Treat Your Mental Illness Like a Pet
Remember you’re the one with the leash
First appointments with new therapists are always hard. Should you be 100% honest right from the start and let them see just how screwed up you really are? Or pretend you have your act put together a little neater than you actually do? In the beginning, it can feel almost like taking a test.
The first time I saw my therapist he gave me a homework assignment. I had to make a list describing myself. None of my previous therapists had done this before. In retrospect, I can see why this was such a useful tool for him. A lot can be learned from the way someone describes themselves.
At the time, I was recovering from a bipolar manic episode that had ended with me spending several weeks in the hospital. I was still having difficulties stabilizing my mood despite being on several different medications. I had a six-month-old baby at home that my mother was helping me care for during the day while my husband was at work.
Bipolar was affecting every minute of my life. It seemed like every conversation, every place I went, and everything I did, had something to do with my mental illness. Either picking up medication, going to the doctor, to therapy, talking to my husband or family about how I was feeling, and on, and on, and on …
When I brought my list to our next appointment, my therapist asked why I had written “I am bipolar” as number one. I explained that my mental illness was taking over my whole life and told him all the ways it was doing so. He asked me a question that changed the way I thought about my bipolar disorder from then on.
Do you want to be more than your illness?
Of course, my answer was yes. I don’t know anyone who struggles with mental illness who would answer any differently. We want to be more than our illness, but how do we make it happen?
As simple as it sounds, it is all in the way we think about it. We can be our illness, or we can have our illness. One is an identity. The other is a part of our lives.
But simple doesn’t mean easy.
Bipolar is something I was diagnosed with as a teen and from what we know, there is no cure for it. I will always have it. I feel like I have a relationship with my mental illness. And when I feel powerless, and like there is nothing I can do to make it better, the dynamic of the relationship is off.
“If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change” — Wayne Dyer
That is when I need to flip the positions and become the bigger one in the relationship. This means looking at it in a different way. As Wayne Dyer says, “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change”.
Changing your position in the relationship isn’t necessarily going to change your condition. It depends on your personal illness. But it will change the way you see yourself. I know that my bipolar can be affected, during certain episodes, by my self-esteem. When I’m depressed, I feel shittier when I feel powerless.
My illness will be very “big” at times, but it isn’t always going to be. It will get better, and with the right medication become manageable. That’s not to say I won’t have more episodes down the road. I will, even under the best circumstances, because that’s the nature of bipolar. But I will still experience times of relief.
I’ve started comparing it to having a dog. We see people walking their dogs all the time. But have you seen someone out and it looked like their dog was pulling them down the street? There’s a difference, right? Walking your dog and letting your dog walk you are not the same experience. They don’t look the same, and they certainly don’t feel the same to the one holding the leash.
Try seeing your mental illness as a pet and take control of it. You walk your dog not the other way around.
Try seeing your mental illness as a pet and take control of it. You walk your dog not the other way around. Every once in a while, it’s going to misbehave and try to run. But, you’re the one with the leash. When your dog tries to run, stand firm, give the leash a quick strong jerk and get it back in line.
I still struggle. I still have mood episodes and need occasional medication adjustments. But this change in perspective has done amazing things for my self-esteem.
Today, the list I make describing myself looks much different. And I never put my mental illness as the first thing.
We still go on walks. But I walk my dog now, it never walks me. Because I am not bipolar. I just have it.
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