So, you think you may have a mental illness. Time to start the process of getting a doctor. If you’re unsure about whether or not you need a doctor, ask yourself if your mental state is causing you severe pain or problems functioning. If it is, you need a doctor. Make an appointment with a psychiatrist today, even if there is a long waiting list, so that you’ll have an appointment sometime in the hopefully near future.
Now sit down and write out your symptoms. Common symptoms include bad moods, mood swings, depression, hallucinations, anxiety, irritability, engaging in risky behaviors like drug use or unsafe sex, intense sadness, suicidal thoughts, compulsive behaviors, abnormal eating, mania, sleep problems, self-harm or mutilation, or specific troubling fears. Once you’ve written down the symptoms you know you have, try to identify anything that may have triggered the symptom. An example would be “I had a feeling of panic (symptom) when I went to the grocery store” (trigger). “No trigger” is also an acceptable thing to write down next to a symptom, because that has significance, too. Then, if you’re not sure where to start, google the symptoms of depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, as well as anything you’re curious about. Give them each a glance, and add the symptoms you identify with to your list (this is a very broad strategy for people who don’t know yet what is wrong, so if you already think you have something specific, then start by looking up that diagnosis first). Every time you experience another symptom, write it down, including any trigger you can guess at. Keep doing this until your appointment, and take the paper you made notes on with you to show the psychiatrist. If you are overwhelmed by this prospect of note-taking, take a look at printable mood charts (excellent for bipolar) online, and print one out that fits your situation. The important thing is that you have everything written down for the doctor. The doctor will only be as good as the information you give them, and you are your best and only advocate as the patient. You have a responsibility to yourself to give your doctor good information. Hopefully, they will give you medicine(s) to help you with the way you are feeling.
Next, you need to get in to see a therapist. Regardless of having a diagnosis, you are in enough pain and turmoil that you are currently scouring the internet in search of ways to feel better. The secret is that everyone has the potential to feel better, and therapy can unlock a new world for you, a world in which there are concrete actions you can take to make yourself calmer, happier, more at peace, and more fulfilled. That is the goal of therapy. Those concrete actions you take to feel better are called coping tools. If making two appointments in one day is too much, write “make a therapy appointment” down on your to-do list for tomorrow, and make it priority one tomorrow.
So, now you’ve got your appointments but will have to wait a while. Your symptoms will not respect that waiting period. You are still being bombarded while you wait for help. It hurts very much, and all mentally ill people are forced to be very brave. In order to survive more comfortably until your appointments, it’s time to use some coping skills. These need to be written down just like your symptoms, but this paper is for you to keep and refer back to whenever you are seeking to reduce your suffering.
I personally keep something I call a “toolbox”, and it has been revolutionary for my self-care. It’s a re-purposed cardboard shoe box that I decorated with the word “toolbox” just for fun. It is full of index cards that each have a healthy, helpful or comforting thought or activity written down on it. I recently published all of the tools in my toolbox, hoping that even just one of them might help someone like you. These tools, when used over time, will develop into coping skills that you can use for the rest of your life. Add anything to your list that is comforting to you. If you like baths, write down “Take a bath.” If you become more mindful surrounded by plants, write down “Go outside and look at a tree.” Try to find things that really resonate with you. Mantras or positive statements about your life or yourself can make a big difference, too. “I am loved and love others”, “I have worth”, “I’m grateful to have clean water to drink”, or “My life has the purpose that I choose for it” are all examples that make such a strong impact on me during an episode that they often make me cry with relief, because my thinking can get so negative that I convince myself that love doesn’t exist, I have no worth, I don’t have or will never have the things I need to live, and my life has no meaning. When I read those statements, I know that when I wrote them down, I was stable and they were true, and therefore they are still true now, in my episode. They don’t feel true, but I have the proof written down right in front of me, and I can trust those index cards more than I can trust my feelings. The feelings will pass, and those statements will still be true. It takes some training to be able to trust those statements, so go back and read the tools in your toolbox at times when you are calm or content and think about how true they are at a time when you can think clearly. If you never feel calm or content, don’t worry, because looking at the cards often is also good, as long as you repeat to yourself that they are true. This will reinforce your sense that they are true, and this practice will make these tools even more effective the next time you use them. This is an example of a way that you turn a coping tool into a coping skill.
A tool becomes a skill when you train yourself to use it reliably or effectively. It does take work, but the work is not that complicated. Write the tools down, refer back to them often both when in pain as well as when calm, and you will strengthen them into skills that can literally help you for the rest of your life. This is your way of chipping away at the bricks of negative feelings that are weighing on you. When you practice a skill, you’re taking a chip out of the brick, and the more you practice it, the smaller the bricks will become over time. Improvement is gradual, but it is possible to improve. Even if you continue to have episodes for the rest of your life (like me), they can and will get easier with this kind of self-care. Fortunately, the work is simply comforting yourself. It’s not something painful or tiring that you have to practice. You are practicing feeling good. What you’re doing is engaging with yourself in self-love and self-care. Both of those things are meant to make us feel better. You are doing the work to make yourself feel better, and you will continue to improve over time.
What you are going through is very hard, very tiring, and very scary. You’re doing a good and important thing by reading about mental illness online, and I hope you will continue to do research. It’s okay to be sad about this. It’s okay to be angry and afraid. Your life is going to be harder than the lives of many neuro-typical people, and that is monumentally unfair. Mental illness is unfair. It sucks. It can be hard to accept. But once you get a diagnosis, things will start to get better, because you can read all about your diagnosis and get into some serious personal research. It is also comforting to know that the problem you have is not only a real thing but something other people have, too. Once you know your diagnosis, you can more easily and quickly identify your symptoms and triggers. When you start putting the pieces together and patterns emerge, you will get to know yourself and your moods intimately, allowing you to address your needs as soon as or even before they arise. Eventually, you will be able to take proactive and preventive measures to make your life run more smoothly. You will be able to avoid triggers and be prepared for situations that have been difficult in the past. You will learn what to do in each situation to feel better.
You must be a very strong person to be surviving this, and you will grow even stronger over time. Whatever your situation, please remember that you deserve to see beauty in the world. Seek out the still moments and the brief breaths of relief. Even a minute of relief can be the difference between life and death. Practice your skills, build up your comforting moments. You can survive this.
By Emily Harrington, The Goldfish Painter
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.