Mental illness does not fight fair. It does not make sense, and it does not discriminate whose lives it will invade. It sucks, no two ways about it. For many years, it paralyzed my life, relationships, and health. Thankfully I'm well past that period, and the path of recovery inspired me to go to school for and work in the mental health field, helping others heal. However, now -- in spite of all the great work being done to move us forward -- my clients are constantly reminding me how stigmatized mental illness still is. To that effect, I wanted to write something about mental health and illness for anyone who struggles with it, I want to remind us all how prevalent it is, to share a few things I've found helpful in fighting against it, and to talk about the sweetness that comes as the result of living through it. My particular brand of crazy is comforted by lists, so let's get into it.
10) You're in good company.
If you or a loved one are currently struggling with mental illness, my heart aches for you. However, you're not alone. This can sound kind of trite if not elaborated on, so here are a few statistics for you: Almost one in four adults report mental illness in any given year. As of 2010, depression was the leading cause of disability. In the United States, someone commits suicide once every 16 seconds. Lastly, although military members are only 1 percent of the population, they make up 20 percent of our national suicides.
On a more personal note, in writing this I posed an anonymous survey online to my guinea pi... I mean, friends and family. Of the 85 folks who answered, 53 percent said they have some type of mental illness themselves (most commonly depression and anxiety). When I asked if they have a friend or loved one with a mental illness, that percentage went up to 96 percent saying yes. Now, perhaps I just hang with a particularly colorful crowd, but maybe not. If you're reading this and feeling alone, the odds are that many more people in your life face mental health issues than you realize. However, even if that's not the case, you are absolutely, positively, not alone.
9) Talk about it!
I read an article by a Native Alaskan last week that said many people here in Alaska are afraid to even say the word suicide. It's a common belief though that when we speak about something frightening, we help take away its power. So, I'm a big proponent of sharing the things that scare us. I didn't tell my parents or partner that I have an eating disorder until a couple of years ago. Logically, I knew it was nothing to be ashamed of, and yet... I felt so much embarrassment and fear that they wouldn't understand. Well, while not everyone was receptive, just as with my other mental health issues in the past, overall, I found the people in my life to be impossibly compassionate and so very encouraging.
As hinted at above, I did have some bumps in the road. Several people looked at me like I had three heads, a few said really hurtful things, and possibly worst of all, some people just ignored it. However, with all these various experiences came a great deal of discernment, and I rarely ever misjudge anymore who to share with. If you're interested in disclosing mental health issues to people in your life, I say prepare for the worst but hope for the best. Everyone you tell might not understand -- so be prepared for that -- but those that do can provide a wealth of love, kindness, and comfort. If you'd like to read some specific tips on how to go about it and what language to use, here are a couple pieces I really enjoyed: (http://www.mendthemind.ca/help/how-talk-someone-about-your-own-mental-illness) and (http://www.families.com/blog/telling-people-about-your-mental-illness).
8) Routines (get some!)
When we feel out of control, it can be terrifying! In these times, routines are something simple that can help provide a sense of comfort and stability. The types of routines to choose from are as varied as the people on the planet! Eating meals at the same time every day, stretching after waking up, making at least one phone call a day... Truly, there are infinite routines to choose from. Why not a pick a few and see what they can do?
7) Try surrender on for size.
The "s word" often gives people the willies, but there's a reason one of the first steps in 12-step programs has to do with turning yourself over to a power greater than yourself. Several times in the past, I've gotten to a place where I was at my wit's end. I couldn't conceive of getting through the night, let alone the coming weeks or months. Often during those times, I found in hindsight that something in my life was either missing or in excess to cause such distress. To that end, I found surrender to be an incredibly powerful tool to figure out what needed to be changed.
In such distress, I would say, "Okay, Universe. I give up. I obviously cannot handle my life right. Please just help me get through this one day." (In some cases when I was very young and very sick, it was this one hour or this one minute.) It's strange, but something magical happens when you don't look at the whole picture and just let yourself focus on what's directly in front of you. (I believe this is the key to the principle of "mindfulness," which is a state I try to maintain as much of the time as possible.) Like clockwork, every time I've surrendered I was met with total peace and feeling as though all the pressure -- which previously felt like it was crushing me -- had been lifted. As an added bonus, giving myself grace during these times became a natural conclusion and an easy task. A day in surrender for me might have started with an inner-dialogue like this:
Okay, you're awake. Can you get out bed?
Yes, I can totally get out of bed.
Can you get showered, dressed, and go to work?
I think so.
Can you actually work once you get there?
I'm not so sure about that.
Okay, let's just shower first and see how it goes.
I found that by slowing life down so dramatically and expecting so little of myself for a short while, I was able to maintain that peace and begin to feel real confident, real quick. I would then start to add normal responsibilities back into the mix, one by one. When I began to feel overwhelmed again, I used it as a guide to help determine what was causing those feelings and what needed to be changed. Be careful what you wish for though. Such honest and intense self-reflection usually yields powerful insights. When you find out what the culprit is causing you strife, I encourage you to try not to be afraid of making changes or giving up responsibilities.
Some of us can "do it all." One of my siblings works a stressful, full-time job, just finished pursuing a third degree at night and on weekends, and is a loving partner, parent, brother, etc. I'm pretty sure he's not of this world. For most of us though, I've come to believe that we can only do so many things well. I think it is important to be realistic about what we can handle, what we cannot, and to not judge ourselves if it doesn't match up with our ideal. If staying well means giving something up, so be it.
6) We are each beautiful, unique snowflakes!
When I was a young person coming out of years of severe depression, psychosis, and suicidality -- as could probably be expected -- I was having trouble making baby steps toward the life I wanted. During that time I would often feel ashamed when comparing myself to my highly-functional, highly-achieving siblings. This act of comparing myself to others is something I now try hard not to do and do not recommend! Comparing ourselves to others is not helpful, not kind, and not fair. We're all made of different stuff, have different capabilities, and you know what? You never know what is going on behind the scenes in someone else's life (who knows, maybe they're struggling too).
5) Whatever you do, take care of you!
I believe each person has individual requirements for what makes them feel healthy and fulfilled, and that this changes periodically. Whatever your state of mental and emotional health, I urge you to explore your schedule and varying moods -- especially the low points -- to try and determine if there are any areas where you can do more to care for yourself. Also, there's no one right way to self-care. Some meditate, some masturbate, some go to nature, some go to raves, I say experiment and figure out what makes you feel most whole. Once you find it, do it, and don't let anyone make you feel badly about it!
4) Let others care for you too!
If you're struggling, there is no reason to go it alone. As I touched on above, friends and family members can be a very powerful resource. However, sometimes they're not enough. There's something very special about talking with someone (or multiple someones) who know exactly where you are, the kind of pain that plagues you, and who can share what's helped them. I've made several lifelong friends from support groups I regularly attended before leaving Florida. I also always left them feeling lighter, more connected, and more nurtured than when I came. Whatever your issue or illness, there is probably a support group for you. NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) has an excellent helpline to refer people to services -- including support groups -- in their respective areas. They can be reached at 800.950.NAMI (6264) or by e-mail (at firstname.lastname@example.org). Also, if you're interested in seeking professional help via individual, group, or family therapy, please try not to feel ashamed. It does not mean you are bad or broken; we all need a little help sometimes.
3) There's no need to tough it out.
I often allude to the fact that I was a troubled young person. I started taking psychotropics as a teen. At that time -- before I was able to learn good coping skills -- I believe they saved my life. Somewhere in my early 20s, though, I weaned myself off of medication and took pride in the fact that I could exist without them. However, I struggled quite a bit in the years to come. By 2013, I still had the occasional panic attack and episode of depression, fear, and hopelessness which could go on for weeks at a time. A few well-informed loved ones gently suggested I reconsider going on medication, but by then I was a highly-functioning, highly-fit graduate student with much to lose. I also had great fear of possible negative side effects like the ones I experienced as a teen (increased depression and suicidal ideation, hallucinations, and extreme weight gain.) So I "toughed it out" through my 20s -- lovingly supported, though frequently suffering from an array of negative symptoms -- and that was doable... in my sweet, sweet, former life, in Sunny Florida.
Late last year my fiancé and I relocated to a very remote part of Alaska. My first job after grad school has been so very fulfilling but also very stressful. To boot, a great number of serious life changes had all thrown my way at once. After several months of intensified "toughing it out" (severe depression, panic attacks, weight gain, and no sign of relief in sight), I threw in the towel and got medicated. Since that time, I feel like a different person. It's not like I'm a zombie, super psyched all the time, or don't feel. Life just seems easier, more manageable, and more like what I picture "normal" people to feel day-to-day. I haven't had any panic attacks, my depression has almost entirely diminished, I'm getting closer to the weight I was upon leaving Florida, and all of this while flourishing in the industry I've been dreaming about for years! There were a few negative side effects initially, but they were pretty minimal and have mostly left by now.
Natural means are great, but if you're in agony and your life has been disrupted for a significant amount of time, I say consider consulting with a doctor (a psychiatrist if possible) and trying medication. If you don't like the idea of being dependent on meds, keep in mind that it might not be forever! Sometimes people have chemical imbalances which need consistent medication -- I'm still on the journey of figuring out if I am one of them -- but many people only use them temporarily. Now that my 20s are almost over, I can't help but look back and wonder how much pain could have been avoided if I hadn't let fear get the best of me and would have considered returning to medication sooner. Alas, time marches on and so must we.
2) It's way okay to be vulnerable.
Nope, I lied. Being vulnerable is more than okay. It is brave and kind and fucking awesome! This piece was way closer to being scrapped than being shared. In fact, before I hit the send button to submit this piece, I had already decided twice that I was going to submit, only to let folks talk me out of it each time. In my gut, I felt that what I had written here was important and appropriate, but I kept getting nagging feelings that I shouldn't share it. "I'm no expert yet! I'm still trying to figure it all out for myself!" Not to mention that two cherished family members and two friends had advised me against it, all saying that it might damage my career later on (I'm a budding mental health therapist.)
In this case, the third time was the charm. The day I would actually go on to submit this piece, something happened that changed my mind. Maya Angelou -- a woman who had been lifting and lighting me up most my life -- had died. Like one last, glorious gift from beyond, all day on Wednesday, my social media was flooded with images, works, and videos, showing her profound strength, vibrancy, and bravery. All of a sudden, I felt all these connections between Dr. Angelou and this piece I had written (and named after one of her poems). Even her last tweet, "Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God," felt relevant. When I was quiet and honest with myself, I felt the universe saying to me, "If you don't submit this piece, you're a hypocrite and a coward!" It turned on the light for me. Of course I was afraid! Being this vulnerable and sharing such private thoughts and experiences is scary! However, when I think of the best elements and relationships in my life, so many of them were born in the fear and fire of vulnerability.
As far as this piece negatively affecting my career? I reminded myself that while I am a practicing therapist now, my future career goals revolve around advocacy, community organizing, and getting more people-centered legislation passed. Ultimately, I decided that I wouldn't want to work for a person or agency that discriminates against a healthy and stable person with mental illness, who tries to help normalize the issue. All that said, I won't tell you not to be afraid of facing whatever scary actions (and possibly people) stand in the way of your optimal health and happiness. I don't think that's realistic. I will tell you to be afraid and do it anyway!
1) You can make this a good thing!
Please know that the hardships we experience right now can help people in the future! My journey has been very painful and often difficult. However, I now like to think that I am better equipped to help the people I serve because I understand their issues -- and can relate -- in a way that many practitioners cannot. So whether or not it is true for you now, I believe each of us has the capacity to be a beacon of the joy, love, and humility that so often accompanies recovery from mental illness.
If you experience mental illness and survive to talk about it, it changes you... I think for the better. If you or someone you love are in the midst of something painful now, I'm so deeply sorry. However, I believe with every fiber of my being that you can get through it and come out bigger, brighter, and heartier than before. Until then, I'm wishing you much love, light, warmth, and that you find peace very soon.
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