In the 20 years I have lived with mental illness, I have learned some critical lessons — mostly the hard way.
As I reflect on my past, I want to share what I have learned to help people like me reach recovery (hopefully, more easily and quickly than I did).
Below are some key lessons. I wish I had known them much earlier on in my journey.
Self-Love and Affirmation Matter
My recovery required me to have compassion for myself. Indeed, my healing was rooted in the following principles:
- You must always love yourself and believe you’re worthy of a better life.
- You need to take care of yourself first.
- Never blame yourself for your mental illness.
- You are not a “failure” for having a mental illness or experiencing its negative consequences.
With these in mind, you can better practice self-care and forgiveness.
You Can Reclaim and Celebrate Your Identity
Being diagnosed with a mental health condition or experiencing severe symptoms of a mental illness can feel all-consuming. But you will always be more than a diagnosis or a label.
As you navigate a diagnosis and treatment, please remember the following:
- You are bravely living with a serious illness, but you are not defined by your illness.
- Mental illness does not change who you are. You are a multidimensional person.
- You can find inspiration in your peers, including those in recovery and fighting to reach recovery.
- If your mental illness changed your life plans, you may have to mourn those losses to move on to a better and more fulfilling life.
- Don’t think you’ve “fallen behind” in life; life is not a race.
Treatment is Lifesaving
There is no cure for mental health conditions, particularly serious mental illness (SMI), but you can manage symptoms, and you can live a fulfilling life — the key is to get help early. Delaying treatment can make a condition worse and harder to treat, so it’s essential not to diminish or dismiss symptoms, or assume they’ll eventually go away.
Empower yourself by learning about your illness and treatment options from reputable sources (practitioners, academic research, NAMI, etc.). Spend time researching and finding a good psychiatrist with experience treating your condition. Then, work with them to come up with a plan that works for you and your diagnosis. Be an active participant in your care and have open discussions with your provider about any concerns (side effects, for example).
Be patient and keep in mind that treatment can take time to work. Do not change medication dosages on your own if you feel a medication is not working, as that can lead to relapse.
Don’t fear, but be prepared for, a crisis. If you have a plan in place, you will have more control in the event of a mental health crisis. Ultimately, treatment can be a difficult process, but knowledge and self-awareness can help carry you though to recovery.
Embrace Your Recovery Journey
Recovery can often feel like an unreachable place but remembering the following principles can give you strength.
- Define what recovery means to you.
- Always have hope, no matter how long or how hard you have suffered. Most people living with serious mental illness do reach recovery.
- Take responsibility for treatment and managing your illness. Recovery is up to you. Others can help you, but no one can do the work for you.
- Get out of your comfort zone – this is where real growth occurs.
- Focus on what you can control and let go of what you cannot.
- Learn from your disappointments and setbacks.
- Avoid comparison and don’t be disappointed if you feel that others are managing their mental illness “better” than you are.
- Remember that having a relapse isn’t shameful, nor are you “starting over” after one. Don’t be. You’re starting from a place of experience.
- Make educational, career, relationship or other changes if needed to preserve your mental health.
- Try not to dwell on “lost time,” but rather live in the present moment.
Adjusting Your Attitude is Powerful
While it can be difficult to shift your perspective, doing so can create more opportunities for recovery.
- Try to be optimistic; negative self-talk and beliefs can hold you back. Reframing these thoughts is a critical step in your journey.
- Be grateful when you can. And accept there will be days that you don’t feel grateful.
- Replace self-pity with self-care. Pity can hold you back, but proactive compassion for yourself is valuable.
- Don’t assume you’ll be sick forever.
- Identify and embrace your strengths, not your weaknesses.
Value Your Relationships
When living with mental illness, relationships and social connections can be difficult to forge and maintain. But the following lessons have allowed me to have healthy and supportive relationships:
- Asking for help is brave.
- Remember that you are lovable and loved by many more people than you think.
- Don’t self-sabotage, like pushing people away or isolating yourself from your support system. Instead, give people a chance. Just because your support network can’t possibly understand everything you’re going through doesn’t mean they can’t help.
- Keep in mind that your loved ones won’t always know the “right” thing to say or do.
- Accept the help you need, but don’t let others make decisions for you.
- Accept that people who love you are going to worry about you — and sometimes, they will get frustrated by your choices.
- Be grateful for those who support you and show it.
- Know that you will not lose everyone in your life because of your illness. You may lose some people, but mental illness will show you the people who matter most in your life.
- Don’t be afraid to set boundaries and enforce them.
Fighting Stigma Is Half the Battle
Healing requires acknowledging and surviving the stigma surrounding mental illness. Stigma is ignorance. It is the problem of those who perpetuate it, not yours. You don’t have to internalize it. There are too many tragedies in our community due to stigma, but there are also beautiful stories of recovery and progress, too. If you feel comfortable, speaking out against stigma will pave the way for self-empowerment and for others to find recovery.
Over the course of your mental health journey, there will always be more to learn. But embrace what you have learned; chances are, you recognized many of these lessons in your own journey. But living by them is a conscious choice, every day. Prioritizing these steps can allow for huge strides in recovery. Perhaps you can even reach recovery more easily than I did.
Katherine Ponte is happily living in recovery from severe bipolar I disorder. She’s the Founder of ForLikeMinds’ mental illness peer support community, ForLikeGoals, collaborative goal management, BipolarThriving: Recovery Coaching and Psych Ward Greeting Cards. Katherine is also a faculty member of the Yale University Program for Recovery and Community Health and has authored ForLikeMinds: Mental Illness Recovery Insights. She is on the NAMI-NYC Board.