In the twenty-two years since I was diagnosed, I have seen many trends come and go in the world of mental illnesses. I have learned a great deal from each one by finding what did, and did not, work for me. There is a trend that seems to be gaining more traction right now, that I found absolutely did not work for me. That trend is to justify resignation by calling it acceptance. Some people are being told to accept their fate, and even identify themselves by their illness. There are several mental illness writers, gurus, and a few doctors that are telling people to label themselves as a bipolar, a depressed or an anxious person. I certainly have bipolar disorder. I do have a highly sensitive adrenal gland, and yes, sometimes I am depressed. Those things do not define who I am, though. They are only a small part of me. I am so much more than a simple diagnosis. I am not bipolar. I am not anxious. I am not a depressed person. The same way a cancer patient isn’t cancer. I am here to set identifying oneself as a label aside and to promote individuality, mental health and having tenacity of purpose.
Acceptance of my diagnoses was crucial for my well-being. There was a time when I was angry that I wasn’t “normal”. That was not a productive mindset. It led to me resenting myself and exacerbating my symptoms. I had to make peace with the fact that my brain chemistry differs from an average person’s brain, and that I have a highly sensitive adrenal gland. Those are the facts of my life, and I accept them now. I have actually learned to appreciate many aspects of my illnesses. I’ve found an enormous amount of strength and compassion that I would have never been able to tap into, had I not had to go through the things that I have gone through.
My acceptance of my conditions is where my acceptance ends. After my fourth visit to a mental ward, a doctor almost had me convinced to throw in the towel and accept that my fate was to try and survive while minimizing the damage caused by my symptoms. I have to admit that the idea was seductive. Crawling back home and trying to learn more ways to better manage symptoms, while popping ridiculous amounts of pharmaceuticals, seemed like the best I could hope for. Giving up, waving my white flag and admitting defeat were actually welcome prospects. How dark it is before the dawn.
Thankfully, a dear friend pointed out that this new philosophy “smacks of defeatism.” I have never been a quitter. That is not who I am as a person. When I read her words, I was shaken from my daze. I realized what was happening. I wasn’t accepting my situation; I was giving up! The sweetest anger I have ever known flooded my mind. I was furious with this version of acceptance/resignation that I had been sold. I decided instantly that, no matter what happened, I was not going to give up or give in. I refused, right then and there, to live in the shadows of my illnesses. I would not be a victim and decided instead to strive to be a victor. For the first time, I truly understood what Dr. Wayne Dyer meant when he wrote, “There’s nothing wrong with anger provided you use it constructively.” That anger gave me the motivation I needed to focus on improving my mental health, instead of trying to manage symptoms. My efforts would be used to get better, not to get by. After all, I figured if I was going to fail, I might as well fail while daring for greatness. That has made all the difference!
I had researched, and consequently tried, many different things in the past to reduce symptoms, but I had never thought to make a plan using them all at the same time to create a synergistic effect. I got out my research and a notebook. I began to write down strategies for a wellness plan, not a symptom management plan. I wrote down everything I could think of, and then I began reassessing my priorities. One of the first things on my list was to seek out the counsel of a new doctor who would help me on my quest for mental health. There would be no more resigning myself to the belief that the best I could do was find ways to work through symptoms and survive. I wanted to thrive.
To do that I realized I couldn’t go on fighting through symptoms. I had to start striving for mental health. This may seem like a subtle difference, but that change of focus revolutionized my outlook on life. Now, even when I use anger towards depression, mania or anxiety symptoms to motivate myself into action, I’m not angry with myself. I can do that because those symptoms are not who I am as a person. They are nothing more than symptoms of my illnesses. I’ve never heard anyone say I am cancer. No one tells those patients to identify themselves as their illness, accept their fate, simply take their medicine and try to learn to get by. Why should people with mental illnesses be told to do so?
I understand that people like shortcuts and “life-hacks” today. Selling books and programs teaching tricks to function with symptoms is much easier than selling books and programs on hard work and tenacity. There is absolutely nothing wrong with selling tricks on how to better deal with symptoms. The problem lies in the fact that, to sell them, some are teaching their readers/participants that they are doomed to suffer harsh symptoms and setbacks for the rest of their lives. The logic put forth is that it is important for people to buy their books/programs, because in doing so the reader/participant will be better prepared for a never-ending storm. I write today in defiance of that philosophy.
It is true that there is no cure, yet. Symptoms can creep up, but the amount of time they are experienced, and their severity, can be greatly reduced. Yes, I have an emergency plan. I know what I am going to do if symptoms were to start overwhelming me again. I do believe in being prudent. Once that is done, however, the question becomes, what am I going to do so that hopefully I won’t have to use that emergency plan? I’m certainly not alone in this way of thinking. The National Institutes of Health’s curriculum1 on mental illness states, “At this time, most mental illnesses cannot be cured, but they can usually be treated effectively to minimize the symptoms and allow the individual to function in work, school, or social environments.” They didn’t say batten down the hatches and find ways to fight through it. They state outright that mental illnesses can usually be “treated effectively to minimize symptoms…” Knowing that helped reinforce my decision to focus nearly all of my attention on achieving better mental health to treat symptoms, not on learning endless ways to cope with them.
What that means is, I take small positive actions every day that improve my mental health, minimize symptoms and allow me to live a wonderful life. I don’t do anything fancy. I use the research I gathered to ensure I eat healthier foods, exercise, fit in as many wellness activities as possible and take my medication. It works. There is hope! Do I still have bipolar disorder and anxiety? Yes. Do I still experience symptoms? Yes, but they are milder and leave much more quickly than they did in the past. When I focused on ways to battle my symptoms, I was destined to be a hopeless victim of my circumstances. Now, I focus my energy on attaining mental health and getting on with my life.
Even I have been shocked by the results. I am now a mental health warrior. I’ve lost over ninety pounds that I gained during my last episode. I am breaking personal records in races and recently had my first top ten finish. I’m training for a marathon again. I’m healthy. I’m content, and my wife and daughters are overjoyed. That doesn’t mean that I feel I’m immune to my imbalanced brain chemistry. What it means is that I play a large role in the quality of my life again, and no matter what, I can always find some way improve my situation. I am no longer helpless and hopeless.
I sometimes wonder where I would be if I had listened to that doctor and those mental illness writers/gurus who tell people to accept their fate, identify as their illness and simply try to limit the damage. I would undoubtedly still be spending my days trying to work through symptoms and figuring out how to survive. Instead, I’m learning how to thrive. That is why I only write about the absolute essentials for working through mental illness symptoms. I focus my writing the same way I focus my life, on working towards mental health. And I’ve just scratched the surface. There is an enormous amount of research and data out there that can help. If a trembling wreck of a person can stumble out of his fourth mental ward and revolutionize his experience of life like I did by using it, then I have a great deal of hope that many others can do the same.
I am not a special case. I experience self-doubt and fear the same as everyone else. Things are so much better now that sometimes I worry this may all be a dream. Perhaps it is inevitable then that, occasionally, old demons whisper in my ear, “What if you lose it again?” So, what if I do? I only fail if I quit trying. I have experienced more joy, contentment and bliss since I started this course of action than I have at any other point in my life. I’ve already won, no matter what happens. If I were to have another major episode next week and end up back in another mental ward, I can promise you this, I would come out and start back right where I left off. My life isn’t perfect, but it is far better than if I were to sit back accepting that bad times are inevitable and that I’m doomed to a life of finding ways to work through symptoms.
If doubt and fear start to take hold of me, I pull out the following quote. I take it with me everywhere I go. It is my comfort blanket, and it reminds me to stay true to who I am and what I am doing.
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. -Theodore Roosevelt
As always, I wish you wonderful mental health and great successes eating healthy meals. If you, or someone you love, is severely depressed or anxious, please click the link to the right and you will be directed to the International Association for Suicide Prevention. It is a great resource and is staffed by wonderful people.
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