How Mental Health Awareness Helps Me Cope With My Mental Illnesses

I will be kind to myself in times of difficulty AND times of ease. Image: Thinkstock.

When you’re trying to make yourself well enough to function at whatever “normal” is for you, it’s crucial to take note of each and every symptoms of health you experience.

Content notice: PTSD, self-harm

In the fall of 2012, my therapist diagnosed me with depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

The next summer, I was searching for something to alleviate my symptoms: panic attacks, nightmares, self-harm, extreme fatigue — the list went on and on.

I went to see a psychiatrist to experiment with medications to see if I could find any relief. Then I was diagnosed with bipolar type II.

Suddenly it seemed there were so many things to keep track of: Did I have enough energy? How was I sleeping? Did I have nightmares? How long had it been since I last self-harmed? How frequently did I experience panic attacks? Could I go out in public without feeling shortness of breath? How often was I re-experiencing traumatic events? How often was I avoiding things that would trigger me? Was I spending money recklessly? Was I making decisions without regard for the consequences?

My therapist encouraged me to practice mindfulness techniques to stay grounded when my illnesses came to feed on me, but I found that the vast majority of my energy went into being mindful of what felt wrong with me, instead of what felt right.

Instead of practicing mental health awareness, I was practicing mental illness awareness.

This isn’t always a bad idea. When I put on my advocacy cap, I find it important to talk about all the shades of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and PTSD. When you’re trying to educate people about the intricacies of mental illness, sharing symptoms and struggles is part of the gig. You have to make it clear that depression isn’t just sadness, that anxiety isn’t just worry, that bipolar isn’t just mood swings, and that PTSD isn’t just bad memories.

But when you’re trying to heal yourself day after day, when you’re trying to make yourself well enough to function at whatever “normal” is for you, it’s crucial to take note of each and every symptom of health you experience.


 

I will be my own cheerleader, no matter how small the victory may seem.


 

I’m choosing this moment to remember that mental health awareness is about celebrating my victories as well as seeking medications for my biochemical imbalances.

It’s about choosing to get out of bed this morning, even though I could have slept till noon, even though my body ached from the throes of an imbalance of serotonin and norepinephrine.

It’s about knowing that I used the jittery energy of mania to set up my own writing office this morning, carving out a space of my own in an apartment packed to the brim with people (as is so often the case in city apartments).

It’s about confronting my nerves and sitting down to write about the things that have hurt me in the past, knowing that the people who have caused that hurt are more than likely to read my words.

It’s about remembering that I will bounce between depression and mania from week to week, day to day, hour to hour, or sometimes minute to minute, but reminding myself that life is change, and that everything that comes my way will eventually pass me by.

It’s about encountering gut-wrenching memories in the middle of the sidewalk and telling myself that they’re nothing but ghosts, that they cannot harm me.

It’s about hating the idea of leaving the house, but choosing to walk the mile to Whole Foods and back to pick up things that will nourish my body and my soul.

It’s about choosing an outfit that makes me feel pretty instead of a mish-mash of clothes that merely covers my body.

It’s about choosing to do push-ups, crunches, planks, and yoga — not because I feel the need to punish my body for eating “bad food,” but because I want to reward it with sweet endorphins.

It’s about drinking less alcohol or (gasp!) choosing not to drink at all, because I know that jasmine green tea or plain ole water will love me more than liquor.

It’s about splurging on a mandala coloring book and pencils when I can’t pay my bills — not out of irresponsibility, but out of the knowledge that anxiety can be focused and molded into something beautiful.

It’s about giving myself credit for knowing that I needed to give up the stress of my day job to focus my energy on happiness-inducing writing, instead of giving myself hell for putting myself in a more difficult financial situation.

It’s about remembering that I may not be out of the woods yet — in fact, I may be surrounded by trees and bracken, without a path in sight — but I’m continuing to put one foot in front of the other, knowing that I’ll find my way to the sunlight soon.

My mental illnesses require constant maintenance, just like any other chronic condition.

I know my responsibilities to my body: monitoring my mood, taking my medication, curbing dangerous impulses, and so on. I’ve become very good at mental illness awareness; at times, it has saved my life.

But I know, too, that part of my responsibility includes true mental health awareness, and I commit to it today, fully and completely. I will be kind to myself in times of difficulty and times of ease.

I will give myself credit for every step forward, even if, at times, I have to step back.

I will be my own cheerleader, no matter how small the victory may seem.

I will practice mental health awareness, knowing full well that my heart, mind, and body will rejoice in return.

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