Eighteen years ago, I was studying Egyptology in university and thought I had my career path planned out – until my entire world came crashing down around me. I found myself on a rollercoaster that never seemed to slow down, that went completely off the rails and the safety bar had flown off thirty seconds into the ride. I was hanging on desperately to a life in which I had lost any semblance of control.
I was terrified. I knew there was something horribly wrong. While I have lost some relationships over time due to having a mental illness, in those devastating early years I was fortunate to have some close friends and family members stand by me, despite being extremely unpredictable and an ongoing source of stress. The one area that I expected help from that fell short was the first psychiatrist that I saw. I actually got in to see him quite quickly, and while I sat in his office pouring my heart out to him and more vulnerable than perhaps at any other time in my life, he sat there doodling on a pad of paper, of which he did not attempt to conceal. At the end of the initial appointment, he had the sangfroid to tell me that he would see me in six weeks, and I was dismissed. I was shocked, devastated and humiliated by the entire experience. I never went back there. After that day I went into an extended denial that anything was amiss, even though part of me knew not only was something very wrong, but with each passing day, I was getting worse. As the saying goes, “Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt.”
Over the years, I have worked with some awful mental health professionals, some outstanding ones and many who fell somewhere in between.
I recently had a conversation in which I recounted that story and was asked how I got from those darkest days eighteen years ago to now. What strategies did I use to keep me going? These are just a few of them:
- Having a mental illness does not mean my life is over. It does not mean I will automatically have a miserable life for the rest of my days. It can be hard work to create a life I am and will be happy with, but ultimately, there is always hope that the next day, week, month, year will be better: That I can make it better.
- I have a right to have a say in my treatment, and to have professional help that will have my best interests at heart and partner with me; guide me when I need it because I’m not functioning well, and yet, let me take the reins when I am able to do so. Regaining and maintaining mental health should be a respectful partnership with everyone involved, not a dictatorship. It is well worth the time and effort to find professionals who will do that.
- I have the right to question the mental health professionals I work with, and to get a second or third (or more) opinion. Having an MD or Ph.D. may mean they have more knowledge than me, but does not mean they are always correct, nor does it mean my opinions or ideas are any less valid. Everyone makes mistakes, including them.
- Having a mental illness does not make me less of a person, and doesn’t mean I deserve to be treated with less respect or compassion than anyone suffering a physical illness or someone who is in good health.
- It takes more courage to admit I need help and seek it, than to try to pretend there is no problem and suffer in fear of stigma.
- Creating and maintaining an emotional support network of family/friends/ etc. can be difficult at times, but knowing that there are people who walk beside me on this path, who help me through the hard times and laugh with me during the good times is priceless. No one should feel as if he or she has to take this journey alone.
- A wise friend once told me: “A day without laughing is a day wasted.” While laughter on its own probably won’t bring me out of a deeply depressed state, it definitely helps me cope daily, especially when I’m not doing well. For me, stand up comedians like Adam Hills, Nina Conti and Danny Bhoy, improv comedy shows like Whose Line is it Anyway, re-runs of The Muppet Show and Just For Laughs, and favourite movies like The Princess Bride and some of my favourite authors all helped me get through dark times and keep my sense of humour alive and well.
- Comparing myself to other people only makes me feel worse. Whether I need more or less medication or more or less time in therapy than someone else doesn’t matter. What works for me is what works for me.
- Medication is not the be-all and end-all. While it can absolutely make a large difference in quality of life, it is certainly not the only treatment option. There is a wide variety of types of therapy out there. Some may be more useful than others. The only way to know is to try. Medication can help with symptoms, but finding therapy that works for you can help you learn how to manage your triggers, symptoms, issues and life better than medication alone. When done right, it can be incredibly empowering.
- Being stuck on wait lists is awful. Waiting weeks, months or a year can seem like an eternity. That time will pass, and once it does, and you are at the top of the list, you will be glad you got on the list. You can be on more than one wait list at a time!
- Options for professional help can include family doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, social workers, peer support workers and more. If you live in a rural or remote area, tele-mental health may be an option (sessions are usually conducted over the internet with video). Depending on where you live, this may be relatively new, but it is a method that is starting to become more widely used.
- Perspective is extremely important to maintaining a healthy mindset: I choose to live a life that is wellness-centred, not illness-centred. I have my limits, but they are fluid. Over time, as I have gained strength, I have been able to test them and sometimes move them.
- Exercise really does help! It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money and doesn’t necessarily have to leave you drenched in sweat. Something as simple as taking a walk in your favourite neighbourhood or spending time in nature can make a tremendous difference in your quality of life. If you’re not active, start small, try different activities until you find some you like and gradually increase the amount of active time in your day. I find it helps me focus, helps to relieve stress and combat insomnia.
- Years ago, a friend suggested I create an inspiration board. I took it a step further: Since I had a blank wall in my home and have always wanted to travel, I started collecting pictures from magazines and travel brochures and created a collage on it (if using tape, make sure it is the kind that won’t damage the paint). It’s fun, creative, and is a visual reminder of a positive goal to work toward.
- I also love quotes and have an extensive collection in a notebook that I periodically add to and will often read whenever I need a pick-me-up.
- Recognizing accomplishments in everyday activities is validating and empowering. It’s not just about big things like getting a job or graduating. When I’m struggling, sometimes just taking a shower or going for a ten minute walk are major accomplishments. Celebrate what you can do, and don’t beat yourself up for what you can’t do that day. As Scarlett O’Hara said, “Tomorrow is another day.”
- Singing is fabulous stress relief! I do this only when I know it won’t disturb my neighbours (especially since I have a hard time carrying a tune). As I sing, I visualize all my stress or negativity exiting my body through my mouth with every note I sing, and evaporating once it leaves my body. Sometimes I sing for a few minutes, sometimes for an hour or more!
- I don’t try to regain the life I had before I developed bipolar disorder. I don’t want that life. I take the life I have, and try to shape it into something that will make me happy now and in the long run.
Randi Storfer is a mental health advocate, who has eighteen years of lived experience with rapid cycling type 2 bipolar disorder and anxiety. She is creating an informational blog around mental health and illness, called “Reclaiming Our Minds”, which will be found at reclaimingourminds.blogspot.