Trigger Warning: The following article discusses mental health and could be triggering to some readers.
Many of those in recovery can recall a “before” and “after” period regarding the onset of their mental health symptoms. For me, there was no before. According to my parents, I began showing signs of some form of mental health issues as early as age 2 and 1/2.
From the very beginning, my behaviors towards others were deemed highly inappropriate: uncontrollable emotional outbursts, lack of boundaries, and misinterpretation of social queues. What made all of this especially frustrating for all parties involved was my inability to comprehend why my actions were so alienating even though it was explained to me countless times. To me, 2+2=5 and no one would ever be able to convince me otherwise. Without realizing the negativity I was creating around me my behaviors only continued and progressed in severity.
I didn’t receive any formal treatment or diagnosis until I was in my mid-twenties. My experiences, not unlike many others in recovery, included the medication merry-go-round, serial relationships with mental health professionals, numerous inpatient hospitalizations, and a myriad of diagnoses slapped onto me in a frantic effort to sort out what box I belonged in. These ineffective strategies did more harm than good the vast majority of the time. In a desperate search for answers, I ended up with far more questions. Why is this happening to me and is there anything I can do to make it better?
My inability to find the help I needed led to very dangerous self-destructive behaviors. The irony is that the more I tried to fix myself the worse I actually became. Each time that I engaged in harmful activities it was in an effort to alleviate some of my overwhelming emotions. I merely put a band-aid on a bullet wound.
An article in Oprah magazine alerted my parents to the possibility of a condition called Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) that could accurately explain the challenges I was continually experiencing. Very tactfully they approached me with this information in the hope that I would be receptive. My reactions ranged from volatile to open with limited predictability. Thankfully I was amenable to exploring treatment options. The therapeutic program specifically created for this condition is Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). This involved group and individual therapy. The main focus was understanding the root of my self-harming habits and various coping skills to manage them. This was the first step over the next several years that would build a foundation for a healthier version of myself.
Healing in any capacity is all about the work you put into it. I was consistently inconsistent. The next step and arguably the most integral turning point was attending my first NAMI Connections Support Group. The key ingredient my recovery had been missing was developing a network of peers with similar experiences. For the first time, I felt like I wasn’t some broken vessel because I wasn’t the only one with these challenging thoughts and feelings. NAMI was the sanctuary I had been searching for all along without even realizing it.
Symptoms have the ability to morph over time and coping skills that may have worked at one point may no longer be as effective. There is an ongoing trial and error process as to what makes the most sense while approaching the various hurdles in recovery. The same theory holds true for therapists. I was fortunate enough to find someone who fit my needs for who I am now as opposed to the version of myself I had previously been. His approach, his very demeanor, gave me a necessary sense of comfort during an especially turbulent time.
For me I strongly believe the most effective recovery practices come from a diversified support system: medication management to mitigate my symptoms, a therapist to teach me the life skills I may be lacking, peers to help me normalize what I’m going through, and people without mental illnesses to give me an outside perspective I probably couldn’t come to on my own.
Recovery isn’t linear. I will never be recovered but rather in various stages of recovery. It’s important to be patient and compassionate with myself because some days my benchmarks may be higher than other days. I cannot measure myself by someone else’s yardstick. My journey is not your journey and your journey is not mine.
It was my involvement with NAMI that directly led me to pursuing mental health advocacy on a larger scale. I felt the best way to deal with the stigma that had been crippling me for so many years was to face it head. This was both exhilarating and intimidating. It began small with some musings on my Facebook page. As my courage began to grow so did my platform in terms of social media presence. I became more active with NAMI beyond the support groups including involvement in the Recovery Council. The Recovery Council focused on advocacy, education, and fundraising. I took a chance reaching out to every single local publication hoping someone would give me a chance to extend my reach in the community. I was fortunate enough that two local publications agreed to allow me the opportunity to write monthly mental health articles.
My mental health advocacy is equal parts what I put out there and what I get back. If anything I would argue those who reach out to me have had the greatest impact on my own personal recovery. People began to trust me with their own mental health hopes, fears, and challenges. This further fueled me to do the most I could with whatever resources I had. There are so many people out there still struggling under the weight of what may seem like an insurmountable stigma. If sharing my journey can help in any way I feel obligated and honored to do so. My one rule is full transparency; I refuse to polish my mental health and wrap it up with a shiny bow. What I put out there are my triumphs as well as my setbacks. I feel setbacks give us the greatest opportunity for personal development.
My message to anyone in recovery is the importance of introspection. Finding that balance between what is comfortable and bracing yourself to step outside your comfort zone. Forgive yourself for any perceived failures understanding all experiences are chances for growth. I am by no means a model citizen when it comes to my recovery; sometimes I’m the sunshine and sometimes I’m the thunderstorm. More than anything I am learning to accept my limitations while discovering any workarounds I can use to push past them. Sometimes I won’t be able to and that’s OK too. There is no secret formula to having the gold medal recovery and I don’t think that should be the goal either.
After all this time I realize I don’t need to have a before or an after. My recovery is all during and forever ongoing. The behaviors I experienced early on still happen in varying degrees. I accept that. The difference between now and then is my level of understanding. It is this understanding that gives me the ability to become the best version of myself. It is this understanding that allows me to see I am an entire person beyond my mental illnesses.