This article is part one of a two-part series. Click here to read Part 2.
We’re talking about overcoming this month and man does that hold a lot of weight for me. If you’re familiar at all with my writing here at GentTwenty or on my own website, you know I write a lot about mental health. This is almost 100 percent due to the fact that I’ve struggled with mental health issues myself.
The idea of overcoming mental illness is a touchy subject. Depression, anxiety, OCD – these are all chemical, biological issues at their core. They happen when the brain malfunctions, so to speak. They may be triggered by an emotional or traumatic event that the brain doesn’t know how to handle. Or, sometimes, they just happen.
So how do we overcome a mental illness? It’s different than financial difficulty, relationship problems, low self-esteem. It isn’t always something you have control over. You may never feel in control of your mental illness. It’s like cancer or a heart attack. Sure, you can overcome with the right treatment and care, but that still doesn’t always happen.
This is often how I feel. Even now, when I’m in a much better state than my undergraduate years, I feel haunted by these issues. Depression feels like it could creep up any time. I still have days where my anxiety and OCD seem to be triggered for no reason in particular. But, despite those days, I’m still much better than I was, even a year ago.
This will be a two-part post. I’ll come back to talk about how I still manage to feel in control and that feeling of overcoming even when the mental health issues never seem to completely go away. Right now, I’ll focus on how I “overcame” the worst of times my mental health struggles threw at me.
1. Admitting my weakness.
I’ve always been emotional and sensitive. It’s something I’ve taken pride in over the years. I like feeling and being aware of the emotions of others, of my surroundings. At the beginning of my junior year, however, I started getting so emotional to the point where I spent days in bed, crying for no particular reason.
I made excuses; I told myself and my friends that this was just who I was. I was emotional and sometimes needy due to my extrovertedness. I needed to be around people all the time as an extrovert, right?
I don’t remember when, but at some point I realized what I was feeling and going through was not normal or healthy. It was hard to admit that I was weak and struggling. It was even harder to admit that something I’d taken pride in had become something dangerous to my health. But, if I was going to get help, if I was going to feel happy again and be able to get out of bed, I needed to admit that something was wrong. I was not okay.
2. Realizing who I am at my core.
With this admission of weakness, I also had to do a lot of self-reflection. Was I really an extrovert? No, I realized. I was very introverted, actually, and needed time alone in order to recharge. But, because I felt an overwhelming need to be wanted and included because of my depression and anxiety, I wasn’t willing to admit I needed that alone time. I was too scared to spend time alone for fear that I would miss out on some event or hangout.
Realizing that I needed time to myself was easy. Putting it into practice was hard. I had to purposefully close myself into my room, not to stay in bed all day like I had been, but to spend time reading, praying, doing yoga, and meditating. I had to spend time by myself in order to take care of myself. It wasn’t easy, but the moment I claimed my own introversion and started acting on my need for solitude, I began to feel better and I began to enjoy time alone.
3. Going to therapy.
Sometimes even these realizations and lifestyle changes are not enough, especially when it comes to mental illness. Toward the end of my first semester junior year, I started going to counseling. I only got two weeks in before Christmas break, but already I could tell that therapy would be a good thing.
Realizing who I was at my core and admitting my weaknesses also meant I had to admit my need for help. Whatever I was going through (I didn’t have a name for it at that point) I couldn’t overcome on my own. Not only that, but I couldn’t rely on my friends, either. They had their own struggles and, for those who haven’t gone through what you have, figuring out how to help can be really hard. Sometimes friends will try their best, but it’s not what you need.
I needed professional help.
4. Starting medication.
Over Christmas break, I had an emotional breakdown with my parents and told them how bad the semester had been, that I’d started counseling, and that I thought something was wrong. It wasn’t a phase; I knew that now.
By being honest, my mom was able to open up to me about her own struggles with similar issues. She was on medication and I never knew! She suggested I talk to the doctor, since I had an appointment anyway, the next week, about getting put on some medication.
Getting on medication can be scary. There are a lot of horror stories out there about how antidepressants and other meds can make you feel weird, can make you feel like you’re not you. And, yeah, that can sometimes happen. But the wonderful thing about doctors and psychiatrists, as long as you have a good one your trust, is that they’re there to help you figure out what works best. It may take some adjusting, but it’s possible to find something that works for you and it’s so worth it.
5. Getting diagnosed.
Depression. Anxiety. OCD. PTSD. Those are the mental health issues I’ve struggled with in the order they were “diagnosed.”
I want to preface this by saying that getting an actual diagnosis may not be for everyone. It can feel like a burden or an unnecessary label. I get that. My counselor was hesitant to tell me about OCD after I took a psychiatric test because he didn’t want me to obsess over that, too.
For me, though, putting a name to what ailed me helped in more ways than one. From the beginning, I wasn’t concerned about labels or being labeled by those who “found out” what I struggled with. What I wanted was to know that whatever it was, whatever was ailing me, wasn’t a part of me, but rather something separate; something in me rather than of me.
These illnesses, particularly OCD, felt very tangible in my body. I often described them as cysts. Cysts are removable. They are in you, but not part of you. To feel as though I could be free from these ailments, I wanted to name them. I wanted to be able to say “that’s my depression” not, “that’s me.”
Because none of these illnesses, I knew even then, were me. “Fear of the name,” says the ever-wise Hermione Granger, “only increases the fear of the thing itself.” I didn’t fear the name. If anything, knowing the names set me free.
6. Changing my mindset.
Throughout year-and-a-half-long process, I was very concerned with keeping and maintaining friendships I already had. I hardly ever left the house, for fear I’d miss out on something. I was angry when I was left out. Instead of moving on, I only tried harder and harder to be included, to love fiercely those who didn’t want any more of my love. I was so concerned with having other people be happy with me and want me around, that I pushed myself to my limits to please and fell into panic attacks and deeper depression when it didn’t work.
When you’re already stretched to your limits, being a people-pleaser only makes things worse.
My final semester of undergrad was when I finally changed my mindset. I adopted a sort of “f**k you” attitude toward those who didn’t want me around and I started getting out of the house and spending time with people who enjoyed my company. I removed myself from toxic environments and sought out friendships with those whose lifestyles fell in line with the lifestyle I wished to lead as I edged my way out of the worst of my depression.
When you’re depressed and anxious, doing this can feel like the most daunting task. It’s overwhelming, trying to search out new friend groups when all you want to do is stay inside and cry. And that brings me to my final point:
7. Reaching out.
I told others, not just those in closest proximity to me, about my struggles. I told friends in my major, I told friends from the newspaper I worked for, and friends from the literary magazine I was a co-editor of. I didn’t even ask to hang out or invite them to coffee; I just opened up.
And you know what? They started reaching back. Those friends (one of whom runs the blog Hello Resolute, which you should check out) were my saving grace that last semester. They brought me out of the darkest depths of my mental struggles and showed me how to have fun and feel free again.
What Didn’t Work
In such a fragile state it’s easy to look for the easy ways out of the pain you’re going through. But, dear one, I’m here to tell you that the easy way out is not going to last you. Temporary fixes are just that: temporary.
When I was at my worst, first semester senior year, I practiced self harm. I cut. A lot. And I will be the first to tell you that it is not worth it. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t take the pain away. It doesn’t make you less lonely. I have scars all along my hips from that semester; some on my wrist.
Hurting yourself is not the solution. It provides temporary relief but there are other ways to find lasting, healthy relief.
I drank a lot that last semester, despite how much improvement I made. I became reckless with my newfound freedom. Though I didn’t experience any serious consequences from my drinking, I easily could have. Alcohol isn’t bad, but if you start relying on it to feel better, or not feel at all, something needs to change.
3. Guilt and shame.
One of the hardest things to fight when suffering from a mental illness is the shame that comes along with it. I knew I was affecting others. I knew I wasn’t an easy friend. I knew I was making unhealthy choices.
The main lesson here is that you do not deserve to feel guilty or ashamed of anything you’ve done because of your mental illness. There is nothing shameful about struggling. There is nothing shameful about needing help. We all experience both at some point, whether it’s diagnosed as an illness or not. You are worth more.
I hope you find peace and comfort in my words, if you’re struggling in the way I did. And if you’re in the same place I am, a better place, but still feel as though you’ll never fully overcome, stay tuned. I’m talking to you, lovely, next post.