Some of the most comforting words in the universe are ‘me too.’ That moment when you find out that your struggle is also someone else’s struggle, that you’re not alone, and that others have been down the same road.Unknown
Mental illness can be a fickle mistress. It’s hard to live through. It comes and it goes in waves, taking us down when we least expect it. When we find out that we have a chronic and long-term mental illness, it can be hard to accept that reality.
Here’s how it goes for me, but I would imagine for many others as well: Even when I’m feeling well and I have things under control, it’s always in the back of my mind that it’s going to come back. Eventually intrusive thoughts, depression, anxiety, trauma…they’re going to rear their ugly heads.
They’ll find their way around my carefully constructed barriers. They’ll outsmart my medications. They’ll find a way to get control of my brain again. And I know it. Every mood swing, every sad day brings panic, “Is this it? Is it coming back and this is it?”
It’s exhausting, honestly.
My Longest Relationship
My relationship with my mental illness has been long and storied. By the time I was in my early 20s, it was clear to me that something was desperately wrong. Though I had shown signs of something more since childhood, depression hit me fast and hard almost as soon as my 3rd decade began.
The mental anguish was indescribable. I learned for the first time what it felt like to want to leave this Earth; to make the pain stop in the only way you can see how. I eventually got on medication and climbed out of that dark hole.
Once the medicine kicks in you think, “Oh. Cool. I’m better now. I don’t need these pills anymore.” That’s exactly what I did. My doctor told me at the time, “It’s okay to stop. If you need them again, I’m here.”
I did need them again. Over and over again through that period of time in my life. I was on and off medications. Sometimes because I thought I didn’t need them, sometimes because I didn’t have insurance or a way to pay for them. But I never accepted that it was a long-term, life-long thing.
Listen. No one wants to believe they will go through something like this for life. Depression…it’s a kicker. It takes everything from you when it’s bad. It steals your joy when it’s not. Anxiety is scary and distressing. It has swallowed entire days; ruined otherwise happy events.
When you’re young, you can never imagine having to go through that again and again until you die.
When I was 32, I finally had a doctor look me square in the eye and say, “I think it’s time that you consider the fact that maybe you should be on at least a low dose from now on.” It would still be 6 years before I would get a diagnosis, but I had been so ill for so long that I knew deep down she was right.
So, my first step was accepting that I will, very likely, need some form of psychiatric medication for the rest of my life. Every day. Forever. It’s a lot, when you think about it.
Several years later, I found myself at a different crossroads. I had been struggling and suffering for 6 years. None of the medications that I had been on were helping long term. I was falling apart; barely hanging on by a thread on the inside.
I went to my therapist of 2 years one day and she asked me what our goal was. Where did I want to be and how could she help me get there? For the first time in 15 years, I said, “Can I get a diagnosis? It’s obvious to me that this is more than anxiety and depression. Something is wrong. Can you tell me what it is?”
Meeting My Mental Illnesses
Getting a list of psychiatric diagnosis is a lot to take in. I have five brain disorders. I only previously knew about two of them and the rest I only had a vague (if not inaccurate) idea of. So, I went home and I started to learn.
I spent MONTHS researching, reading, and writing about ADHD, OCD, C-PTSD, and Persistent Depressive Disorder. Sometimes I would weep while reading about them. Sometimes I would rage. More than anything, though, I felt relief.
These were the answers that I had begged for from providers in my 20s. This was the understanding that my parents, teachers, and bosses could never give me. There was a community of people just like me, just waiting for me with open arms.
In those answers, that understanding, and that beautiful community of people, I found healing and acceptance. I now accept that mental illness is a part of my life and it will be until I leave this Earth. Just like diabetes or thyroid issues or any other lifelong ailment, I will have to spend time maintaining that part of my health.
I’ve just accepted it as fact. I used to see it as a life sentence. Now I just see it as fact. Does it suck? You bet your ass. But you know what, my lovelies? The lessons that I have learned, the good that has come out of it, the resilience that I have built…it’s all made me who I am today. And I kind of dig her.
Would I take it all back? Maybe some of it. Maybe I’d choose less pain and more answers. Maybe I’d change the childhood trauma and the bad relationships. I definitely could have done without a lot of the pain. But, again, I wouldn’t be here today. I wouldn’t be writing this. I have to believe this was always supposed to be a part of it for me.
Today, I am in mental health recovery. This doesn’t mean that I have recovered from mental illness. It means that, right now, I’m okay, but one day I won’t be. It means that I’m preparing for that day; recognizing the signs, putting my back plan and safety net into action, contacting my doctors for help should I need it.
I stay med compliant (when I remember) and I communicate regularly with my doctor. When I need an adjustment, she listens and adjusts accordingly. My therapist is aware of my ups and downs and, again, we adjust our appointment frequency as needed.
I feel like I’ve finally come to terms with my mental illnesses. I know what they are and how they affect me. I understand why I engage in certain behaviors. I accept that my disorders are lifelong and I have adjusted to that idea of a “life sentence.” I’m okay with it. I can’t wish it away, so there’s no point in trying. It just is.
My Final Take
Remember, healing is not linear. My healing may not look anything like yours. My path to acceptance will look completely different than the next guys. Heck, even my recovery is unique and it’s own.
That said, based on my own experience, here is my advice for coming to terms with mental illness:
- Acceptance: The first step in coming to terms with my mental illness was accepting it for what it was; a chronic and long-lasting illness. It will be with me for life. It’s just a fact. For me personally, this was the moment when true healing could start.
- Adjustment: Next, I took time to adjust to the idea of having to maintain and manage a lifelong illness. That is a hard adjustment to make. Realizing that you’ll have to manage a mental illness for the rest of your life can feel overwhelming. Knowing that relapse will happen is daunting and scary. That said, it’s important to allow yourself time to adjust your thinking.
- Knowledge: The next step I would suggest is getting as much knowledge about your mental illness as humanly possible. I know this isn’t feasible for everyone because not everyone has access to care or a diagnosis.
For those who can, I strongly suggested reading EVERYTHING you can find on the subject. Google it, read books about it, and find communities on the internet where people share their own personal struggles.
A lot of the time, you will identify more with people’s personal stories than you will the clinical, “textbook” definitions that you often find. Knowing your disorders will make a world of difference in being able to identify and manage them.
- Management: You’ll want to come up with a plan for how you will manage your mental illness. Again, this will look different for each person; meds, therapy, friends and family, mental wellness, etc. A few things that I would recommend for everyone though.
First, get to know your early warning signs. It might take a couple of times to identify what they are, but once you’re looking for them, you won’t be able to miss them. When they start, you will be alerted that you need to start taking extra care to track yourself and call for help when you need it.
Secondly, you need a support system. People that you know and trust; people who understand and love you. This can be people that you know in real life; friends and family. Also stay open to online and in-person support groups; I have found lifelong friends and people who understand me on a level that no one in real life ever has.
Lastly, always have a backup plan. Be clear about what point you need to seek out medical care, who you will call for support during your darkest times, and how you will heal to get better again. During these times, be open to med changes, even if just in the short term. Be prepared to put extra supports into place. Above all else, allow yourself grace, kindness, and forgiveness.
Mental illness recovery is possible for us, but we first have to come to terms with what having a chronic mental illness means for us. I hope that my story can help you find your way to come kind of acceptance.
For most of my life, I’ve had a long relationship with this brain of mine. I’ve gotten to know it quite well. Here’s the thing…my brain is a little bit broken and that’s okay. Because broken or not, it is a beautiful brain. For all of my years of suffering, I am also empathetic, driven, and resilient. I have faced my darkest demons and I won. Sometimes by a hair, but winning is winning.
They’ll come back. They’ll want to fight again. I’ll kick their asses every time.
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Love and light. Keep fighting the good fight!