The Long Road Ahead: A Mental Health Marathon

393650532_6a8fb1d6be_omichelle3.jpg Michelle Lynn

7 Things You Should Know About Mentally “Getting Better”
Fortunately, people are slowly starting to realize that mental health is an important, and necessary, topic of conversation.

There is a growing effort to help people become better informed about various mental health related subjects, and articles about anxiety and depression are easily found in most mainstream news sources.  You can, for example,  find foods to fight the blues, tips for coping with everyday stressors, and even mental healthcare resources fairly easily these days.  Society seems to support maintaining balance and achieving the “right” state of mind.  Many people are seeking out avenues to “get better,” and each year even more people seek professional help.  There is something, however, that gets overlooked in this sea of helpful information and resources, and that something is what the actual process of healing is like for most people.  As we like to do in our society, we tend to glorify the process of “getting help” for a mental illness by focusing on the fan fare of taking the first step on the “getting better” journey and then fast forwarding to the arm flailing crossing of the finish line or “the cure.”  Having been on this path myself for several years, and still feeling like it is a bit premature to start popping open celebratory bottles of champagne, I think there are aspects of dealing with a mental illness that need to be looked at more thoughtfully in perhaps a slow motion or instant reply fashion.  Here is what I would like anyone starting the mental health marathon to consider:

  1. The novelty wears off.
    When I was unable to sleep for three days in a row, refusing to eat, and standing in a corner staring at a wall for three hours at a time, people were more than supportive of me getting help for my anxiety.  There were constant check-ins, high-fives, and “good jobs.”  Just picking myself up off the floor was enough to earn some praise.  As you start to get better, those extremes aren’t as frequent or noticeable.  When you are actually able to pick yourself up, get yourself to work, and function during the day, that is a huge win.  What feels like a huge win to you, however, won’t always look that spectacular to the spectators in your life.  This lack of enthusiasm can be discouraging, and your unhealthy self might try and convince you that no one notices your efforts, or that nobody cares.  Your healing self, however, should take this as another win, because it means the people around you are starting to view you as more stable and functional.  It’s not out of the ordinary for you to have a good day, so they don’t act out of the ordinary when you do.

  2. People start to expect more out of you when you seem better.
    Perhaps when you were at your worst, people wouldn’t even ask you for a glass of water if they were on fire, because they weren’t sure how you’d react.  Maybe you could let laundry and dishes pile up for months on end, and people kind of just left you alone.  When you start to get better, people start to expect you to be better.  They aren’t viewing you as a person on the brink of disaster, so they feel comfortable requiring more out of you.  This can be overwhelming for someone trying to heal, because the process of healing is already draining enough.   A person trying to work through anxiety or depression has to exert a lot more energy during the day to stay “in-check” than people realize.  Just because you look better from the outside, that doesn’t mean you are 100% better on the inside.  Your unhealthy self will feel unappreciated and draw the conclusion that you will never be able to do enough to please the people in your life.  It may even tell you to give up.  The healing self, however, will recognize that you are starting to look like a healthy person, and this is why people think it’s no big deal to ask you for a little more.  They feel like you are someone reliable.  They think you are someone that will be able to follow through, which means they aren’t tip toeing around you anymore.  It means you are getting stronger.

  3. The further you are on your journey the harder the fall.
    You will fall.  You will fall at the beginning of your journey.  You will fall in the middle of your journey, and you will fall even after you swore the journey was over.  That is to be expected, but what is not expected is just how much more it hurts to fall the longer you have been running.  You would think that the more times you fall, the easier it would get to bounce back up, but it’s not for some reason.  This may have something to do with the fact that if feels really good when you can manage yourself better for longer periods of time.  It feels good to be in control, and once you see what you can do, and get used to the smooth sailing feeling, it is extremely upsetting to suddenly have a panic attack or a bout of depression.  Your unhealthy self will make fun of you and tell you that you are just fooling yourself if you believe you are anything but a broken, flawed person. This self-defeatist thinking is what helps keep you down even longer.  Your healing self needs to step up when this happens to remind you of just how few and far between these episodes now occur.  It is easy to lose sight of where you once were, and the progress you have made, if you are only focused on a perfect finish.

  4. Your new self will loathe your old self.
    When you start to heal, you will gain a new perspective.  This new perspective often involves a bit of clarity, as well as taking more responsibility for the person you once were.  When you are having a mental crises, or stuck in a really dark spot, you can be a very ugly person.  You may have said things that hurt the people you love, and you may have done things that you feel can never be forgiven.  It may be painful to talk about the past as you heal, and you might be really angry at yourself for not doing something sooner.  Your unhealthy self will try and trick you into believing you are a fundamentally bad person that doesn’t deserve to be happy.  Your healing self will need to work overtime when this happens to remind you that you cannot change the past.  All you have is the present, and in the present moment you are trying to be your best.  It also helps to remember that the fact you even recognize you hurt people through your words and actions in the past, shows that you aren’t a bad person in the present.  You are becoming a caring, healing person that wants to do better.

  5. Your new self will envy your old self.
    I feel a little guilty admitting this one, but there will be days when you will seriously feel like it would be much easier to just go back to being a mess.  It is really exhausting to actively participate in healing and self-work.  The mental strain of constantly self-regulating, practicing coping strategies, being cautious of triggers, and steering clear of emotional potholes is not for the weak.  When you are a mess, people don’t expect much out of you.  If you want to sit on the floor and have a fit, you can.  If you want to skip work and lay in bed all day, go for it.  Your unhealthy self will continually sabotage your thinking by telling you how carefree your life could be if you just went back to being your old unreliable self.  Your healing self, however, will hopefully remind you how it made you feel to constantly let people down and not feel like you were living up to your true potential.

  6. You will always be the same person to some people no matter how much you change.
    There will always be those people in your life that can’t let go of the person you used to be.  They might tease you about how nervous you used to get, or they might continue to walk circles around you to avoid upsetting you.  Even though you may be a completely different person, they are trapped in old ways of thinking about you.   Again, your unhealthy self will want you to believe that you can’t win and no matter what you do people will always have a negative view of you.  Your healing self knows, however, that this journey is about you and not other people.  You can’t control other people’s perceptions of you, but you can control how you see yourself.  Focus on that.

  7. There is no finish line.
    I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but if you are running the mental health marathon with the hopes of it being over soon, your are going to be greatly disappointed.  Mental illness isn’t a fad or trend, and there is no magical cure.  If you suffer from anxiety or depression, you will probably need to manage your anxiety and depression your whole life.  Yes, you are always going to be running.  Your unhealthy self might want to throw in the towel upon hearing this news, but hopefully your healing self recognizes the value in building stamina and endurance for this race and your longterm goals.

Mental illness is tricky at times, but I am not in competition with my anxiety.  I am aware of what it can do to me and the people in my life, but I am continually in the process of learning how to coexist harmoniously with it as well. It may sound unbelievable, but there are aspects of my anxiety that I feel have been positive for me. Because of my own struggles with emotional well-being, for example, I am very sensitive to the struggles of others.  My journey with anxiety has made me more sensitive to the emotional needs of the people in my life.  I recognize anxiety in people, and I can offer field tested strategies in the moment.  I know when someone needs me to listen, and I have great empathy for any person that is even participating in this race.

I think instead of seeking a fast and glamorous photo finish, the goal should be to stay on the track, avoid swallowing too much dust, and try to keep the sweat out of your eyes.  That seems a bit more manageable in the long run.

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