5 Things I Learnt After Overcoming My Mental Illness

mental illness recovery

DISCLAIMER: I am not a qualified mental health professional. This article outlines my experience with mental illness and my own recovery process. If you are seeking advice on your specific situation, please seek help from a medical professional.

“When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”

Matt Haig

Whilst it might feel like we’ve been openly talking about mental health for years, recent events like Kanye West’s ongoing, public struggle with bi-polar disorder and James Corden’s confessions of anxiety have shown that stigma still exists when it comes to mental illness. Whilst it seems like we’ve come a long way as a society in opening up about these issues, many people continue to suffer in silence.

According to the British Medical Association, the Coronavirus pandemic has the potential to cause a nationwide mental health crisis. Lockdown measures which have left people living in isolation, increased pressure faced by frontline keyworkers battling the virus, and economic uncertainty and instability have characterised the Covid-19 crisis and are all factors which could play a role in rising incidences of mental illness.

Opening up about mental ill health is very important to me. When I think back to 10 years ago, the terms anorexia nervosa, depression and panic disorder didn’t even exist in my vocabulary. I’m a sufferer of long term mental illness, struggling with generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) for nearly four years and depressive episodes, too. However, over the past four months I’ve been in recovery from these conditions.

Therefore, I want to share with you the five things I learnt after overcoming my mental illness; I hope this serves as an empowering and useful resource for anybody struggling to kick start their journey to recovery.

Living in denial about your condition will only make it worse.

With some problems in life, it’s easy to believe that if you ignore it, it will magically go away. Like when your car makes a funny noise and you turn up the radio, you pretend nothing happened until the noise disappears.

This is an approach I took with my mental health for years. Even after being hospitalised during a panic attack and being told by medical professionals that I was suffering from GAD, I continued to live in denial about my condition for two years. Instead of acknowledging that I was suffering I would waste away my days coming up with countless excuses for why I was feeling terrible (and doing endless anxiety and depression tests online until I got results which said I was mentally sound).

However, looking back on my mental health journey it becomes obvious to me that until you’re willing to acknowledge that you have a mental illness, your symptoms and your suffering will only intensify. When you deny that you might be living with a mental health disorder, you are actually adding another layer of mental turmoil to your existing condition.

I’ve learnt that the first step to overcoming mental illness is accepting that it exists. You know your body and you know your mind better than anyone else, and ignoring that gut feeling that you might be suffering from a mental illness will only cause you further harm in the long run.

It’s okay to say no when you can’t mentally cope with something.

A second lesson recovery has taught me is that it’s okay to say no, and you shouldn’t be apologetic for turning things down when you can’t mentally cope. You wouldn’t ask somebody to hold something with a broken arm, so it’s not fair to expect somebody to take on responsibilities when they aren’t feeling mentally capable.

As a GAD sufferer, I would constantly doubt the severity of my condition. Even when I knew I couldn’t handle something, I felt physically unable to say no. All in all, it took me 4 years to realise that it’s okay for me to let people down. As a consequence, instead of enjoying casual events and activities, I ended up dreading even the most low key occasions like going to the pub with friends because making any sort of commitment became too overwhelming.

It’s okay to not be able to mentally cope with ordinary events, even things like casual Zoom quizzes; you’re allowed to say no to things and give yourself space to breathe. Whilst it can be hard to say no on the basis of mental ill health, especially when not everybody is willing or able to understand your reasoning, learning to say no is key for protecting your mental wellbeing.

Asking for help is the hardest, yet biggest, step in your journey to recovery.

Whilst it can be hard to acknowledge that you are suffering from a mental health disorder, sharing that news with other people, even those closest to you, can often be even harder. Asking others for help can feel like the most difficult step in your journey to recovery because to do so, you have to accept the fact that you might not be able to handle your illness on your own.

When you are already feeling incredibly low, admitting that you need help can make you feel like a failure. I found it incredibly hard to tell others about my diagnosis – it took me 2 years to tell my long-term boyfriend and over 3 years to tell my parents! For me, I felt ashamed to admit that I was struggling so I kept quiet, and the consequence was that as I suffered in silence my mental illness began to run rampant.

However, asking for help, as hard as it may be, is the biggest step in your journey to recovery. I only saw long-term improvement in my mental health when I had the backing of others. The support system my family and friends provided gave me a safe space where I could experiment with different recovery techniques. After struggling on my own for so long, I finally had people who would pick me up when I needed it and celebrated my recovery with me. Whether you confide in friends, family or healthcare professionals, having a strong support system is key to recovery.

There is no cookie-cutter version of recovery.

What helps you at one point in your journey to recovery might not help you forever. Something else I have learnt after overcoming the worst of my condition is that the recovery process is hard. It’s strenuous and I find myself regularly reassessing my coping mechanisms.

There are many ‘tried and true’ recovery methods when it comes to mental illness. For GAD, some people stress practicing mindfulness, including meditation, to combat persistent worrying and calm the mind. There are even apps like Headspace and Calm which offer users meditation sequences to follow at home. Other methods which I also came across when looking into recovery were cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and prescribed medications, sourced through professional help.

With so many potential routes to recovery, it quickly became clear to me that there is no one-size-fits-all method to overcoming mental illness. Practicing mindfulness through journaling used to help relieve my symptoms, giving me an outlet for my emotions and enabling me to address them. But as time has gone on, the thought of sitting down and writing in a journal every evening seems cumbersome.

My own recovery methods are chopping and changing all the time, and that’s okay. It can be frustrating at first when you realise that what used to help you process your mental illness now hinders you, but I’ve found that once you become in tune with your health needs it’s such a worthwhile process. My best advice to anyone looking to begin their journey to recovery is: Be prepared to spend time figuring out what your recovery methods look like!

There is one miracle cure for mental illness – acceptance of your condition as part of you.

Whilst there is no one perfect recovery method to suit everyone, I have learnt that there is one miracle cure for mental illness: accepting your illness as a part of you. Even though I feel I have overcome my mental health disorder I will always class myself as in recovery rather than recovered.

This is because even after addressing my mental illness, I still suffer from bouts of poor mental health; it just comes in waves. Recovery has brought many good days but there are still bad days – they just happen less often and are less pronounced.

The most important thing that recovery has taught me is that I must accept my mental illness as a part of me. After accepting your condition as a part of your identity and something which makes you you, it becomes possible to explore your triggers, understand what prompts bouts of ill health, and learn how to manage your mental health permanently.

Learning to understand, accept and embrace your mental illness is essential to living a happy life in recovery. I do and I believe that you can too.

Words by Charlotte King

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