Thriving with a mental health diagnosis.

This is about mental health. Some of it is about depression, because that is something that many people wrestle with. But some of it applies to mental health in general. These are things that I’ve discovered that have helped me. I offer them to you with the hope that they may be of use to you as well.

Depression feeds on itself. It has its own gravity. It is like a planet that is larger than you, sucking you into its own orbit, making it hard to escape. But you can. Inch by inch, step by step, you can get further away from it. You have the power and control. It is a thing, a force outside of you. It isn’t you. Do not let your diagnosis be your definition. You aren’t mentally ill. You have a mental health diagnosis. It is very hard to be objective about your own care when it is your mind that is affected, but it isn’t impossible. It takes a lot of work, but it is completely worth it. Every little step counts.

I was diagnosed as bipolar when I was in my early 30s. I’m in my mid 40s now. I’ve hospitalized myself twice – the last time was over 12 years ago. Both times I realized that I needed help. Since then I’ve bought a house, gotten married, and been at the same job far longer than I can believe. I’ve become a stable adult SINCE my diagnosis. If it weren’t for my diagnosis, I’d probably be homeless now. It isn’t the illness that is the problem – it is what you do with it. You can live very well with a mental health diagnosis- you have the power.

There are steps you can take to take control of this condition, to not let it be in charge. Every little tiny thing you do is a positive step towards health, and each step generates a little more energy to be able to do the next step. You won’t be able to do it all at once, and you will fall and fail several times. This is normal. This is normal for everybody – not just those with a mental health diagnosis.

You won’t be able to do it all at first. But doing something is better than doing nothing. Yes, it is hard. Yes, it is worth it. You are worth it. The disease will tell you otherwise. But I’m here, standing on the shore, having waded through the rapids and slipped on the rocks, and I’m telling you there is hope after diagnosis, and there is a way. There is a way to feel better, even to feel great.

It isn’t going to happen on its own, though. You have to do something.

Take your medicine every day. This isn’t like an antibiotic, where you take it for ten days and then you are done. You have to come to grips with the fact that this is a chronic illness. Chronic means forever. That alone can get you a little depressed. But – here’s a way to think of it. Without medicine, you will get worse. With medicine, you will be fine. We are lucky to live in a time where we have medicine to take. Medicine is essential, and taking it is a step in the right direction. Taking your medicine isn’t a sign of weakness – it is a sign that you want to get well. It is the opposite. It is a step on this path to health.

I like to think of mental health medicine as the same as medicine for diabetes. I used to think I could do all this on my own, that I could just eat right and exercise and I wouldn’t have to take pills at all. But if I had diabetes, I wouldn’t think that way, I’m pretty sure. I’d do what I could to help myself, and I’d take my medicine. We forget that we are biochemical machines – being in a human body is being part of a moving chemistry experiment. We are faulty in bits – it isn’t perfect. So we take medicine in order to fix what doesn’t work well. It is the same with glasses – if you have bad vision, you wear glasses or contacts. You don’t think you can adjust what you eat and do and suddenly see better. Props are healthy. It isn’t admitting weakness to ask for help. It is healthy.

Work with your doctor. If your medicine needs to be adjusted, tell her. Sometimes our body chemistry changes and the medicine no longer works. If your doctor doesn’t listen to you, get another doctor. I had one who treated me like a stupid child. He also said “That’s normal” when I said that I couldn’t concentrate enough to read and I was sleeping 10-12 hours a day. That isn’t normal. And a doctor who thinks that is isn’t a doctor, he is a quack.

Yes, it is hard to find another doctor. Making any change is hard – you feel like you are pushing a huge rock up a hill. You just want to sit there on that hill and just let things happen to you. This is the disease talking. If you let it win this conversation, it will keep winning. Remember, slow and steady wins the race. Every step you take gets you stronger.

Eating well and getting regular exercise is essential. It isn’t about a starvation diet at all – it is about making good choices with food. It is about seeing food as healing. It is about movement too – about intentionally incorporating moving into your daily routine. The human body isn’t meant to sit for hours at a time. You’ll feel much better if you move. It will be hard to do at first. It gets better. It gets amazing. You’ll be creaky and whiny at first. Keep on going. It gets better.

When I first started working out, I felt like I was going to die. It hurt, I was worn out, I was sore. It was really hard. I hated the class. I hated being there. I wanted the class to end. I puttered through, doing only about half the routine. But I felt better after the class was over. I felt glad that I had gotten through it, and done something good for myself. And then I got stronger, and now the classes seem easy. This is the trick. Stay with it. Of course it hurts at the beginning. You aren’t in shape. But keep going. Every good thing you do is a step towards healing.

Find what is right for you. I’m going to tell you what I do that works for me. It has taken me years to figure this out, and I’m OK with the idea that this may change. Currently I do yoga, water aerobics, and I walk.

I do yoga for 10-15 minutes every morning. I also take a yoga class every week. I have made a commitment to myself to do this. I’ve noticed that if I decide to skip one morning, or the class once a week, then I start to want to skip every day or every week, and then it is a month I’ve not had my class. My body and my head let me know that this isn’t good. Push through that resistance, that desire to not do what is good for you. Go ahead and do it, and you’ll feel better afterwards. You’ve won that battle.

There is something amazing about yoga. It unkinks your body and your head. It isn’t just exercise. It teaches balance, both physically and mentally. It teaches about acceptance of where you are, and gently pushing yourself to get better and stronger. Yoga is like a massage you give yourself. I recommend it highly. I’m grateful that my local YMCA teaches classes. There are many different kinds of yoga classes. Some are very basic, some are very advanced. If you go to one class and it is too much or too little for you, go to a different one with a different teacher.

I do water aerobics, at least twice a week. The class I take is taught by a very energetic teacher. I had thought that water aerobics was just for arthritic little old ladies, and while it can be, it doesn’t have to be. It can be a very vigorous cardio exercise with resistance. The water provides support and resistance at the same time. This exercise is great on your joints – you can move them and not hurt them like you would with land exercises. Also, water aerobics is fabulous for your core. Having a sexy belly does wonders for your self-esteem.

I walk every day at lunch for 20 minutes. I’ve had to bring my lunch to work to make this work out. I have changed how I work as well, and I get in a mile and a half. Again, every little bit counts. Even ten minutes of walking is better than none.

I’ve had to give up a lot to do these things. There is only so much time in the week when you work a full time job. But I’ve found that being healthy is more important than reading ten books a week. You have to figure out your priorities and find a healthy balance. Sometimes you can do several things at once – you can listen to an audiobook or a podcast while walking or gardening, for instance.

What you eat is important too. Why go through the effort of exercise if you aren’t going to put good fuel in your body? Balance is important here. If you eat a lot of high-energy foods (caffeine and processed sugar) you’ll crash hard. If you eat a lot of low-energy foods (junk food, fried, processed, meat) you’ll just drag through your day. You have been taught by our society that you need these things to get through your day. You don’t. Our culture lies about a lot of things, and is totally unaware of consequences. This is why so many people are dying of preventable diseases. Don’t be them. You have a choice, and you have control.

I eat yogurt or oatmeal for breakfast, along with grapes and bananas. Eat organic when possible. Eat more vegetables than meat. When you do eat meat, eat fish. Don’t eat anything fried. No sodas, and avoid processed sugar. It causes a crash. I’ve gone without caffeine for over 5 years. Caffiene is a cheat – it over balances. Drink mostly water, with some fruit juice. Go natural as much as possible. Eat real food, not processed. Again, you won’t be able to do everything at once. That is normal. Even doing one thing is a great start. This is kind of like learning how to juggle. You won’t be able to have all the balls up in the air at once. But do one, and get used to it, then do another. Patience yields progress.

Get outside. Get some natural sunshine. Go for a walk outside, or garden.

There is no substitute for sleep. Get enough sleep every day. You can’t shortchange yourself on that.

Avoid overstimulation. For me, this means avoiding the news. It isn’t news, so much as bad news. I can’t handle it. I’m overwhelmed. I feel helpless. I started by not watching the news. I would read it instead. Then even that got to too much. If you can, reduce noise around you. This is at work and at home. Too much noise jangles our nerves. The same is true with a lot of visual stimulation. I try to make sure the TV is off at 9:15, and I’m in bed by 10. I need time to wind down. I read before bed, but nothing stimulating or exciting. Usually non-fiction does the trick.

Find a creative outlet. Bead, paint, sew, make music. Do whatever makes you happy. It won’t be perfect at first. Nobody ever is. That isn’t the point. Get over your need for control and perfection and allow yourself the ability to play again. This is play. This is fun. It is the opposite of work. Allow “mistakes” – let yourself discover. I also highly recommend writing in a journal. Writing is essential. Write every day. Not only will you get things out, you will learn things.

Seek the company of good people. If someone is constantly bringing you down, they aren’t a friend. Friends are helpful, not destructive. Understand you may have issues with your boundaries. A lot of us do. Look at my post called “Survival books” under “Resources” and pick one. Read it. It will help a lot. You also might be a “highly sensitive person” – there are books in that list for that too. I’ve learned a lot from those books that have helped me understand how to deal with this diagnosis. You aren’t alone.

This is what I do to turn around depression. I look at what I’m doing that is different from my usual routine. Usually I’ve started eating more candy, or I’ve not gotten enough sleep, or I’ve slacked off on my exercise. I redouble my efforts. Drop the candy and pick up the walking shoes. You’ll turn this funk around. There will be times where you will want to slack off. Don’t. That creates negative energy. When you feel “I don’t want to exercise/eat well/ go to sleep on time” see it as a cranky toddler. Be the adult – you are in charge. If you slack off, it will win energy and get you to do it again. Then you are in a hole again.

I find having a faith is important. I read the Daily Office every day – it is a selection of three Bible readings. It is a regular structure. If left to my own devices I’ll read whatever I come across from a random page flip. And then I’ll not read at all. I’ve discovered that having regular habits is very important. I pray regularly. I’ve also developed a habit of thankfulness and gratitude. I find this is essential.