10 Things I’ve Learned from my Mental Health Journey that May Help
CW: suicide, self-harm, mental health issues
For the last 8 years, I’ve been in recovery from severe mental health issues. I’ve learned a lot, and want to pass on 10 things I’ve learned. I’ll teach them each through a short antidote.
I am not a doctor, and this is not medical advice. These are just my personal experiences and hopefully they can help someone.
If you are feeling suicidal, you can call a new number in the USA — 988. If your life is in immediate danger, go to the emergency room.
1. In 2014, I was at a point where my self harm and suicide attempts were 100% going to cost me my life. I had a wise doctor prescribe me Seroquel, a heavy-duty antipsychotic, which saved my life. It also made me gain 80 pounds very quickly, and contributed to insulin resistance in my body. All this is to say that its really important to be open to life-saving medication, and its also important to know that the side effects are very real. Asking a doctor or counselor to help you understand the side effects of a med, and making a pros and cons list is a good idea — something I wish I had done before taking 90% of the meds I’ve taken.
2. For two years, I could barely get out of bed. Something I realized with this experience was that mental health issues are not just mental — they are incredibly physical. Everything hurt. Everything was heavy. Everything: eating, showering, sleeping, talking, moving — everything was overwhelming. Two things helped me: body scans (I listened to this one, constantly), and thinking of the next tiny step of what I had to do and then doing it. For example, to get out of bed and make breakfast was so *much* that it was totally out of the question: so my next tiny thing to do was to swing my right leg out of bed. Then my left leg. Then put my hands on the mattress. Then push on my hands and sit up. Then shift weight to my feet. And so on, and so forth. I didn’t always win the battle of getting out of bed and regaining a modicum of functioning, but this approach gave me greater odds of winning.
3. On the subject of tiny actions, I learned how to celebrate any and all tiny things I did. If I managed to move my leg, I would throw a party in my head for myself. Sometimes it would even come out of my mouth, a tiny, weak ‘yay…’ would escape my lips, and for a brief, brief moment, I would feel relief. It’s important to celebrate anything you can do. Even if it’s just breathing.
4. I know people say you shouldn’t use psychedelics when you have psychotic symptoms. Well, I did anyway. It was a very difficult experience that I have no interest in repeating, but it was one of the most valuable experiences I’ve ever had in my life. Through my trip, I learned to make peace with my psychosis, and to stop denying that my brain is the way my brain is. I shed all my shame around psychosis. All that is to say that its really valuable to make peace with your brain and body being the way they are. In therapy, they call this ‘radical acceptance’ — you accept that you’re depressed/anxious/whatever it is, for all that it is. I’m not saying to go each a bunch of mushrooms and you’ll be cured, far from it, but the lesson I took away from this experience is its wise to accept that your body, brain, and spirit are they way they are in this moment; this can provide a lot of relief.
5. Exercise has been great for me, but I’ve only been able to really keep it consistent since my symptoms have moved from ‘severe’ to ‘mild/moderate’. I wouldn’t recommend exercise if you’re incredibly depressed to the point of non-functioning. But for me where I am now, I know I can change my mood from negative to positive, or at least neutral, by moving my body. I go to the gym twice a week, because I like the gym and I can listen to my favorite music really loud on my headphones. What I did is start with very, very small workouts and have kept it very very small for a long, long time. My workouts need to be short and easy, otherwise I won’t do them.
6. I seriously believe in angels, I really do. There were a few select individuals in my life that stayed in my life for a very short time, who were the most compassionate beings I’ve ever encountered. They came in my life, gave me great amounts of compassion, and left my life almost as quickly as they came. I think they were angels, or at least had the spirit of angels. I think I had to be looking for them, though. Maybe this is a little too woo-woo for some people, but I think if you keep your eyes open for teachers and compassionate beings, they will appear. Doesn’t have to be a human. My ex-boyfriend’s cat was an angel for me in many ways. Sometimes the heat of the sun is an angel.
7. I learned that my body responds well to temperature changes as a way to ‘self-regulate’, aka calm down. In present day I can still have extreme mood states come on suddenly and without warning. I’ve found the best way to deal with them is to quickly change my body’s temperature. A hot shower, standing in front of an open freezer, throwing water on my body and standing in front of a fan, putting my face in the snow…anything like that. I’m not sure what that *thing* is for you to help you regulate, but I suggest doing some reflection and asking yourself what kind of thing changes your mood rapidly from a negative to a less negative or neutral place. It’s best if it plays on one of your senses, because your senses are always available. For some people its sound (whistling or singing really loud), for some its temperature (rubbing your hands together for warmth, cold water), for some its physical (clap your hands together really hard, stomp your feet), etc.
8. When I got the urge to self harm, I learned its best to not focus on something as out of the question as feeling happy (yeah, thats NOT going to happen in that moment) but to focus on doing things that are *less* harmful. There’s a reason I’m covered in tattoos — tattoos are cheaper than funerals. Other options included hitting a punching bag instead of my own body, throwing a pillow against a wall, or singing incredibly loud instead of yelling at a family member.
9. Apologize for your behavior if you were ever out of line, and do the work to repair your relationships. If there are some that are too trashed out, recognize this and gracefully walk away. I was really, really awful to people who were very close to me in the depths of my mental illness, and I’m still working on making peace with that. You will make mistakes, like any human, and sometimes mental illness makes having any type of human relationship incredibly difficult. I’ve had to get a lot of help in how to have a stable, healthy relationship with my family and friends in my recovery period. Asking for help on getting skills in being a better friend/parent/partner/coworker is ok. Relationship skills can be learned, and repair can happen. I’ve seen it.
10. Emotions can change, but not all at once. I felt relief far before I felt any other type of emotion, when I was deeply depressed. I really think it’s unreasonable to ask a depressed person to feel any kind of feeling before they experience periods of relief from depression. Here’s what my emotional journey looked like, when I was first starting to actually recover:
nothing -> fear -> rage-> nothing -> nothing -> relief -> nothing -> fear -> rage -> nothing -> relief -> nothing -> etc etc etc
Then, when I started to get relief from the nothing, emotions started to creep in. My emotional state started to look like this:
nothing -> relief -> anger -> relief -> fear -> nothing -> fear -> nothing -> relief -> anger -> relief
Notice how the first emotion I felt that wasn’t a lizard brain reaction was anger? Yeah I thought that was interesting too. But the anger propelled me into greater and greater action toward getting better, weirdly enough. I was pissed OFF at how much time this mental illness had stolen from me and how fucked up my life had become as a result. I wanted to fix it. Also notice how I started to get more relief from negative emotions, and the ‘nothing’ became less prominent. Nowadays, 8 years after illness onset, emotionally I tend to hover around here:
sad -> relief -> sad -> fear -> relief -> happy -> calm -> sad -> calm -> happy -> fear -> sad -> relief -> calm -> happy
Nowadays, I’m mostly sad. But that’s because I pay attention to the world, and the world is pretty sad right now. I’m also in mourning for a lot of things I’ve lost from having mental health issues completely overtake my life for so long. But sadness its ok. It’s a normal reaction to sad things. It goes away, it comes back, just like a wave. The fear also doesn’t lead to rage anymore. That’s a huge improvement. And there are many moments of calm, and since I’ve learned a lot about how to provide relief for myself, I experience relief much more than I used to.
So it’s not fear, sadness, all of that that people think is indicative of depression or mental health issues. It’s the ‘nothing’ that indicates a real issue, for me. That’s when I know I’m going back into a bad place.
As a last but not least, I genuinely do want to say ‘hang in there’. You’re not the only one struggling. Feel fully the moments of relief when they do come, as they aren’t always there. The more you try, the more you wrestle with the path of your well-being, the more you will learn and the better it will get.
May you be well, the love and support of myself and all those who have gone before you are with you.
May you be happy
May you be well
May you be safe
May you be peaceful and at ease