Mental health: Progress isn’t linear

What to expect when you’re always expecting the worst.

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Disclaimer: I am not a doctor! Do not mistake this article for actual medical advice.

Is your mental health a constant work in progress? Do you often wish you could “just be over and done with this bullshit and be ‘normal’ already?” I feel you.

Here’s a fact about me: I have depression and anxiety. I have learned a lot, both about myself and about mental illness, since receiving my diagnosis when I was 18. I’m 27 now.

At some point during my college years I realized I had basically two options when it came to moving forward. One, I could dismiss what one doctor concluded (and other doctors later corroborated), live in denial and not actively treat my problems. I learned the hard way that when I try to live as if I’m not prone to anxiety and depression, several areas of my life suffer — school, work, relationships, fitness, finances, etc. Things would go smoothly for a while, but when shit would inevitably hit the fan I’d become like a tortoise that’s turned over on its back and can’t get up.

Actual footage of me in the midst of an anxiety/depression crisis after denying anything was wrong.

I soon realized option two, that I needed to acknowledge my diagnosis and try to treat and manage my anxiety and depression. For me, this has required a lot of trial and error. And while I have discovered many things that make me feel better — cognitive behavioral therapy, getting enough sleep, regular exercise and certain SSRIs, to name a few — the trial and error is ongoing.

My methods for staying mentally healthy are always evolving. Is that frustrating at times? Hell. Yes. Do I sometimes think, “Ugh, why do I have to deal with this?” and wallow in self-pity for a bit? You bet. Do I occasionally feel like I’m doing my best to stay healthy when suddenly a panic attack hits me out of nowhere? Unfortunately, yes.

I eventually had to realize that these were the cards I was dealt and I need to accept and deal with this hand if I want to enjoy life. I didn’t get to pick this diagnosis, but it’s reality, and denying it won’t make it go away. Tough. Life isn’t fair. Some people need prescription glasses, some people struggle with alcoholism, some people are anemic — fill in the blank with any physical or mental ailment. I happen to have depression and anxiety. That’s just the way it is.

I sometimes joke in an admittedly unhealthy way that my brother and sister don’t have mental health problems like I do and that “I must’ve gotten the crazy genes!” However, they both have eczema and serious peanut allergies. I don’t understand genetics much beyond punnet squares, so I can’t guess why the skin and allergy issues skipped me.

I have watched my brother and sister handle their eczema and allergies for most of their lives (I’m the oldest), and both have done so with grace. They’ve developed skincare regimens, learned what lotion to use and what to avoid, learned exactly how much sun exposure they can take. They carry EpiPens at all times and are vigilant about what foods may have peanuts hidden in the ingredients. They tell others about these issues, if appropriate. Most importantly, they don’t deny that they have eczema and peanut allergies. They manage the issues constantly. And as a result, they have their eczema mostly under control, and neither have gone into anaphylactic shock. They still have eczema flare-ups from time to time, but that doesn’t cause them to give up on treatment.

I have come to realize that having depression and anxiety is much like having eczema or a peanut allergy. Whether my mental health issues are my fault or not, they’re my responsibility. I have “flare-ups,” some of which are way worse than others, but I can’t abandon treatment just because I can’t completely eliminate my problem.

I’ve spent the past six to seven years trying various treatments and learning what helps a lot, what helps a little, what doesn’t do anything, and what makes me feel worse.

Something that’s become apparent to me recently is that when it comes to mental health, progress isn’t linear. At least, not for me. (And I would venture to guess not for most people.)

Furthermore, treatments that worked for me in the past may not work anymore. Treating and managing my depression and anxiety, as I’ve mentioned before, is an ongoing life project.

I wish I could say that treating mental illness is as easy as simply seeing a therapist, or taking a pill, or *getting out in nature;* and that if you keep regularly doing one of those things enough that your symptoms will get better and better, and that eventually you’ll be cured and won’t need any treatment. If this were an option, I would’ve “gotten better” a long time ago. For many people, such a simple fix isn’t reality.

If long-term progress for mental illness could be plotted on a graph, it wouldn’t be a line traveling upward at a 90-degree angle forever. It would look more like a Dow Jones stock chart.

^My mental health progress over time, illustrated in a graph. Or maybe it’s a scale showing the Dow Jones Industrial Average ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Source.

Since my diagnosis I have made improvements in areas of my life that I had been insecure about, partially in attempts to help my anxiety and depression. I used to be withdrawn and rarely socialized. Since treating my mental health issues, I slowly became more social and have made more friends over time. I used to be scared of working out, specifically running, and was completely sedentary. Today, I run regularly and love doing competitive 5K races. In high school and college I did, uh, OK academically (I call myself “world’s okayest student”). In the professional world, I have made achievements I’m proud of and consider myself successful overall. In many ways, I’m an improved version of my 18-year-old self.

But, guess what — I still have days when it’s difficult to get out of bed. I still have problems with feeling “enough.” I suffer from impostor syndrome a lot.

Mental illness doesn’t care what your life looks like at any given moment. I could be the fittest, most successful woman on Earth and still feel depressed and anxious at times. Don’t cling to the idea of “once I achieve x things will be better.” Striving for fitness, success and whatever else you idealize are good things, but don’t think that those achievements will solve all your problems. You will still have a mental illness. You will still need to work on it.

It’s these improvements, subsequent happiness and then eventual bouts of anxiety and depression that make the up-and-down nature of my hypothetical mental health progress graph.

All this is to say, don’t get discouraged when you face setbacks. And you will face setbacks. A bad day, week, month or year (to borrow from the “Friends” theme song) doesn’t mean that your situation will worsen.

2018 has been the hardest year of my life. Among the challenges I’ve dealt with are going through a breakup, losing my job, being unemployed, coming home to find that my car had been broken into, experiencing frequent panic attacks when I usually have one or two per year, and vomiting in a Lyft and being charged $150 for damages (Whoops, is that oversharing? Surely someone reading this has been through the same thing). There are more.

These distressing events have led to me worrying that I’ve messed things up majorly, feeling like I’m unlovable, playing negative thoughts in my head on loop. I cry on the shoulders of those closest to me. I usually experience a few days of pain and lethargy before I feel like myself again.

When the period of anxiety and depression is over I’m usually hit with a wave of relief. And sometimes I erroneously think, “That’s it! No more sadness for me! I am going to FINALLY get my shit together and never be an anxious, depressed mess again!”

That’s a lot of pressure to put on myself.

I do this out of shame. I feel like I need to prove to others, “see, I’m working on this! I’m trying to get better!”

Improvement is necessary. But this resolve to “never ever backslide ever again” ultimately isn’t good, because when I do suffer another crisis I’m way too hard on myself. “I said I would never do this again, but here I am. I’m such an idiot.”

The goal isn’t perfection. The goal is to have fewer and more manageable crises.

Losing my job, my car getting broken into — these were events I couldn’t have predicted. Bad things will happen to me. I can’t stop that.

I know I will feel anxious and depressed again. But I also know that there are things I can do to mitigate the negative effects of my next depressive episode — like not pounding liquor to numb my feelings, leading me to get so sick that I throw up in a Lyft, thus incurring further consequences and leading me to feel even worse.

Finally, I have realized that I need to prioritize my mental health for myself. The number one reason I do anything to improve my mental health is so I can enjoy life, not to prove anything to others. Actually having my shit together is better than putting on an “I-have-my-shit-together” facade.

So far I have implored you to recognize your mental health problems, treat them and to not be too discouraged when your problems recur. Now, I’m going to ask that you have hope.

Photo by Lina Trochez on Unsplash

I know how eye roll-inducing this probably sounds. When I am at my absolute worst, I have no hope. There is nothing, no words of encouragement, that will make me feel better. I tell myself that life will never get better and that I will never be happy again.

But, time after time, this line of thinking has proven to be false. Certain circumstances have gotten better. I have been happy again. While this year has had its challenges, it brought experiences that made me feel pure joy. I graduated from an improv comedy program. Wonderful people entered my life. I attended Bonnaroo for the first time. I traveled to new places. I got a job that I love. I wrote Medium articles that received positive feedback. I ran more than 100 miles altogether and improved my 5K time. These are the experiences that I love.

One of the best articles I’ve ever read on mental health is here on Medium, and it’s called “Mastering depression and living the life you were meant to live.” Daniel Jeffries puts it best:

Joy is found in returning to the things we love again and again. It’s better than sex, or drink, or drugs, or food, or any other substitute for joy.

The meaning of life is not found in the famous, age old question:

What is the meaning of life?

That is a universal question that has no answer.

The right question is what is the meaning of life to me?

When you stop trying to keep all the plates spinning and stop trying to do everything the world tells you and you stop chasing fantasies of perpetual happiness then you can just live your life.

And then you can find the true joy of life which is spending time with family and loved ones, eating things that you like that make you feel healthy and sometimes eating something unhealthy too and being OK with it.

Exercising, creating things, writing, talking, walking, recording, painting, traveling, thinking, spending time with kids and animals, whatever those things are for you, find them.

When you stop worrying about all these other things then it opens up the path to the true meaning of life, which is spending time on the things that you love.

I highly encourage you to read the whole article.

Are you still with me? I’ve gone in many different directions in this article and the message may be a little discombobulated. This is what I want you to know: Your mental illness is not your fault, but you must address it. As you work to treat your mental illness, know that when things go awry you are not a failure. Treatment is ever-evolving.

This year, my progress has absolutely not been linear. I’ve had some very low lows. It’s hope for the high moments that keeps me going.

Writer based in ATX. My passions are journalism, mental health and comedy. That pic is from when I inadvertently dressed as Rosie the Riveter. annsmajstrla.com

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