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.