(photos via Jared Erondu (waterfall) and Abigail Keenan(girl, overlayed))
After two years of struggling with severe depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, I woke up one day and realized I was better.
Not free of these disorders.
A lot of things helped me get to this point. I moved to a different state and city where I knew no one. I got an apartment to myself which allowed time for reflection. I was closer to my family, started a job, and had time and motivation to write again. Everything was different, so I felt different.
But, if you’ve ever experienced mental illness, you know it doesn’t just go away. It will be a lifelong struggle that comes and goes like waves, sometimes big, sometimes small.
And yet, here I am writing an article about how to start over after mental illness. Perhaps that wasn’t the best title, but, essentially, that’s what I did by moving.
To clarify, maybe I should say that starting over doesn’t necessarily mean the depression or anxiety or bipolarity is gone. What it does mean is that you’ve come to a point where you are able to feel some control over your illness.
This summer, I came to that point. I realized I had not a control over the intensity or heaviness of my disabilities, but control, in some way, over my ability to cope.
I know the first sign of one of my panic attacks is a racing heart. I know on days when I have a presentation or something similar that I need to take an extra Lorazepam. I know that I am an introvert who needs down time, but a people-person who needs emotional connections. I know it was a good decision to get a companion animal.
So, if we’re terming this kind of experience “starting over,” how do we do it? How did I get to this point? Where do I continue to go from here?
1. Realize you are strong enough to cope.
This is a big one, because someday, the worst of your symptoms may return. Toward the end of the summer I began experiencing some severe PTSD symptoms that I am now in counseling for. I didn’t see it coming. It fell on my head like a ton of bricks. In all honesty, it was really disheartening after being so okay over the summer.
Starting over is about learning how to cope. As time progresses, your coping skills increase. Junior and senior year as an undergraduate were so rough for me because I’d never experienced anything similar before. I was unprepared, uneducated, and unaware of just how bad my mental situation was. It took me a while to get to counseling.
This year, as I entered grad school, I knew before my PTSD even started that I would be going to counseling and would stay on my medications. I knew this, because I knew it was healthy and these things help me cope. Grad school is stressful, and risking my sanity just to get off pills or avoid counseling because I’m feeling all right would be, I decided, very, very stupid.
You are strong enough to cope. Be willing to hold onto your coping mechanisms – meds, counseling, yoga, meditation, etc. – even on the days or weeks or months when you feel okay. Needing these things does not make you weak. Admitting you need them makes you strong and so very brave.
2. Learn to move on and be in the present.
If you’ve recently left a dark time in your life, you probably have also left a physical situation or have removed yourself from a toxic environment or triggers. It’s so easy to fall into a state of bitterness afterward – bitterness toward the places or the people who you felt only kicked you when you were down.
One of the biggest moments of relief for me was when I decided to let go of the past and the memories of hurt feelings, feelings of abandonment. I was wronged by some. But it’s important to realize that we all are wronged at some point. And we all wrong others.
Holding onto this hurt and bitterness only keeps your mindset in the past. Consequently, you also remain in the dark corners of your mind where your illness(es) lie.
What is the healthy option? To be present in the here and now. That time in your life is gone. It no longer needs you and you no longer need it. What you need is to focus on what is in front of you, on the good things, on the newfound strength, on your coping skills and your own strength and worthiness. It does not do to dwell in the past when you cannot change it. Carrying bitterness around with you may just be the trap that pulls you back under the dark waves of your illness.
3. Speak out, tell your story, be a mentor.
I have found so much relief in being vocal about my mental illnesses. There is a joy and pride found in knowing that you are fighting against the stigma that surrounds mental illness. Check out websites like WMTMS.com which promote being open and vulnerable about struggles. Your illness is nothing to be ashamed of! And how liberating that realization is.
In your new place or new stage of life or new mental state, you are likely seeing people and things and coming up with ideas you never could have when you were under that old, dark wave. Perhaps now you can find some good in your experience? Perhaps you can use your experience to help others through the same?
One of the hardest parts of dealing with mental illness is the lack of people who understand. Too many people say “get over it” or “just be happy” or “choose to get up” when you and I know, as sufferers, those things are impossible to do in the midst of it all.
So maybe you can be that person for someone who is struggling. Maybe you can be that calming, constant presence. Maybe you can be the hug, the listener, the shoulder to cry on, the one who says “I know you’re hurting” instead of “just get over it.” People like you, people who have suffered and survived, are so important in this world.
Use your experience for good. Start a chain reaction. And maybe the next generation of sufferers won’t feel so isolated and stigmatized as we do.