By Sarah Merritt Ryan
Those of us who have experienced psychosis will tell you: we can be overly hard on ourselves after an episode. After a mental health crisis, it can be easy to blame yourself and lose yourself in shame. But over time, I’ve learned that self-blame isn’t the answer — self-love is. Choosing to love yourself can serve as a road map out of darkness and into a bright future.
My journey to healing was a long one. After each hospitalization for psychosis, I woke up every morning feeling defeated and like my life was over — or it should have been. I had no assurance — no confirmation — that my life as I knew it would ever return and move forward. I just had to force myself to put one foot in front of the other, believing it was possible for me to heal.
My mental health journey would have been much easier if I had been able to see my future; to know that my life would turn around and that I would secure a full-time job, and, a year later, I would land a career position. It would have been all the motivation in the world to already know that in five years I would marry the wonderful man I love in the presence of family members who stuck by me and good friends, some old and some new. It would have been pure joy to know that in seven years I would give birth and become a mother.
However, we do not get to glimpse our futures. And in those early months and years, all I could see in front of me were disability papers, medication and a diagnosis, not to mention debilitating emotional pain and cognitive damage. During my hospitalizations, I often felt like the mountain before me was too formidable to climb. But something in me wouldn’t allow me to give up — and I’m thankful for that. My favorite quote by Dr. Martin Luther King is, “Faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase.”
I had to trust I was moving in the right direction without having everything figured out. But to take those first steps, I had to believe that I was still alive for a reason. I had to know that I matter. I had to love myself enough to want good things to happen in my life.
Loving yourself can take many forms: The initiative to first seek treatment and then the persistence to stick with it. The tenacity to find the answers you are looking for and find the right doctor. The infinite patience you must have while your brain heals. The ability to realize that your illness is a medical condition, not a character flaw. The grace to know that you can still enjoy life even if you are not completely healed yet, and the faith that one day you will be. The confidence to accept you may need to take medication for life. The boldness to make the best decisions for you, no matter what anyone else thinks about mental illness. The recognition, acceptance and appreciation of moments when others love you, and are cheering you on, because feeling loved and supported also helps so much with having the motivation and courage to recover.
You can still have love for yourself, even if you have competing feelings like shame, anger and sadness. Even though it has been 10 years since my last psychotic break, I still blame and shame myself sometimes for having had psychosis, as part of a mental health diagnosis so stigmatized by society. I struggle sometimes with being kind and forgiving to myself, even though I know I did nothing wrong by having mental illness.
It would be so misleading to state that any of this is easy. Coming to terms with how I feel about what I went through is still an ongoing battle for me, but I’m winning because love always seems to win in the end. I have found this to be true in my story, and I think love can win in your life too.
I once thought that the worst thing in the world was to lose your mind, but it isn’t. The condition of your heart matters more. The ability to choose love is the one thing that can never be taken away from you.
Sarah Ryan is a writer covering mental illness topics like stigma, recovery and hope. She is a survivor of schizophrenia, and she is an ongoing NAMI Wake County blog contributor and NAMI Connection support group facilitator in North Carolina. She is now a wife, mother and proud owner of two pitbull rescues.
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