Like many of you, my mental illness became even harder to bear this past year. Not only is our political, social, and environmental climate heated, but many of us are working nonstop, hustling at corporate, startup, or freelance gigs. I was always an anxious, perfectionist kid, but I was able to manage it my whole life. This past year, it bubbled over and I couldn’t ignore it any longer. Panic attacks, racing thoughts, stomach pain, and nightmares were not normal—as my friends graciously reminded me. So, I embarked on my own mental health journey. Therapy sessions, psychiatrist appointments, new medications, yoga, and far too many supplements. Here’s what I learned.
1. Trust the process.
First, know your mental health journey is a process, from age 25 to 80. Today’s coping strategies may not work tomorrow. This season, you may need to take a medication, but next year you may not need it. Don’t get ahead of the process, but be present. What do you need today, in this season, this year? Learn to give up some control in allowing professionals to diagnose, treat, and help you manage this beast.
2. Give it time.
Be patient. You will not be cured after one yoga session and your new medication will not make you feel calmer overnight. Keep going to yoga, keep taking your medicine, and allow your body to adjust. Give yourself a reasonable deadline to reevaluate. If your doctor said the medicine will take two weeks to work, give it three weeks, write down the side effects, track your mood, and then evaluate whether it’s worth continuing after three weeks. Without a timeline, you will be constantly evaluating a new habit each day, causing undue stress and anxiety over whether it’s working. Give your body space.
3. Some days your mental illness will win and that’s OKAY.
I used to have weeks where my stomach was feeling great and my anxiety was low, and then BAM, on a Wednesday morning, I would wake up and my stomach felt funny, my heart was racing, and I would slide downhill. I would call my husband, panicking that I would feel this way forever and I would never be cured. I would forget those several weeks prior where I did actually feel good. One thing I had to accept was that my illness would wax and wane. There will be good days and there will be bad days. And that is okay. I repeat, that is normal and fine and good. Does it suck? Yes, absolute-freaking-lutely. Is it normal? Yes. The goal is that your good days eventually outweigh your bad days. And when you have a bad day, it’s okay to take a mental health day, crawl into bed, and let it win.
4. Not everything is a symptom.
When you’re evaluating your mood and diet and health every day, you start to see every speck of your day as a symptom or side effect. Give yourself a break and remember that sometimes other people get anxious or get gas or feel the blues. I would panic to my husband that my stomach hurt and worry my new medicine wasn’t working, and then he’d remind me I just had a double scoop ice cream cone and no one feels great after that.
5. If your current doctor is not listening, find another one.
Not all doctors are good. If you found a bad apple, break up with them. Life’s too short to have a bad doctor or boyfriend. You are worth having the best care. Repeat that – you are worth being taken care of. Do not settle.
6. Not everyone will understand.
Some friends won’t get it, some parents will panic and worry (only causing more stress), and some spouses will think you can “just relax” when you’re feeling anxious. First, give them a break. Many people have not experienced mental illness and they simply don’t get it. Don’t take offense. Second, try to put words to how you’re feeling. Work at this aspect like you would any other aspect of a relationship. Third, know when you just need some space. Boundaries are good and if there are certain people who don’t particularly get it and aren’t trying, distance yourself a bit, especially when your mental illness is raging.
7. My identity is not my mental illness.
The one thing that I will always be working on is separating my identity from my anxiety. There are a lot of personality characteristics that have been born out of my anxiety, and seeing those in relation to this ugly beast is hard. But instead of being angry at anxiety, I can stand back and appreciate the way it’s shaped me. It has pushed me forward, held me back at times, and made me evaluate what I truly want. I can stand back and see it as a part of my story, but not my entire story.