Tell the Truth: Ask for Help!

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I’m trying to act in a way that promotes self-acceptance and honesty. I have stopped lying to people when my illness precludes me from participating in something. I no longer say I have a stomach bug, or that my parents need me to help them with something. I say that I am disabled, and I need to just sit and do nothing for a day or two in order to prevent an episode. This puts me in a vulnerable position. I may be judged harshly, not taken seriously, or even hurt someone’s feelings. But if I want to be a mental illness advocate, I know I need to live that role. Most people are understanding and want to help, even if they don’t know fact one about mental illness, so I decided that it’s a good idea to put awareness and information out into the world. I want to be an ambassador of our cause, and the best way I can do that is by being open, honest, and frank about my disability and what kind of help I need.

Asking for help takes bravery, nothing less. It means admitting that you can’t do something for yourself. No adult wants to feel that way or be seen in that light. But if you are disabled, you have a legitimate need that has to be met. If you can’t help yourself in the active sense, you need to spend some time thinking about what help or accommodations you need, so that you can ask the people around you very specifically to help you in those ways. Guess what? Most people want to help. Like seriously, earnestly want to help, even when they don’t understand the problem. If you ask someone for help, you will probably get it. Isn’t that great?

Of course, everyone fears the day Continue reading

Coping Tools You Can Borrow!

Chris's Eye CCGood news! You can calm and soothe yourself when you hurt.

It takes a long time, some training, and a lot of practice, but you can learn how to calm yourself during a depressive episode, an anxiety attack, a panic attack, a bipolar episode, or something similar.

You start the process by noticing what things you do that calm you down: concrete actions that take place outside of your mind, like reading a book, writing in a journal, playing on social media, eating an apple, meditating, being mindful, or talking on the phone. Whenever you find something remotely soothing, write it down. These soothing behaviors will be your coping tools, so you need to write them down and practice using them whenever you are in emotional distress. It’s best to always continue to build your “toolbox” Continue reading

How You Should Approach Your Diagnosis of Depression

I think the healthy way of looking at a diagnosis of depression is to view it as finding out that you are diabetic and you will need insulin for the rest of your life. It is something that is not curable, but treatable and livable. It is something that you are stuck with and there is no cure, so looking at it as similar to getting a diagnosis of diabetes is very apt.

Even though there is no cure, there are many treatment options and many coping skills you can learn that will lessen your pain, and that is a goal worth working toward on a daily basis. Depression is not curable, but it is treatable. When treated, depression can go into temporary remission multiple-to-many times over the years, and working toward remission is a very healthy approach to take. It is important to continue to see your psychiatrist, take your medicine on time every day, and see a therapist once a week or more if you need it, especially in times of crisis or when you’re feeling suicidal. Happy Fishes CCYou also need to keep track of things you do or think that help you feel better or function better and write them down in a centralized location. You can write each tool on its own index card, and you can store the index cards in a shoe box, so that you can build a “toolbox” of helpful ideas to rifle through when you’re in pain and need a coping tool, or as many coping tools as it takes to lessen your pain. If you build your toolbox, you will soon have a wealth of healthy coping skills that can make your life more bearable. Continue reading

What Is An Episode Like?

I’d like to explain what a typical bipolar episode is like for me.

I have rapid-cycling, mixed-state episodes with psychotic features. A mixed-state episode can lean one way or another so it can be helpful to refer to them as manic or depressive for purposes of communication, but every mixed-state episode has features of both mania and depression. I get hallucinations as well as paranoid delusions during mixed-state episodes, and those are what the “psychotic features” part of my diagnosis refers to. I do not get harmful, hostile, violent or dangerous, I just experience things that the people around me are not experiencing. My episodes are also rapid-cycling, which means that they are short and intense, usually between 4 and 7 hours, and I have them three days in a row at about the same time of day. I am sometimes able to stop this process if I get 14 hours of sleep in a night, which interrupts the cycle and prevents an episode the next day. I am an atypical bipolar person in terms of my episodes, and also have co-morbid diagnoses of major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. They sometimes hit all at once. I have met many bipolar people, Continue reading

My Suicides, and How I Got Better

Dealing with mental illness has been a beast from the beginning. In 2006, Bipolar II Disorder first presented in my brain. It is typical for a person to develop bipolar between the ages of 18-23 because the brain continues to change and mature through and past this time, up to age 25 for women and age 27 for men. For me, it happened at 19.

In 2006, after only five months of college,  I had my first severe psychotic break and had to have two stays in psychiatric hospitals. During the second hospital stay, I tried to hang myself, unsuccessfully. I was in one of my first psychotic episodes. It was mixed-state, rapid cycling, which means that I had aspects of severe depression and severe mania at the same time. This is not happy mania, and it is actually clinically referred to as “dysphoric” mania. “Dysphoric” is the opposite of “euphoric” and it means that my mania is characterized by the same amount of energy as traditional mania, but I also feel extremely physically and mentally uncomfortable, with hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, severe depression, racing awful thoughts, irritation, anxiety, excessive energy in my body and physical agitation. When I started having episodes and did not have the medicine, self-knowledge, or coping skills to help me feel better, I would have suicidal impulses as soon as the episode approached its peak. With no resources, my first episode confined in a hospital was literally unbearable, and suicide was the only option available to change the way I felt. I used it; it was the only solution I had. I tried to hang myself from a tall bathroom door with a cord when I was unsupervised. My neck did not break when I kicked the chair out from beneath me and jerked downward, but I could not breathe at all. I felt the complete relief Continue reading

What is the Cause of Mental Illness?

All mental illnesses are sicknesses involving changes in thoughts, emotions, beliefs, or behaviors, and they stem from a combination of chemical imbalances in the brain, brain structure abnormalities, and personal history/environment. It is not something you choose to have, and we’d all cure ourselves if that was possible. No one would choose this.

Something qualifies as a mental illness if your thought processes, beliefs, perceptions, emotions, or feelings cause you so many problems operating in daily life that they preclude you from living normally. Mental health, like so many other things in the human condition, is a spectrum (gender identity and sexual orientation are good examples of natural human spectrums), so having a few symptoms of a mental illness does not automatically make you mentally ill. If the symptoms you are having are severe enough to get in the way of normal functioning, you then have a mental illness. An example:

If you are depressed for a week, but can still operate well enough to shower, drive, converse, feed yourself, sleep, and go to work, then you are depressed, but not disabled by depression. You still may be in a lot of pain, but this is not enough to diagnose you with clinical depression since it’s only been a week and you’re still functional. You are having symptoms of depression, which sucks very much, but you are not technically mentally ill.

However: Continue reading

Can Mental Illness Ever Get Better?

Most mental illnesses cannot be cured, but treatment has the goal of putting the illness into remission, which means you are healthy for a while, sometimes a long while, before you relapse. I am currently in remission for Major Depressive Disorder, which means that depression is not preventing me from functioning, and I’m in partial remission for Bipolar II, meaning I have some episodes, but not every day, and between episodes I am functional. My generalized anxiety disorder is in full swing, but at this point, even that can be managed enough to keep me functional.

Being in remission from MDD is so wonderful. I eat on time, I shower every day, I can do dishes, I can converse normally, etc. And partial remission of bipolar isn’t too shabby either. I’m not in excruciating pain every day anymore.

There are several fronts on which I have attacked my mental illnesses. The first, and most foundational, was finding the right mix of medicines. Often it takes a lot of trial and error on the part of your psychiatrist to find the right medicine or mix of meds. The bad news is that sometimes this takes years. The good news is that if you persist through the extremely sucky process of trial and error, you will eventually find medicine(s) that work for you, and that is worth the wait because you are paving the way for the rest of your recovery. Many people cannot recover from severe mental illness without chemical help. By the way, don’t be ashamed of taking medicine. All it means is that you are trying to get better. Who cares if you take a pill for the rest of your life? Only ignorant people would judge you for that. You would take insulin for diabetes if you needed it, and you wouldn’t think you should stop just because you started to feel better. You feel better because of your medicine. DO NOT STOP TAKING YOUR MEDICINE. Many people make this sometimes-lethal mistake.

The second front I attacked my mental illnesses on was learning as much as I could about myself, my symptoms, which actions I could take to help me feel better, and which actions or situations made me feel worse. I kept a mood journal for years to help me learn my patterns, as well as to show to my doctor at appointments. After my second suicide attempt, only two years into my treatment (I am currently in year 12, and have not been hospitalized or attempted suicide since 2008.), I made a contract for myself in my journal. This contract stipulated my required behavior for getting better. What I remember from the contract is as follows:

I, Emily Harrington, dedicate myself to taking the following steps to stay alive:

I will take all of my doses of medicine, every day and on-time.

I will not skip any doctor or therapy appointments.

I will not let my blood sugar get low, and I will eat immediately if it does.

I will write down all relevant information on my mood journal, and show it to my doctor in every appointment.

I will tell the whole truth to my doctor and therapist.

I will maintain a sleep schedule, and if I mess up, I will recommit myself the next night.

I will tell my mom and come to the hospital if I plan my suicide again.

I will be kind to myself by taking care of all of the needs listed above.

I will live.

Signed, Emily K Harrington

The third front I attack my mental illnesses on is therapy. At this point in my recovery, I have mastered medicine and self-knowledge/self-care, and I’m moving forward further with therapy. I have been seeing my current therapist for three years, and I’m starting to internalize the questions she asks me whenever I present a problem emotion or problem situation. Those questions are “What can you do when this happens?” and “What has worked to make you feel better in the past?” With these questions, I am forced to answer her or myself with concrete solutions to my problems, and these concrete solutions are my coping tools. When I develop a coping tool through use, it becomes a coping skill that I can use for the rest of my life. I keep them all written down on index cards in a shoebox, that I refer to as my “toolbox”. I rifle through them during episodes or times when I just need comfort, because in an episode my memory is weak, and I need to be reminded of what coping skills I can use. I recommend writing down coping tools and skills to anyone who has a mental illness.

Using these three things in conjunction, I have not attempted suicide since 2008, and I can function fairly normally as far as taking care of daily needs. I am not well enough to work because I still have severe hallucinations, but I deal with them with grace now, instead of abject terror. I still struggle very much, but I am very rarely suicidal and have improved tremendously from a very dark situation. I even made this website with all my hard-won knowledge that I try to share with other mentally ill people because it gives my life meaning to know that what I’ve been through can lessen the pain of others.

It is possible to improve enough in your mental illness that you are in significantly less pain than you started with, and that’s a goal worth working toward.


By Emily Harrington, The Goldfish Painter


My disclaimer:

I am not a doctor or any sort of mental health professional. I am a psychiatric patient with multiple mental illnesses that I have survived for 12 years now. My secondhand knowledge comes from doctors, psychologists, therapists, books, college courses in psychology, and the internet. My firsthand knowledge comes from the feelings, experiences, thoughts, symptoms, problems, and solutions that I have lived through. I know myself well, but again, I am not a professional. The information on this site is not a replacement for getting an actual diagnosis or professional help. Coping skills are fantastic, and I hope you learn some here and that they help you, but please seek and continue real medical treatment if you are struggling with mental illness. I wish you the best. You can do hard things.

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How To Help Yourself When You Hurt: 11 Skills to Self-Soothe

Everyone struggles sometimes, and often they feel alone; only you see through your eyes. Feeling alone can be hard. For whatever kind of pain you have, you’ll need tools to cope with it. Family and friends are a good place to start, but for many, that’s not an option. Instead, you have to rely on yourself to get through your rough times. The biggest benefit of therapy I’ve gained is learning the things I can do to help myself. I’m going to share with you some of the tools that have collectively saved my life.

  1. Mindfulness. Mindfulness means mentally being completely aware of the present moment and not passing judgment on it, simply accepting that this is how it is. It’s the most beautiful feeling I’ve ever had. It feels sacred. I don’t believe in god, but I do feel the feeling that people associate with a higher power. My supposition is that we have a natural chemical in the brain that produces a sensation to which we ascribe the presence of god. That god-feeling is in the moment every time I go there. I say I go because it feels like a transition into another place. It can be difficult to reach that place sometimes. There are several things I do to get to a mindful state. One is to pick an object and examine it thoroughly. Think of the fact that it’s made up of atoms and is actually mostly empty space. Or think of where it came from, who or what made it, who has touched it, what may have happened to it in the course of its existence. Expand that awareness and sense of wonder slowly outward, until the whole universe is dancing for you and with you. There are exercises you can do to practice mindfulness. It is a tool; you have to practice it. My favorite two are washing dishes slowly, as if they are sacred, or taking a very slow shower and trying to be mindful of all the things you feel, see, hear, and smell.


  1. EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). Unfortunately, you’ll need a trained professional who knows how to do this work, so it’s not available to everyone. If you have access to a therapist or psychologist, ask if they know how to guide you through EMDR. You do most of the work by yourself in your head. There is very little guidance by the professional, which is why I’m bending definitions and putting this in the category of self-care. You can read more about EMDR here.

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How I Went Crazy

When I was eighteen, I felt on top of the world. I had won several contests for my singing, graduated in the top five percent of my high school class, and been accepted into the most prestigious voice program in the United States. When fall rolled around, I trotted off to Oberlin Conservatory to begin my adult life. It was glorious for a while: the people were socially advanced and forward-thinking, there was a free exchange of exciting ideas, everyone was friendly and smart, and there was world-class music surrounding me everywhere I went. My first two months there were the happiest I’ve ever been.

At the end of October, I turned nineteen and, unbeknownst to me, my functionality began slipping away. At first, it felt like the color was draining out of me. I felt I was slowly becoming invisible. I was no longer a person in a body; I was as ghost staring out of an eye-height portal at the world around me. Depression was setting in and anxiety was creeping up, but I didn’t know yet to give them those names. By the time I came home for Christmas, all I knew is that I wasn’t okay.

I started having pain in my stomach and severe nausea. I went to the doctor several times, got misdiagnosed every time, and began missing a lot of things around me, like class or parties. This was very straining for my relationship with my first girlfriend, who wanted to help but couldn’t. Many people take not being able to fix you very personally. I was falling into a deeper and deeper depression all the while.

One night I had to take my girlfriend to the hospital for severe flu-like symptoms, and I stayed there with her overnight, watching Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” on her computer while she slept. Toward dawn, the colors became very vivid and then started spilling off the screen into the air and onto my hands. After about an hour of this it was time to take my girlfriend home, and once I got her home and into bed, I sat in the middle of the room holding my phone. It buzzed and I threw it against the wall because I thought it had bitten me. I left the room because I didn’t feel safe and I thought it might come back and bite me again. I walked downstairs and watched a little girl playing under the piano in the practice lounge. I got under there with her, but she disappeared and reappeared across the room. This did not sit well with me, so I went outside. Outside the sky was the brilliant blue of a sunny winter day and full of giant fluffy clouds. I could hear them whispering, and even though I couldn’t make out the words, I knew it was about me. I ran into the nearest building looking for a safe place to hide.

I woke up in a closet with no shoes, no socks, no key card to get into any of the buildings, and no memory of how I got there. I went back to my dorm (someone let me in), found my phone which luckily had not broken, and I called home. I told my mom I was not okay and needed to come home. I spent a couple weeks in the psychiatric hospital in my hometown and finally got my diagnosis. Bipolar II, mixed-state, rapid-cycling, with psychotic features. Hooray.

By Emily Harrington


The Goldfish Painter