Mental Health, Mental Illness, and Self-care

mental-health-self-care

Have you noticed that the terms “self care” and “mindfulness” have been trending lately? That’s because we’ve FINALLY reached the point where people are recognizing that the “go, go, go” and “stay busy” lifestyle is exhausting and contributing to poor mental health. Lately I’ve been on a self-care/mindfulness kick: I’ve become intentional in aiming to “honor my journey” and have been more attentive to my thoughts, and how they play a role in my feelings, and actions. I’ve also made it a point to remind myself of what I am truly passionate about and how I can use my time in a way that reflects those passions. I’ve stopped and asked myself what it is that I value, what is it that I stand for, what success means to me, and how I can build a life where I’m nourishing myself through my pursuit of my goals. I don’t push myself to the breaking point, and I allow myself to rest and mentally “escape.” All of this is great, I feel like I am finally on the right path, with the right mindset, but it hasn’t always been this way (though I still have many days where I’m just simply not okay). I have struggled for years, and continue to struggle with both anxiety and depression, which in the past has steered me toward self-destructive tendencies. However, I have learned a lot about myself, my illnesses, and how to keep myself above water, in the past two years, and even more so in the past six months. I can finally see the light; I’ve implemented self-care tactics into my daily routine, and I’m learning how to cope, how to grow, and how to be more mindful. I’m aware that there are lots of resources out there, that I don’t have to go through this alone, that I’m not the only one, and that my mental illnesses are nothing to be ashamed of. BUT more importantly, I’ve accepted that sometimes it’s okay to not be okay.

I decided to write this post not only to introduce a part of my own journey, but because I’m a big advocate for mental health and May just happens to be Mental Health Awareness Month. I figured, since this blog is going to be a whole lot of me being vulnerable, I might as well kick it off in a big way, and mental illness definitely plays a big role in who I am today.

From the ages of 16-20 I struggled immensely. I was “in the dark” as I called it, and I truly felt that there was no getting out; that I was a child of the darkness, plagued to an end similar to Virginia Woolf’s or Sylvia Plath’s (two authors whose sentiments I scarily related to.) I felt trapped by my sadness, my ambivalence, my anxiety; completely saturated in emotion, but utterly numb at the same time. Once I got to college I felt even more confused about who I was, who I wanted to be, and how I would get passed what I was going through in order to get there.

I was diagnosed with anxiety at a very young age. I was only nine years old when I experienced my first panic attack and by the time I was 12, the doctors in the hospital told my mom to stop bringing me in unless “it was an actual emergency.” To me, these panic attacks did feel like an emergency: I couldn’t breathe, I’d have dizzy spells, my head would be pounding, the left side of my chest would hurt, and I truly felt the world caving in on me. When I was 16, after experiencing something very traumatic and life altering, my mom decided she wanted me to see a therapist, who would later give me a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, and depression. My therapist suggested medication, but at that time, I was in denial and didn’t want to be “one of those people” that needed medication and I didn’t want the medicine to change who I was. After just one year of therapy, and barely giving my therapist anything to work with, I stopped going.

My panic attacks grew worse as I got older, and by the age of 18 I  began passing out regularly. I passed out and fell down the stairs on two separate occasions and had to be rushed to the hospital to check for concussions. I went to class with bruises all the time, especially on my face, from hitting the floor so hard. My professors were always worried that I was having trouble at home until I stopped showing up to school altogether. In college, the migraines started, followed by throwing up. I would get up in the morning (with a migraine) and get ready, walk all the way to class, and then pause right outside the door. I would be frozen in place, I’d start sweating, my head would start pounding and then I’d run to the nearest restroom to throw up and sometimes even pass out in the stall. I wasn’t doing well at all. I couldn’t sleep at night without taking NyQuil, I would wake up every morning with a migraine, and I didn’t want to get out of bed in fear that I would pass out in the middle of my classroom or throw up on the way to the library. I didn’t want to be around people at all. I just wanted to be alone, and suffer in silence. I finally went to the doctors and he explained that I had “chronic migraines” and that it was anxiety and stress induced.  It is then, at the age of 20, that I decided to go to therapy again.

I found a new therapist who had no prior knowledge of who I was so that I could start “fresh.” Therapy the second time around truly helped because I was more than willing to go. I was no longer in denial, I knew there was something very wrong with me that I could no longer put to the back burners. My lack of mental health was hindering my daily function, and a change needed to be made. My therapist explained that I was struggling with general anxiety, but also social anxiety, depression, and adjustment disorder (yeah that’s right, college isn’t all fun and games for everyone.) I’d heard it before, but I received the news more openly and accepting the second time around. I asked him what I could do to function and thrive in the real world like a “normal” person to which he replied: medication. At 16, I would have never agreed to take prescription pills, especially since my father (who still struggles with PTSD, depression, and OCD) had and has to take so many and they seem to alter who he is. But at 20 I had hit rock bottom and at some points I’d become reckless. I was tired of missing class, tired of the migraines, tired of living in a big blue bubble of pain, and mental agony, and tired of being confined to my bed while everyone else was out “living life.” So, after doing my research, I agreed to start my first prescription medication: a Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor which makes more serotonin available to the brain (since lower levels of serotonin are linked to depression and anxiety). Serotonin is an important chemical and neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood, social behavior, and sleep. After about a month and a half of taking my prescription drug, I truly felt the difference. I was able to attend class again that next semester, sleep at night, and even get a job. My migraines became less (about two a week rather than six,) I stopped having panic attacks altogether, and I got my life back. I would continue to take my prescription drug for my last two years of college, until deciding to ween myself off of it in December of 2017 which is when I (finally) graduated college with my four year degree in English and a minor in Psychology.

My journey doesn’t end there, however. After weening myself off of my daily pill, I began to use an as needed anxiety pill which does work for me, but after five months of being off of my daily pill (and a whole month & a half of feeling like I’m “relapsing” into a state of disorder and instability,) I’ve made the decision to get back on my daily pill. When I shared this with someone, they replied in an “aww man, I thought you beat that,” kind of way. But I don’t feel that I’ve failed. I feel like I’m in a stronger place because I can recognize what I need, and I don’t see it as a weakness. I do not feel defeated, instead, I’m embracing this new season knowing that I have a few skills under my belt that I lacked before. I have learned how to manage my stress, what to implement into my daily routines, and what to stay away from. I have realized the importance of choosing positive thoughts over negative ones, and in paying close attention to what is triggering my negative emotions.

Self-care is also a big game changer. Through self-care, I am more aware of and more attentive to my thoughts and feelings, and more aware of how my actions play into them. I’ve learned to say “no” to things that wont make me feel good (like staying out all night when I know all I want to do is sleep,) I’ve had to cut out relationships that weren’t positive and nourishing, I’ve learned to choose myself over always people pleasing, and I’ve learned to treat myself here and there because it’s the little things like going to get a pedicure or buying myself flowers that really help me feel loved by myself. I make sure to wake up and make myself a good breakfast every morning because it’s my favorite meal of the day, I make sure to dedicate time everyday to either write or read because it makes me feel good to do so, and I make sure to go to bed before 12 so that I feel my best the next day.

Self-care and self-love are important aspects in the mental health realm.  We live in a society that calls you selfish when you choose yourself but if we aren’t doing well intrinsically, how much can we truly offer others?

There’s still a stigma when it comes to mental illness, but this month is about making yourself more aware of not only yourself, but of others and what others are going through. It is about having the tough, vulnerable conversations. It is about encouraging yourself or others to make a change that will bring you or them closer to feeling whole and more mentally sound. Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, going to therapy is nothing to be ashamed of, being prescribed medication is nothing to be ashamed of. We should be ashamed of ourselves, for not being more educated about something so prevalent. Don’t put your mental health on the back burners. Don’t overlook your child’s consistent sadness, or your husbands anger, or your mothers lack of memory, or your friends mood swings, or your coworkers questionable eating habits. Have the conversation, offer support and encouragement, and never diminish someones feelings just because you may not understand them. We need to put the stigma to rest, and offer more love and aid to one another. There’s a lot of resources out there. It is important to remember that what works for some, may not work for others. Therapy worked for me at one point, and medicine and practicing mindfulness and self care work for me still, alongside becoming educated through my psychology courses and through conversations with other people. But those tools might not be for you. For some, exercise is the answer, for others, rehab is the answer. You’ll never know what’s best for you, until you start asking yourself the right questions and seeking the right answers. Make a daily habit of being more attentive to yourself and of taking better care of yourself. No one should judge you for trying to be your best self. After all, when you feel good on the inside, you see life through more positive lenses which will reflect in your interactions and relationships.

You need to do the “lonely work,” which is strengthening and bettering your relationship with yourself through becoming more aware of your inner being (mindfulness,) and nourishing it (self-care and self-love.) Don’t let the hustle and bustle of life distract you from being your very best you. Pursue wholeness and dedicate your life to growth.

It’s never too late to pick up the pieces and try again.
And always remember: you are not alone, you are not “crazy,” and you are not your mental illness.

 

 

honoring YOUR journey & saying “screw it” to society’s expectations

 

 

honor-your-journey

Have you ever given special thought to the major milestones we look forward to? (No, I don’t mean natural milestones like hitting puberty or turning the big 21.) I’m talking the big ones, the man-made ones, which are pretty much goals set up for us by society that guide us toward “success” and “fulfillment.” But what if you’re not interested in one of these major milestones that society values and deems as necessary? What if you’re not interested in any of them?

This thought on these expected acheivements was sparked by a conversation between my younger sister (who is 21, engaged, and a recent college grad,) and I in which I asked a simple question: “How is so-and-so (her high school bff) doing?” In which she replied: “She’s becoming an adult, she’s really getting her life together, she just got engaged.”

I paused before asking “so getting married equates to getting your life together?” And then I thought to myself:  “so if I never walk down the aisle, does that mean I wont be seen as a legitimate, fulfilled adult?”

It dawned on me that a lot of what we expect from ourselves, and a lot of what we look forward to accomplishing, are milestones that society has set up for us, and not necessarily goals that we’ve created on our own for ourselves. It then dawned on me that even before entering the world, while we are still in the womb, so much is already expected of us: we are to go through schooling (which I agree with) and graduate high school, and then move on to college (which isn’t for everyone) and then get a “good” career (what society views as good, of course) and then get married (which isn’t for everyone) and then later have kids (which, you guessed it, isn’t for everyone.) Once you’ve hit all of those major milestones,  you are seen as being a truly fulfilled human being because you’ve checked off all the boxes that life said you needed to. It’s an interesting concept to think about, and one that really made me feel like I was put into a box; that I was limited. That if I don’t check off all of those boxes, I wont fulfill my humanly duties or purpose.

And then it made me wonder: Do I actually want to get married? Or do I want to because that’s just what humans do and what we’ve always done. Or because it’s what my family, and friends expect and want for me. Or because society deems it as the correct thing to do.

Do I want to be a mother? Or was I convinced that it’s something I want since I am a woman, and procreating is “the greatest contribution a woman can bring to the world.” Do I want to take on motherhood or did everyone around me trick me into thinking it since I was a little girl and received baby dolls on all my birthdays until I was 10, or because my first boyfriend said my children would be so lucky to inherit my beautiful curls, or because my parents look forward to being grandparents and having a mini me running around.

Will I still have value if I decide not to be mother? Will I still be seen as worthy if I decide not to commit myself to a man and say “I do?” If I decide not to check off one these “achievements,” will I be forever plagued with the question “well, don’t you feel like something is missing?” Or “aren’t you afraid of dying alone?”

And what about the topic of careers? Society places certain preference and honor towards some careers and deems them as “good” and prestigious: doctors, lawyers, etc. Whereas other careers are seen as mediocre, “okay,” where society just shrugs and says “well at least you’re doing something…I guess.”

When I first declared my major in English most people responded with a fake smile followed by “well that’s nice, but what are you going to do with that? Become a teacher?” (As if teachers don’t hold one of the most important jobs out there.) And I’d reply: “well, I love to write and create, and though I know the negative reputation that comes with seeking a creative life (ever hear the term “starving artist?”) I really just want to move toward what makes me feel alive.” In which, I’m sure you can picture the facial expressions on all their faces in your mind which read: “you poor thing. You dreamer who’s dream will crumble once reality gets a hold of you. Why wont you choose a more stable, and important career path, like.. a dentist?” But I truly wonder “why?”

Why do we continue to try and fit everyone into the same box? Why can’t a man become a 6th grade science teacher/part time photographer without others judging him for choosing the path less lucrative? Why are his parents disappointed that he threw his life away just because he didn’t become an engineer like they’d hope but instead decided to follow his true passions? Why can’t a woman be married to her career without everyone around her being disappointed that she never got to wear the pretty white dress? Why can’t her family accept that two dogs is enough for her and that children are just not apart of her plan? Why, instead of trying to fit everyone into this one limiting box, can’t we just encourage everyone to live a life where they feel fulfilled on their own terms (and not society’s terms.) A life devoted to growth, and love (especially self love,) and learning and momentum, but in our own way. Why don’t we place more value on the important things like mental health over “the hustle” and the “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” mentality. Why don’t we strive more toward emotional intelligence and empathy rather than toward the next major milestone?

Why do people ask me if I feel weird or behind because my little sister got engaged before me? Why do they try and console me (someone who needs no consolation) by saying “don’t worry, you’re next.” What if I don’t want to be next? What if I don’t want that at all?
Why did my ethics professor teach me that it is a sin for a woman to choose not to bear children? Why did he tell me that motherhood is my sole purpose on earth? Why did he make me feel that I’ll hold no value if I decide to never give birth?

 

I understand that to graduate college can be a good thing and opportunities can arise that otherwise would not have. I understand that beautiful things can happen between two people who commit themselves to one another. I understand that creating a life is a miracle. But I also understand that for some, these “goals” or “successes” don’t fit into their journeys. Success, we all talk about it, but for each of us it means something different. Her list of goals may be three pages long, whereas yours may be five. But just because motherhood isn’t on your list, doesn’t mean that her list is any better than yours. We’re all here to pursue something different. That is the beauty in humanity: diversity.

 

It troubled me because though we are all born into a life where we are expected of these things, still, we can never satisfy everybody. So why not satisfy ourselves? Why not make our own lists of goals and check off our own milestones? Why not go after the dream that may not make sense to other people? Why not seek the career that you so desire even if others don’t applaud you at first or even at all? What happens if you go through life, checking off all of society’s major milestones, and then you realize you’re not happy? Then what?

 

To go to college, to have kids, to get married, those aren’t means of “getting your life together.” Those are just paths that may or may not lead you to where you want to go and who you want to be. To be a fulfilled adult doesn’t mean to have the desire to be a husband, or to be called mommy, or to have a few degrees. To be a fulfilled adult means to have responsibility for yourself, and to commit yourself to honoring your journey. “Getting your life together” is keeping your life together through your health (especially mental) and your passions. Put yourself outside of the major milestone box, (if you so desire,) and don’t look back to see who’s trying to diminish your worth. After all, a wise person once said: “you do you, boo.”

 

Pursue the path that lights a fire in you, not the path that satisfies everyone else but you. And remember: your worth is not dependent on what you accomplish. Free yourself with the knowledge that you are free to be whoever you want to be, and that your worth isn’t determined by what you do.
Never let anyone make you feel like you are less than; worthy is who YOU are.