. Moving on is natural, as is letting go of old friendships and developing new ones, but I didn’t realize this. I didn’t realize people would drift away anyway, no matter how hard I tried to mask my illness or please them. I thought my mental illnesses would be the driving force and, sure, I lost some friends because of my behavior when I was unwell. It hurt, but what I wish I’d been told is that relationships with people change and develop as life goes on — whether you’re 85 or 25, and whether you please everyone or no one at all.

3. Everyone will try to give you advice.

I realize how ironic this bit of advice is, but hear me out.

People will try to give you advice:

“My sister’s boyfriend’s mother’s hairdresser’s postman’s brother-in-law has tried this super effective, extra-special treatment that will 239 percent definitely, totally work.”

“I know just what you’re going through, and I wholeheartedly recommend X, Y and Z.”

Sometimes it can be just what you need. Reading a post like this or having a conversation with someone who understands your experience may be the most important thing you can ever do in terms of understanding or recovering from your illness; but it can also be something that just doesn’t work for you, and that’s OK. I used to think I had to take every piece of advice to heart, because I wasn’t worthy of anyone’s time, so I had to make full use of whatever they said to me. I thought if it worked for someone else and didn’t work for me, it was because I was flawed, useless and stupid.

But that was not the case. The fact is, you are the only person who has ever had, and ever will have, your exact experiences. You may share the label of “mental illness” with millions of people, but there is no single treatment that works for every single person with the same illness. A lot of people give advice because they want your pain and struggle to lessen, and if they genuinely want to help, they won’t mind whether you achieve wellness through the use of their advice or not.

So, what have I learned?

Firstly, talk. It may feel excruciating, and you may feel embarrassed. You might not know what to say or how to say it, but there’s no right or wrong. You’re not alone, you never were alone, and you never have to be alone again. You deserve help. Your pain is real and your emotions are valid. Your problems won’t go away overnight, but treatment can help you.

Secondly, let go. Friendships will come and go, strengthen and weaken, explode and simmer. Arguments and conflict are normal, as is slowly and steadily going out of contact. The people you meet may help shape you, but they don’t need to define you. Spend time with people who make you feel whole, but let a friendship slowly dissolve if it needs to. Change happens, so if somebody chooses to leave because of your mental illness, then they were never worth keeping in the first place, and you have no obligation to educate them on your condition if you don’t want to.

Finally, everyone, just like me (yes, still aware of the irony), will try to give you advice. People will tell you a whole manner of things: think of a black dog, practice yoga and mindfulness, hold ice when you’re feeling at risk of harming yourself. You can listen to all of it or ignore all of it, and that is absolutely fine. Most people who give you advice (again, just like me) just want to help, but it is not your duty to follow everything you’re told or to make sure it all works for you. The people that care want you to be healthy and happy, no matter how that’s achieved. (Don’t take my advice, though.)

Follow this journey here.

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, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

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Getty image via tulla

Originally published: April 19, 2018
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