Things You Learn When You’re Mentally Ill

Pretty much all my life, I’ve shown some signs of mental illness. I was a quiet and withdrawn kid who was anxious and didn’t have many friends. My mind was always scattered and I was always a little bit sad. All throughout my teen years, I dealt with constant anxiety, misery, and an eating disorder, though I didn’t dare label it “mental illness.” When I was 18, severe mental illness started to rear its ugly head, and over the last few years, I’ve been given a bunch of diagnoses: an eating disorder, bipolar mood disorder, PTSD, an unspecified anxiety disorder, and more. You name it, there’s a fairly good chance that I have it.

You learn a lot of things when you’re really mentally ill that you might not learn otherwise. When you spend a lot of time wanting to die and going in and out of hospitals, it really changes your perspective. Being alive is a constant fight; something you spend thousands of dollars on just so you can find the right treatment. Which brings me to a list of things I have learned throughout this whole messy, scary, wild process:

  1. We’re All Lucky to Be Alive

Some time ago, the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Study was created. They created a scoring system for childhood trauma. It is, of course, not perfect — it’s pretty hard to quantify something like trauma — but compared to anything else, it’s pretty much the best we’ve got. (Unless you know of something better, then please, by all means, leave it in the comments.) They found out that among mostly-middle-class privileged white people alone, most of them had gone through some kind of trauma — caregivers who struggled with drug abuse, divorce, child abuse, etc. I believe the moment of this discovery was when the creator of this study broke down crying, realizing that everyone’s lives are so hard and no one talks about it.

If you add mental illness, various forms of oppression and marginalization, poverty, etc., you realize just how many people have had it rough. Just how many people have struggled to survive. I have struggled with my own will to live since my teens and so have many others, and many of us are still here. Many of us aren’t. Some of us have attempted suicide and survived. Those of us who are here should celebrate. Life is so, so hard and we’re here! We’re still here! That’s amazing. Give yourself a pat on the back.

2. The American Healthcare System and Pretty Much All Mental Health Related Services Suck a Monkey’s Smelly Anus

To put it delicately. My family spent thousands — THOUSANDS — of dollars trying to find the right people to help keep me alive. Many therapists don’t take insurance, or they did and the insurance we were on had such a high deductible that it didn’t matter. If you need a caseworker or social security services, you need to work your ass off to get them because they make it as hard as possible for anyone to access these services because they don’t really want people to have them. Want to apply for the Department of Mental Health’s services? Your application could take up a year to process, and the same goes for SSI/SSDI. You can’t ever expect to get anything immediately. The whole process is an endless chain of phonecalls, emails, paperwork, and waiting — which anyone would hardly have the energy for, but it’s especially hard on the people who need these services.

3. Mental Illness Can Take Away Your Energy

With the exception of when I’m manic, I have no energy. Want to make new friends at an event that starts at 7 pm? Sorry, I went out today and that took everything I had. Need to clean the litter box? Sorry, I spent all day staring into the abyss and now I can’t face cat poop. if I go to the pharmacy, I can’t finish my paperwork. If I finish my paperwork, I can’t go to the pharmacy. Every single task is constant effort and life is full of compormises.

4. Sometimes You Need to Go to the Hospital and That’s OK.

I have had four hospitalizations over the past year and a half or so; three partial stays (which is pretty much like a day program) and one inpatient.

Not all hospitals are good — not-good can range from mediocre to actively abusing patients — but my hospital experiences have been positive. Every time I’ve been hospitalized, I’ve gotten the hep I needed and come out a little better than when I came in. Each time, it was hard to accept that I needed that level of care, but I never regretted going. If you are having serious thoughts of hurting yourself or others and/or can’t function, consider going to your nearest emergency room. There are people who can help you and there is no shame in getting extra care until you can get back on your feet.

5. Mental Health Stigma is Everywhere

Have you ever called something or someone “crazy”? It seems harmless and like it’s just a part of our modern lexicon, but imagine the effect it has on someone like me, who deals with severe mental illness.

It’s surprising how often media and even well-intentioned people joke about “going to the mental hospital” or other harmful mental-illness-related topics. People say harmful things about how things that are inconsistent are bipolar (like me!) or how various people or things are “schizo” (real people I’ve met in treatment are schizophrenic!). As much as I love The Try Guys (a few guys from BuzzFeed who make hilarious videos on BuzzFeed of them trying various things), there was a video in which one of the Try Guys did a stripping performance in which he tried to get out of a straitjacket, to music such as “Crazy in Love” by Beyonce and “She’s a Maniac.” Such acts reduce people with mental illness to sick freaks who aren’t real people.

Maybe instead of saying something is “crazy,” we could say it’s “wild.” Maybe we could not joke about straitjackets and mental hospitals. We should talk about mental illness as what it is: a real thing that affects real people.

6. Getting Better is Possible

I may not be in excellent condition, and getting better might not be easy, but I’m doing it, little by little. I unloaded the dishwasher before leaving the house this morning, when leaving the house and unloading the dishwasher are two things I wasn’t able to do not that long ago. I still struggle on a daily basis, I still need to go to the hospital sometimes, and I still need to take a lot of medications and go to therapy just to be somewhat functional. But every time I go to therapy, go to the hospital, or take my meds, I am one step closer to getting better. And if you get help, you will be to.

Out of all the things I’ve learned, one of the biggest things is that sharing my experience gives others hope and makes them feel less alone. If you are struggling with mental illness, let me tell you the biggest, most important truth of all:

There is hope for you.

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