Three Things I Wish I’d Known About My Mental Health

Have you been asked the question: “If you could go back into your past and do things differently, would you?”

I have, and while I definitely wish I could change past events and decisions, I know that I am in the place I am in now because of those choices. I wouldn’t change my history, but there are some things I wish I had known 20 years ago, especially about my serious mental illnesses (SMIs).

Medication Can Help Your Serious Mental Illness

Medication isn’t the villain, but it’s not the hero either.

I fought taking my prescription medication for my depression and anxiety for years. I thought that once I started to feel better, I could stop the regimen of daily pills. I didn’t want to be attached to pill bottles and med schedules when I was 19. I saw those as yet more weaknesses to my already flawed personhood. One night, after another relapse because I’d stopped my meds, my dad used the metaphor that if I had diabetes, I would take insulin every day without fighting it. My meds were the same thing, just to help my brain instead of my liver. That metaphor made an impact on me, but I still didn’t value the full benefits of antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds. They were the first expense to ignore when money was tight. I didn’t prioritize getting my refills like I should have.

It took years for me to understand and accept that these meds help me, but I hate that they don’t solve the problems. So often in society we see quick fixes — pills or shots or shortcuts — as the cure-alls to our pain. Some do their jobs, others don’t. Prescribing mental health meds is most often a painstaking process of balancing a cocktail of meds, finding one that works but for only one symptom, adding another to address something else, adjusting both over the course of months to get the milligrams and timing exactly right, and then one may stop working inexplicably, so the process begins again. After decades of starting and stopping medicines ranging from lithium to Effexor to Adderall to klonopin, I have come closer to a cocktail that works for me than I ever have, but the pills don’t solve everything. They’re more a supplement, a piece of the puzzle that moderates my brain chemistry.

You Are an Imperfect Human

Mistakes will be made.

I have created so much mental anguish in my life by ruminated over every mistake, whether minor or life-altering, because I believe that if I do all the things the right way, with zero errors, then I will avoid tragedy, I will be accepted, and people will love me. I realize that is not how life works. As my dad said, “Shit happens.” But I do still believe that perfection is attainable. I am a perfectionist who seeks external validation and who has abandonment issues. But I do recognize that mistakes will be made, and I know that I have work to do. That work means walking myself back from the catastrophic thinking that I must throw myself off a cliff because I made a mistake, forgot that request, didn’t parent the ‘right’ way, gained that pound. I know better now, so I have to do better. And that work, friends, is hard.

I’m retraining myself, building new paths of synapses for neurotransmitters to speed through my brain so that I can move on from a mistake, recognize that to err is human, and it’s how you recover from a mistake that matters. What I wish I’d known since childhood is that I’m allowed to make mistakes, that just because I’m not perfect does not mean that I’m unloveable. I have a sign in my office now that says, “I love you anyway.” That’s a great sentiment, but teaching myself that it’s true is harder than expected. Learning that I’m a fallible human being and still acceptable and that my accountability, a personality trait of which I am most proud, will help me fix the mistake and do better next time.

Knowing that years ago would have given me decades more to practice, and what would that look like now? I have a glimmer of that image in my head, how I would be able to unclench, to give myself grace, and to at least remotely believe that I am loved anyway, even when I make mistakes.

Asking for Help Does Not Make You Weak

Get support to climb out of the dark hole.

I do not like to ask for help. I continually see the need for help as a sign of weakness and incapability. When I have been in the dark hole of depression, the sucking-all-light-from-life place that is certainly endless and the most lonely feeling that exists, I didn’t ask for help even when I wanted people to understand the pain that I was feeling. Those experiences were when the suicide attempts happened because swallowing pills and slicing into my skin where the only ways I could express my emotions. I was at a loss because when that level of depression hits, there is no next.

Thankfully, I haven’t fallen into that hole in a few years, but the thing with SMIs is that you always know the hole exists. It travels with you, planting itself just outside your home and showing its shadows when things feel uncertain. What I know now is that before I follow the shadows to the edge, I have to ask for help. What I know is that putting words to my emotions, defining how I feel in language out loud to someone safe, helps pull me back from the precipice. I don’t have all the words yet. I still describe my emotions with basic adjectives–bad, sad, angry, lost–but I know working on identifying my emotions will help me move farther away from the hole. And that means asking for help. Hiding the pain and how close I am to falling only makes the steps more slippery. The pain that I felt, the holes that I was in, could have been a bit more shallow, perhaps more manageable from the start if I had known to ask for help.

I know that hindsight gives a more comprehensive picture of what the world looks like, what the impact of decisions is, and how behavior changes the course of the future. I wouldn’t change my path, but knowing more about myself and my serious mental illnesses would have made the course a bit easier. I am grateful that I know now.

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