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6 Things I Know Are True: My Journey With Mental Health

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“Your brain is lying to you.”

That’s what I said to a dear friend when she was going through severe depression. It’s what I tell myself when I can feel the self-doubt and anxiety taking over.

The brain is a notorious liar; in the simplest terms, it mistakes personal truths for actuality. Sometimes, these lies mean we misremember something or see something different from others (hello, blue/gold dress). Other times, these lies are related to how we see ourselves. When you are dealing with anxiety, depression, mood disorders or any mental illness, it’s easy to believe that things are awful, that no one likes you and that nothing will ever get better.

While I promise you none of that is true. It’s the last part that is unequivocally not true. Things can always get better.

My Journey with Mental Health and Mental Illness

May was Mental Health Month, and the truth is mental health and mental illness have been a huge part of my journey. It feels weird even to type the word mental illness. Mental illness makes me think of someone much worse off than me, but it’s important to use the correct terms. While the two are interconnected, mental health is a person’s emotional wellbeing. In contrast, mental illness refers to conditions that impact how a person thinks, such as anxiety, depression, mood disorder (all things I’ve dealt with). McLean Hospital explains that “both mental health and mental illness are states of being that are on a spectrum.”

For me, the spectrum means that sometimes my depression and anxiety are at bay, and I have great months, years even. Then sometimes I’ll go through periods where I feel like I’m in the depths of despair. The way I’ve handled my mental health and mental illness has also been a spectrum. Some of the “happiest” times in my life, I felt the loneliest, but no one else would have ever known because I never breathed a word. Then sometimes, I let my depression bleed into my everyday life, impacting relationships and further destroying my self-worth. But then there are times, like now, where I feel I’ve taken all the steps to be the healthiest version of myself. A healthy version that can (usually) recognize when my brain is lying.

Mental health is a fluid, ever-changing journey. What works today may not work tomorrow, and no one knows that more than me. But there are six constant truths that I’ve gleaned over the years. These are truths I’ve separated from the lies my brain tells me.

These things I know are true.

1. You need to do what works for you.

While that sounds like a no-brainer, it can be hard to distinguish what actually works for you versus what you think should work when it comes to improving your mental health or creating a mental illness treatment plan.

Part of this is due to the internet and social media, where a quick search can give you a litany of suggestions for self-care and mental health improvement. Sometimes those suggestions are spot-on, but sometimes they are not. Someone unfamiliar with the mental health landscape might not realize that those suggestions are just a few pieces of a larger mental health care puzzle.

The other part is that determining what exactly works for you is not a quick and easy process. It can take years to find the right combination of therapy, medicine, internal work and extracurricular activities to come to a good place. Once you find that combination, it may not look like anything you’ve read about, and that’s OK.

I also want to point out that this truth also applies on a macro level. I have learned that so much of mental health is your environment. If you are in a bad environment at work, home or school, your mental health treatment plan will never fully work. You may learn how to cope, which is an incredible skill, but you’ll never know how good you can feel until you are in an environment that allows you to thrive. I say that from personal experience. Your environment might not make sense to someone else, but you need to do what works for you.

2. Bad times don’t equal a bad life.

When you are in the throes of a traumatic or depressive episode, it can be hard to see the forest from the trees. It can feel like there is no end in sight, and it’s easy to make broad-sweeping judgments, like, “I have such a bad life.” But do not mistake a bad time for a bad life.

My brain lied to me and told me my whole life was bad, and I believed it, which only made my depression last longer. No matter how bad things are or have been, there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. It may not feel like it, and it’s OK to acknowledge that feeling. But don’t believe for a second that a bad few months or years means you are unworthy of a good life.

3. Your past doesn’t define you.

On the same token, your past shouldn’t dictate your future. For a long time, my brain convinced me I was an emotionally unstable, anxiety-ridden mess. I thought it was just who I am, and those were the cards I was dealt.

Just because you grew up a certain way or acted a certain way during a point in your life doesn’t mean that’s who you are forever. People change and grow. What happened in your past can be part of your journey, but it doesn’t have to be who you are.

I once had a boss who told the team, “we have to move on!” when reflecting on a particularly rough event. And that’s stuck with me. It may be cliché, but it’s true.
You can’t move forward if you don’t move on. The challenge is that moving on is neither quick nor easy, but it’s the struggle that makes you stronger.

4. Things will get better.

I don’t say that lightly. I say that, having been witness to several people who have gone through the worst of the worst and are now some of the happiest people I know. I say that as a person who has struggled with mental health and mental illness her whole life and always made it out of my darkest times. If you come to believe the previous three truths, you will understand this one, as well.

My mom always said, “this too shall pass” when things were bad. I also like the Instagram favorite “you have made it through 100% of your worst days.” However you say it, it means that you can, and you will get through it.

5. It takes a village.

Mental health is certainly not a journey you can go alone; it really does take a village. And by village, I don’t just mean your group of friends and family. I mean your whole circle — your primary care physician, your therapist, your fitness instructor, your hairdresser, your dog walker, anyone important in your life, along with your family and friends. Not everyone needs to know the nitty-gritty, but it’s important to have a circle of people who care about you and help you. Maybe the dogwalker is a stretch, but you never know who can come to your aid in times of strife!

When you surround yourself with people who believe in you, support you and love you for all you are, good things will happen.

6. A partner should have your back 100 percent of the time.

While having a supportive group surrounding you is essential, I also think it is so important to be with someone who will make you feel better during the bad times. When you have someone who tells you they believe in you, even if you don’t believe in yourself, you can’t help but feel the teeny, tiniest bit better. This truth is not to be misconstrued as a proclamation of my undying love for my partner (he is great, but no mushy stuff here!); it is simply just that — my truth.

Most of us have been with someone bad for us, someone who made us feel worse when we were down. In the best of scenarios, those are the partners who simply contribute to the anxiety. In the worst of cases, they cause trauma. If you’re going to spend the rest of your life with someone, make sure it’s someone who makes you feel better. Don’t believe your brain when it tells you that you don’t deserve someone better or this is just part of life.

Your relationship doesn’t have to be perfect 100 percent of the time — you just have to know that you have each other’s backs 100 percent of the time.

If it feels like that’s not the case — talk to your partner. Help them understand and tell them what you need. Couples work through these things all the time, but you do have to speak up. (However, I want to note that if your partner is causing trauma, please get help.)

Speaking of speaking up, don’t be afraid to do it. My final truth (OK, so technically, this makes seven) is people can’t help you if you don’t ask. While it’s scary to share your vulnerabilities, the right people will help you. And if you think you have no one to tell, that’s just one more lie your brain is telling you.

If the internet has taught us one thing, it’s that we are not alone. Millions of people have been depressed, anxious, manic, schizophrenic, traumatized and so much more. When I grew up, the internet was only just coming into play, and I honestly wonder what a quick Google search or Facebook Group could’ve done for me 25 years ago. Maybe I would’ve felt less alone, spoke up more or believed a lot sooner that my brain is a liar. Or, perhaps I just needed to go through it to find my truths.

Original photo via contributor

Originally published: June 4, 2021
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