02/08/2013 12:27 pm ET Updated Apr 10, 2013

Mental Illness and Mindful Awareness: 10 Marathon Training Tips

Western psychopathology has developed quite a system for categorizing so-called mental illness into tidy little boxes. In many ways, it can be helpful to have a common language to talk about experiences, challenges, dysfunction, treatment, and even dare I say, healing. The organizing system, however, leaves out an awful lot of who a person is.*

For some, the label of a mental illness diagnosis can become how we define ourselves. We become the label. For others, fighting against the label can leave us struggling to make sense of a world that has become the enemy, blocking us from getting life-saving help.

Who Are We Beyond the Label?

Who are you, who are we, beyond the reductionist judgments, labels, family and cultural experiences that helped teach us who we think we are? For mental illness or no, we all are taught who we're supposed to be long before we're capable of knowing that for ourselves.

Mindful awareness can help us begin making sense out of insanity, whether we have a full-blown psychiatric diagnosis or are highly sensitive to our environments (which can wreak havoc until we learn to manage our sensitivities). We begin to define our lives for ourselves, based on clear-hearted self-inquiry, using the practice of mindfulness.

Elyn R. Saks is the author of the memoir The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness. Diagnosed 30 years ago with "grave" schizophrenia, she recently wrote a Los Angeles Times opinion piece.

In it, she says:

Following my last psychiatric hospitalization at the age of 28, I was encouraged by a doctor to work as a cashier making change. If I could handle that, I was told, we would reassess my ability to hold a more demanding position, perhaps even something full-time.

Then I made a decision. I would write the narrative of my life. Today I am a chaired professor at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law. I have an adjunct appointment in the department of psychiatry at the medical school of the University of California, San Diego, and am on the faculty of the New Center for Psychoanalysis. The MacArthur Foundation gave me a genius grant.

Elyn Saks did not mindlessly ignore the schizophrenia. Nor did she try to pretend away her inner urgings to become more than what the "experts" said was possible. She was mindful of who she was beyond the diagnosis, made a series of decisions, and moved through the psychiatric label and out into the landscape of a large and meaningful life.

Mindful awareness is many things. It's a specific form of meditation practice that teaches us to become aware, with a clear mind and an open heart. It can also simply be paying attention to that internal voice urging us on, toward the finish line of our own dreams rather than someone else's.

As we pay attention to the simple moments of our lives, we begin to hear our own voices. We choose our own race, start training, and get on with it. As did Elyn Saks.

10 Marathon Tips for Mindfulness and Mental Illness

Having been diagnosed with a mental illness can feel like being thrown onto the starting line of a lifelong marathon. Lying there in a messy heap at the starting line, clothes and shoes all wrong for the event, people on either side of you in the starting block facing the correct direction for forward motion, you think: What? WTF?!

Here's how to start training yourself to be your mental health and wellness expert.

  1. Pay attention. Are you often so out of step with folks around you that you think everyone else is nuts? Or you think you're nuts, but really you're just like everyone else except you just don't know it? Get a reality check from someone who gets it.
  2. Listen. If someone you trust -- a parent, teacher, good friend, guardian angel, lover -- is concerned about your behaviors, see #1.
  3. Get a trainer. Get professional help from an expert in mental health and wellness. So much easier, faster, mo' bettah' all the way around. It's only your whole, entire life, after all.
  4. Get smarter than anyone else in the world about your diagnosis. Reach way beyond the label. Go for the gold.
  5. Get smarter than anyone else in the world about you, who you are beyond the label, and what you need in order to participate. Don't play dumb, don't play lazy... no one ever made it to the finish line doing either.
  6. Let yourself have what you want. Flex those muscles, baby... use them on behalf of yourself and your dreams. Because they actually matter a great deal. You don't have to be on the golf circuit if you're a triathlete. Right?
  7. Get in the game. The game of your life, as you define it. Want to be a tenured law professor with schizophrenia? Do it.
  8. Knocked down? Major wipe-out? Totally messed it up, got schooled, pathetic performance? Get up again. Refocus. Get back in the game.
  9. Use your core. All of your core knowledge about the diagnosis, your strengths and vulnerabilities, your deepest desires and what you need in order to stay on it.
  10. Rest when you need to. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Take exquisite care of your physical/emotional/spiritual body. Repeat: Rest whenever you need to.

Got it?

*Note: I'm not saying there's no such thing as mental illness. I am not saying that all Western psychiatry and/or traditional psychology has it wrong. I am saying there's more to the narrative than appears in the DSM bible of disorders.

For more by Melanie Harth, Ph.D., LMHC, click here.

For more on mental health, click here.