The Little Things Are Where Recovery Begins

“im team ‘cool karen ive got depression and that means i’m going to try this because i’ve got to try something’ i’m team ‘romanticize recovery’ i’m team ‘it isn’t working now but it might in the future and it’s worth staying to find out’.”

inkskinned

For as long as I can remember depression, anxiety, and god knows what other undiagnosed mental illnesses have been a part of my life. Some of it is nature, I believe. Some of it is nurture, I’m sure. But some of it is just being alive, being a person, being scared, and being hurt and disappointed by life.

Healing is a long journey I am still walking, and one I may walk forever, but I am always getting closer. Through trial and error, research and professional help, and, mostly, fumbling around in the dark, I am learning more and more about what works and what doesn’t.

The first time I sought help a therapist told me—after hearing about the bad things that happened to me, the stupid things I cried about, and all the ways I was hurting myself and others—that everything I felt and did was a perfectly normal response, considering what I had been through.

That is, anxiety, self-loathing, self-destruction, unstable relationships, and depression, were not at all indications that I was broken, or flawed, or unworthy of love. Mental illness is a perfectly human way of existing in this world.

The second time was someone I loved very much pointing out that depression and anxiety are not just illness. They are lies told to you by your own mind. The voices telling you that you are stupid, that you are ugly, that you don’t deserve happiness, that you don’t deserve life, that nothing will ever get better for you, it’s all a fucking lie. Every time that lie is spoken to you, you can speak right back. You can call out the lie. Like any liar who has been caught, your illness will double down when you confront it, but you just let it know that no matter how loud it gets, or what evidence it twists, you will never believe it.

It took me a long time to internalize these lessons, and some days I still struggle to stay on the track, but lately, It’s like I’ve hit a roadblock. My progress is slowing, and now, on my bad days, it feels more and more like I’m taking steps backward.

But my instincts tell me that when roadblocks are met, there are more lessons to be learned.

 

“There is no point treating a depressed person as though she were just feeling sad, saying, ‘There now, hang on, you’ll get over it.’ Sadness is more or less like a head cold- with patience, it passes. Depression is like cancer.”

― Barbara Kingsolver, The Bean Trees

Earlier this year I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis—a chronic, incurable autoimmune disease that primarily affects the colon. Learning to live with a chronic physical illness, with the impact on my life as well as my emotions and the bunk advice from people who just don’t get it has really opened my eyes.

I’m learning to accept that life isn’t fair, but it’s still good. I’m learning to accept that even when your body fails and betrays you, it’s still a good body. I am learning that even when you are in a bad situation, there is still room for gratitude.

But the biggest lesson of all, the one I really need to internalize right now, is that just because there is no cure, that doesn’t mean treatment is useless, and that treatment is in every little thing that you do.

After my diagnosis, my doctor explained that treatment meant more than just visits to her office and medication. It included taking care of my stress levels, getting in tune with my body, asking for help when I need it, exercising and learning to eat well, drinking water, and making self-care a top priority.

She literally told me to meditate, do yoga, think positive thoughts, and do whatever it takes to get to my “Zen place” because the immune system is directly influenced by stress, anxiety, and emotions.

She added that, of course, none of that will stop my immune system from attacking the lining of my large intestines. There is no cure for ulcerative colitis, but taking care of myself in these little ways will help me achieve remission, and stay in remission, longer. She told me that even when I am too tired, and even when it hurts, even on my worst days, I have to try.

Depression, anxiety, and many other types of mental illness function the same way. You start with the little things, and all these little things are part of your treatment. They keep you healthy enough and strong enough to fight.

Lately, I’ve seen a lot of frustration and anger in the comments and replies of posts and tweets regarding simple self-care reminders and tips as part of treatment. The new thing is to shout about how no one understands depression and nothing can help, that reminding people to shower, eat well, take a walk, drink more water, text their friends, or say something positive to themselves when they can, is bad advice. Those, in my opinion, are the lies I was talking about before and now, with social media taking up so much more of our time and attention, and with our online relationships becoming more and more significant, these lies are finding a new way to spread and take hold.

It’s understandable that after years of being dismissed or misdiagnosed a person might be sensitive to the ways mental illness is discussed by “neurotypicals,” but a lot of what I’ve seen online is too far to the other end of the spectrum. Mental illness may or may not be curable, depending on the cause, but it is under all circumstances treatable. Saying that out loud doesn’t have anything to do with how serious a person’s condition is, and it isn’t dismissive of the struggle and hardships sufferers endure on a day-to-day basis.

And, yes, some of the pushback is warranted. Some people do believe that mental illness is a choice, a weakness of character or failure to control one’s thought, or to properly care for the body and that a diet change and a little sunshine will cure you. Yes, those people fail to understand what depression is, but you have to learn to separate their misunderstanding from what it means to properly care for yourself. You have to take a step back look at how you might be perpetuating bad practices and beliefs about mental illness when you dismiss advice that might help someone else.

We have to be careful how we say things, and we have to be open to letting people heal in the way that makes sense for them. We have to be careful about confusing what doesn’t work at all and what doesn’t work for me.

There are some who may be losing a battle right now, they may be looking for help and what you say can sway their resolve either way, especially when they are young, or newly diagnosed, or undiagnosed but in need of help. To tell them there is no getting better is to perpetuate the same lie their illness is telling them. We have to change the narrative. You may not be cured, but you most certainly can get better!

Every treatment option doesn’t work for everyone, and certainly, none of them work for the same person all of the time either, but any doctor will tell you that to fight a disease you have to do all these little things if you want to be strong enough to fight.

Let others start with just being able to get out of bed and eat something so they can take their medication. Let others start by getting outside, taking a walk, and enjoying a damn sunset, so they can get out of their own heads for a minute. Let others have their face masks, bath bombs, and glittery nail polish so they can love themselves for a moment today. Let other people have silly conversations, and laugh a little, so they don’t feel so alone. Let other people try things!

Some days wallowing might be the best you can do, but it is no long-term strategy. Remission is the primary goal. You might not know what “no evidence of disease” will mean for you yet, but you don’t have to. All you have to do is keep working toward the best and healthiest life that you can have.

So I guess that’s what I am trying to do here. I am saying to you and to myself that, yeah, it sucks to wake up every morning feeling the way we do, and I know that people don’t get it and everyone thinks they know what’s best for us but please, don’t give up. Please, don’t shut yourself off from things that might help.

Be honest with yourself about what healthy means and what you know you struggle with. Be honest about what you haven’t even been trying to do, and try to do it. Try eating something today. Try taking a shower. Try drinking more water. Try a face mask. Try getting out into the sun. Try texting a friend. Try looking in the mirror and saying one nice thing. Try breathing. Try helping someone else try.

It might not cure you, but it might make you strong enough to find a cure someday.

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Featured photo by Ben Blennerhassett on Unsplash

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A Few Reminders When I Am Having a Bad Day

Everyone gets a little down on themselves sometimes. I think I do it more than the average person. I have a habit of being pretty hard on myself about even the smallest mistakes. When I feel like I have failed or let someone down in some way I think some of the worst things about myself but I am learning to treat myself better. I’m learning to treat myself the way I would treat my own friends and loved ones if they were to make a mistake.

By that I mean I’m trying to show myself a little more care and be a little more forgiving toward myself too.

I’ve recently made a little a list of things to I remind myself of when I feel like I’ve messed up in some way. I want to curb the harsh thoughts, build up my confidence, and learn to move forward faster. I thought I would share that list with you all in the hopes that it might help someone else with the same bad habit.

1. You are a good person.

This is the bad thought I struggle with the most.  I always feel like deep down I am a “bad person”. Not bad as in evil. Everything I do comes from the best of intentions, but some times I hurt the feelings of the people I care for the most. Some times I let them down too. I never mean to but it happens and when it does i feel like I must really be a bad person inside.

I remind myself that I am trying my best and that’s all I can do. No matter how hard anyone tries we all hurt someone’s feelings sometimes without meaning to and we all let someone sometimes too. It doesn’t mean we are bad people, just means we messed up. It just means we are people. Good people are the ones recognize when they have done something wrong and who try to make things right.

I definitely always try to do that.

2. You are smart.

I am the kind of person who lies awake in bed at night thinking of every embarrassing thing I have ever said, or every time I thought I was right and I was wrong, and every time another person has told me that something I did was dumb. I often feel like I am smart in all the ways that don’t matter and stupid in all the was that do.

But all of us have our own strengths and weaknesses and there has been many times when the ways in which I am smart have helped someone. I’ve had many people tell me that they think I am very intelligent and they wished they thought about the world the way that I do. They wish they could write, or liked doing math, or could even read as much, or as well, as I can.

I may not be smart in all the ways a person can be smart, but that doesn’t make me stupid.

3. You matter

I think it’s common to every once in a while wonder if the world would be a better place if you weren’t there, especially during those days when we are especially down. On my bad days I feel like a hinderance or burden on the people around me and worry I am not contributing much to their lives.

To put it simply, I feel useless.

But one thing I’ve come to terms with is the fact that wa I actually don’t matter to everyone I know. I’m just not that important to the lives of every person I meet, and that is ok.

Because for each of us there is a small group of people, our closest family members and friends, who are glad to have us in their lives. They are people for whom you make life a more enjoyable experience. They are the people who can cry on your shoulder, or go have a drink and a good talk with. They are the people who laugh at your jokes and who make sure you do something special for your birthday.

For some of us there might only be one person who feels this way about us, for others it could be a lot, but we all matter to someone. We are all lucky to have each other and I remind myself there are people who are lucky to have me here.

4. Your feelings matter

I have always had a hard time interacting with people who have strong personalities and I have an even harder time if I have an issue with one.

I am a woman and I am small so there are a whole lot of people who don’t take me seriously just based on that. On top of that I’m quiet, my voice is often as small as I am, especially when I am upset. This means that when I am trying to voice my opinion or advocate for myself I get drowned out if not ignored entirely. To make matters worse I am also “people pleaser” and sometimes I end up getting pushed into things I’d rather not be pushed into.

I am left feeling like what I think and what I feel are not at all important. I have to remind myself that no matter how small and quiet I am I’m still just as entitled to have my say as the tall and loud mouthed. I remind myself that no one should ever to try to silence another person and I will not let other people silence me.

5. It’s OK to cry, It’s OK to be mad, It’s OK to feel however you want

The thing that sets me off more than anything else is having my feelings invalidated. I hate being told I shouldn’t be mad about something, or that I am being too sensitive if I cry, or even that I am too happy or that I have nothing to be frustrated about. I hate being made to feel as though my personal feelings are wrong. It makes me feel like I am crazy or that I am weak, neither of which is true.

But instead of getting upset I remind myself that it is okay to feel however the hell I want about anything I want. I also remind myself that no other person can decide whose feelings are right and wrong, especially not the person who your feelings these feelings about. This is because people who have hurt you or made you angry will try to change the situation so that nothing they did was actually wrong. The easiest way to do this to to convince you that your emotions are wrong, not their actions.

But no one gets to say how I can feel and no one gets to say if my emotions are right or wrong. They just are, and that’s ok.

6. You don’t have to apologize

I’m working on this one. Whenever I have upset someone in any way I immediately apologize, then I immediately feel like I have lost something. There is nothing wrong with apologizing but I feel like when I do I take on all the blame of whatever went wrong even when I may not have done anything wrong.

Sometimes people will be mad at you for reasons that have more to do with them then with whatever you did. People who can’t take constructive criticism, people who don’t like to be wrong, people who are mad at themselves but choose to blame you for their actions, these are people who I am learning not to apologize to.

Instead I am trying to say things like “I didn’t mean to upset you” or “I may have said it wrong, here is what I meant”. This is my way of recognizing their feelings without having to reinforce their perception that I am the one to blame for their problem. I will always apologize when I have done something to really hurt someone but I remind myself that I can hold back a little and take some time to figure out if I really should, or want to, apologize.

It’s been incredibly empowering so far.

7. Just take care of yourself right now

I have a bad habit of pushing to fix a problem for another person before I begin to figure out what I need or how this can be fixed for me. Like the issue of apologizing too much it leaves me feeling like the bad person every time, even when I am not.

Not only that but I have realized that I do this for selfish reasons. I do it because having someone be angry or disappointed in me makes me very uncomfortable. If I can make that other person feel better, then my uncomfortable feelings go away.

But this isn’t the right way. Pushing too hard to resolve a problem before the other person is ready can make matters worse. If I don’t figure out what I need and then resolve the problem I am left with unresolved feelings and resentment. Nothing about that is good.

So now when someone is upset with me I give them space and I remind myself that there will be time to talk it out and work through it but for now I should go calm down and think about what I feel and why. Then I should think about what I need to feel better and why. This way when it comes time to work it out I can do so with a clear head and the right intentions.

I remind myself that self-care is important and is better for my well being than working to fix someone else to make me feel better.

Usually after I repeat these things to myself and take some time to think about them and about the situation in a rational way, I feel much better. And the more I do it the less I have to is all starting to sink in. It’s hard to admit that I have to pep talk myself as much as I do, and that I am as hard on myself as I am, but I doubt I am alone in this.

If you find yourself saying or thinking some of the same things I do in those moments when you let someone down or when mistakes are made, I encourage you to make a little list of some things you can say to yourself to remember who you are and what you need.

It helps in the moment, and over time. You will start to think better about yourself, and you will start to treat yourself better too.