Here’s a paradox: My mental health improved after I developed a mental illness. When I am not symptomatic (which is a lot of the time) my mental health is fantastic. It is possibly better than that of many people who don’t live with a mental illness. Here’s why:
Mental illness can teach you a lot about mental health, because it confronts you with the choice to change the way you approach your life.
My Bipolar Disorder has been a patient teacher over the last twelve years. In the beginning I threw tantrums like a petulant toddler:
‘This is unfair.’
‘I WILL go back to my old life and habits.’
‘I won’t take notice of early warning signs.’
I’d cover my eyes and step into the oncoming traffic of a fresh episode.
And my illness would reply calmly (as is appropriate when dealing with a toddler’s tantrum):
‘Ok then. I will flatten you again. And if you don’t accept that you now share your life with me, I will continue to show you until you start doing things differently.’
I have learnt that doing things differently doesn’t mean I get to vanquish the illness, but I get to manage it. Over time the storm damage has lessened, and the clean-up has gotten quicker.
Bipolar 1 Disorder has taught me not to take periods of mental health for granted. My whole life grinds to a halt during an episode of illness and I never know how long I’ll be incapacitated. So, I try not to waste my mentally well time on things that are meaningless to me, because I know that time is limited.
This illness and the CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) it brought into my life, have taught me that my mental health is my responsibility. Regardless of what other people or the world throw at me, I control how I react (when I am well). And how I react directly influences my mental health.
It has taught me patience. When I got sick my whole life was riddled with impatience. Not having an answer to:
‘How long until I’m better?’ was excruciating.
I now know, it takes as long as it takes. Sometimes a month, sometimes six. There’s no speeding ahead. When you wait with no end point, you either develop patience or you implode. If you choose patience, it spills over into wellness and provides breathing space in a hectic life.
I have learnt about compassion. My compassion for others has grown through the experience of being reduced to nothing by this illness. Early in the course of my Bipolar Disorder I also had no compassion for myself.
I tried to pressure and bully myself into wellness. The height of my hypocrisy was that I would never treat anyone else that way. Being kind to yourself, whatever the circumstances, promotes mental wellness.
My illness taught me to identify my corner stones of good mental health: Sleep and exercise.
Quality sleep is the oxygen supply to mental health. Sleep deprivation skyrockets my risk of a manic episode. It also kick starts the negative domino effect of bad sleep leading to poor dietary choices, leading to no energy to exercise. And optimum mental health doesn’t exist without exercise.
I have learnt that I always have more choices than I think I do. I might not like my options, but they are there. The slope into victim mode used to be much more steep and slippery for me. It’s still tempting sometimes. But before I slide, I stop and ask myself:
‘Is there any other path I could take?’, because I know that avoiding victim-hood solidifies my mental health.
I am less afraid. The horrific experience of psychosis shrinks all my other fears. It covers the little niggles and the what ifs in a big bucket of context.
I am stronger than I would have believed I could be before I got sick. Every time I survive another episode I am broken by my symptoms, but I eventually rebuild myself and emerge with a stronger belief in who I am and what I can achieve when I have my mental health back.
And I have learnt that good mental health is not just the absence of mental illness. It is also feeling balanced and resilient. It is being able to enjoy a life you’ve consciously built for yourself, not one you’ve drifted into or been pushed towards.
This post was written for Mental Health Awareness Week 13-19 May
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