You can get better. Don’t give up yet.
It feels like mental illness keeps us captive. When you are first diagnosed, not much is within your control. When someone offers you a coping strategy, you scoff, saying they just don’t get it. It’s a problem in your brain. It’s medical. Thoughts can’t change it. Actions can’t change it. Nothing can change it. There is absolutely no hope of ever getting better.
Sometimes the suffering is so great that getting better seems impossible, and maybe even undesirable. If you get comfortable with your pain, you may become attached to it on the level of your personality and be horribly afraid that you will lose the core of who you are if you get better.
What will make me better?
If you are willing, with therapy and training, it is possible to get some relief from your symptoms, including depression, anxiety, panic, psychosis, and terrible, horrible thoughts that hurt so much that they make you want to die. Your thoughts can become easier to handle. You can learn how to make your thoughts less painful. This takes work: willing and dedicated work. Open yourself up to the possibility that you could live in your brain more easily. You have to be willing to try if you’re going to improve. It is possible to die in pain. It is possible to live in pain. It is possible to manage your pain, and gradually experience less of it. Pick the possibility that you want. Worry about failure later. For just a minute, mentally hold the notion that you could get better in front of you as if it is real and achievable. If you really could live in less pain, are you willing to try to feel better? The average mentally ill person has way more strength inside themselves than most people will ever be forced to access. You are so strong. You can try anything.
Medicine is more than half the battle. Without a psychiatrist on your team, your journey will be much more difficult. If you do not yet have a psychiatrist and therapist, read this article about professionals you need on your team.
For those of you already on medication, keep in mind that trial-and-error is the norm for prescribing psychiatric drugs. You will likely have to try several duds before you find the pill or pills that start the process of freeing you from your cage of pain. The process sucks. It just sucks. And the only way out is through. Trust that you are doing important work for the sake of your health in the long-term. Take notes on your symptoms to report to your doctor so that this process is as short as possible. Taking detailed notes ultimately minimizes the pain caused by medications that are a bad fit and have bad effects on you. Once you get to the right drug, your life will rapidly improve and it will be easier to use your coping skills.
Therapy can help anyone. That means therapy can help YOU. You set your own goals in therapy, and you can choose whatever it is that you need: alleviating anxiety, depression, paranoia, delusions, or simply reducing pain in your life. It may take several years of work with medicine and therapy to recover from your illness, but you will start learning right away, and bit by bit you will learn how to live in less pain. Any tiny bit of progress helps you, and all those tiny bits add up to the bigger picture of a healthier and more fulfilled you.
What if I’m stuck?
You’ll notice that I said healthier and more fulfilled, not healthier and happier. That’s because happiness is not the goal here. Happiness is fleeting. With proper treatment over a long enough time span, yes, you will have happy times. But contentment and satisfaction rest in how much meaning you have in your life. If you currently have no meaning, I can relate, and so can millions of other people. You’re not lost or hopeless. You’re stuck. When you get unstuck you will continue to move forward again.
What if my life has no meaning?
If you are stuck and your life has no meaning, we can start to fix that this minute. Get a pen and paper and write down 3 things that are important to you. If nothing is important to you, write down 3 things that you want to be important to you. If you still have nothing, borrow mine:
- Loving others
- Sharing knowledge
Now write down 3 actions you could take that would support those values.
- Loving others
- Saying “I love you” to a friend.
- Texting my mom.
- Petting my cat
- Read about science
- Read about politics
- Try to draw something
- Sharing Knowledge
- Write a blog post
- Share an informational article on Facebook
- Tell a loved one about something that is important to you
Now you have a list of actions you can take that will give your life meaning. It is great for your self-worth to have values and try to figure out what things are important to you. I recommend writing down all the things that are important to you, just so you can see all your values on paper, clearly written out for your consideration. On this journey, you may also figure out which things you do not value, which is just as helpful. You can stop worrying about those things so much and focus on your own values, your own priorities, and your own choices. You as a human have inherent worth, you deserve love, and you have the power to have a meaningful life.
What will getting better look like?
When your actions line up with your values and you start to find some meaning in your life, it will be easier to fight the good fight with mental illness. You use the skills you learn in therapy to ease your movement through your own psychic landscape, and even in the times when you feel your worst and want to die, you will have a meaningful life. Being miserable can pass. With work, it can even be fought. While your perception of your value may disappear in the depths of an episode, coming out the other side and seeing that your life had value the whole time you were miserable will strengthen you. When you do this enough times -emerge to find your life still has meaning- you will grow to know, even at your worst, that you and your life both have worth.
Going into remission is a fantastic goal. For me, it took the trifecta of medicine, therapy, and coping skills, including working toward my values, to get to a place where I get some relief. I appreciate my life, and here’s the kicker: I still have episodes. I still sometimes think about suicide. My life is beautiful. When I go into my darkest place, I still come out into a beautiful, meaningful life. You can’t escape pain entirely, but I suffer much less now than I did 13 years ago when I was first diagnosed. I am in partial remission most of the time. I handle my episodes with grace and dignity. 13 years ago, I would not have believed anyone who told me that I could feel better. Shit, I wouldn’t have believed anyone who told me I would survive the first year of my illness. But I put one coping skill on top of another for 13 years, and the effect was cumulative. I tried many medicines, doctors, therapists, and coping strategies. I took notes. I learned, bit by bit, how to be healthy. I had to live it myself before I believed it was possible, and I won’t blame you if you can’t yet believe that you can get better. If you don’t believe it, try anyway. The worst thing that can happen is that nothing changes. The best thing that can happen is that you will have a rewarding life, episodes and all.