I am living with a mental health condition, not suffering from mental illness
I often use words to describe myself that some readers find uncomfortable. I am not about dwelling on the negative experience of mental illness, but I am about stopping the stigma and embracing the crazy.
I am in a place right now where I have accepted who I am, after 30 years of working on it. I spent years despising myself and worrying constantly that I wasn’t good enough and overthinking about what everybody else might be thinking about me (they weren’t, as it turned out).
I suffered from mental illness
Three years ago, I hit rock bottom and had a complete mental breakdown, which really had been threatening to happen for all of my adult life.
I rebuilt myself and did several thousand hours of therapy and now I can say that I like myself and accept myself, mental illness and all.
So, I’m happy to use words like crazy, mad, bonkers and more to embrace that part of who am I am. I am most content to use the words mental illness because I no longer feel sick or powerless to my condition.
But it is a constant presence in my life and something that I will never recover from, and instead, something that I will just need to manage.
A little bit about how I got here
I believe that I was born with a genetic predisposition towards mental illness. I was a worried, fearful and anxious child, not from any childhood trauma, but just as part of who I was.
Over time I put a series of very bad coping mechanisms in place to deal with my anxiety, including dangerous behaviours, self-medication, complete avoidance of my issues and a deep self-loathing.
Later on, I was diagnosed with depression which has played a major role in my life through relationship struggles, the birth of three children and career and finance problems.
When I was 40 I was diagnosed with bipolar after my small business failed and the self-medication got to a point where I almost died. I was hospitalised and brought back by my family and friends from the brink of extinction.
I have spent almost all of my life trying to deny that I had mental illness, and doing everything I could to smother it. I ran from my illness, numbed myself to it, slept through as much as I could, avoided it whenever possible and drowned it in sugar, alcohol and various pills.
After I came back from extinction I finally accepted and embraced proudly who I am and part of that was embracing my condition.
I suffered from mental illness for close to 30 years. Now I live with a mental health condition. I will try to explain the difference.
I need ongoing medication and management to take care of my condition
Similar to living with any health condition, such as diabetes, epilepsy, high blood pressure or eczema, I will never be cured. I have to make permanent changes to my lifestyle to manage my condition and stop it from making me very sick.
I take daily medication (exactly as prescribed these days, mind you) to maintain the healthiest me possible. I will continue to take them no matter how well I feel, because I need them to stay stable.
I have had to implement permanent lifestyle changes to manage my condition and stop me from becoming sick again. Medication is part of this. I also quit drinking completely, reduced my sugar intake massively, and practice daily mindfulness. I live in the now and don’t beat myself up anymore for past mistakes.
I get a good amount of sleep every night. I am not in therapy at present, but my incredible psychologist is always with me, both just a phone call away that I will readily make if needed, and also an ever-present voice in my head.
I have stopped the stigma and embraced the crazy
I am honest with the people around me about my condition. I will tell my family if I am having a bad day or if I need help. I will tell new friends and even people that I work with about my condition and how it might limit me sometimes. I do not hide my condition from myself or anyone else.
My children are still very young, but I am also honest with them about my condition. I explain things in a way that I think is age appropriate, and they don’t need to hear all of my gory stories, but in time I will be open about everything when it’s right.
For now, they know that my brain doesn’t work sometimes, that I take medication to stay well, that I see a doctor ‘that I talk to’, and that I need to rest sometimes to cope with a very bad day or stressful time.
They also know that I love them no matter what, and I will always get up from my rest to be there with them again. And they know that they are the most important role in my life no matter what.
Mental illness is a physical condition that I cannot deny
My condition is partly in my blood and caused by the chemicals in my brain, and partly the result of 30 years of teaching myself very bad habits, which after 30 years of ingraining into my brain are very reluctant to get out.
I don’t cause it and I cannot stop it from affecting me completely. I will have ups and downs, especially with my bipolar, and I will have good and bad days. I accept and embrace the bad days, admit when I am having them and rest and reenergise myself to get to the other side of this particular episode or flare-up.
I am in control
When I was suffering from mental illness, it was in control and ruled my body and brain. It was winning in every way. I was still in there, but had to fight so hard to get that control back.
When I am living with a mental health condition, I am in control. I have accepted it as part of who I am and know that it will always be there. I know that there is always the possibility I could get very sick again, so I manage my condition as best I can to stop that from happening.
I will not let it make my life smaller anymore
I don’t hide from real emotions in the fear that they might make me sick. I don’t avoid things that stress me or frighten me. I don’t make my life smaller because parts of it are difficult. I have sh*t days, but I embrace them and ride them to the other side where I know I will feel better again.
I know there will always be another sh*t day around the corner and I have an arsenal of tools to help me when it happens. I don’t worry that a bad day or week or month might come, because I know it will. Bring it on.
When I hid from my illness I also hid from the possibility of true happiness. Screw that, I am not doing that ever again.
I am an awesome mother, wife, friend and just general all-round great person to know. Through my writing, I hope to help other people. I bring joy and colour and light into the world and bring happiness to myself and the people around me. All because I live with my mental health condition.
Pretending that I don’t have mental illness was a really good way to become stupidly sick. If I continued down that road I would have died. I am not pretending anymore.
But neither am I suffering. I am living with a mental health condition.
There is no stigma, it is part of my life and also intrinsically part of who I am. And for the first time in my life, I like myself. And in embracing and accepting my mental illness, I have become healthier than I have ever been.