Wednesday, March 29, 2017

5 Ways My Mental Illness Has Made Me a Better Person

When I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety over six years ago, it came as a shock. Well not entirely, because for the last month I had gone from crying a little about some probably irrational things to sobbing on the floor for no reason at all. But before that I never would have guessed mental illness and “Allie” would ever show up in the same sentence. I couldn’t even estimate how many times over the past 6 years I’ve asked, “why me?” Why was everyone else I knew “fine” while I was curled in fetal position on the floor of my room sobbing uncontrollably without reason? Why were they allowed to have nice, normal, fun lives while I was spending time in and out of appointments with psychologists, therapists, and psychiatrists? Why did I struggle with self-harm and an eating disorder while they happily enjoyed a day at the beach or pool in their bikinis? Why was I hiding under my covers because I had no motivation to face the day while others were out enjoying their “once-in-a-lifetime” high school years? I’ve spent a lot of time angry, sad, confused, lonely, and hurting. Really hurting. 
But not always. Life’s a roller coaster, and so is depression. On the worse days, depression means hiding under my covers for most of the day, canceling get-togethers and calling in sick, and has lead to a couple visits to the ER. It means numbness, lack of motivation, and irritability. At one point it meant 6 weeks away in treatment. 
But not every day is like that. There are better days, too. Days I feel ok. I can get up, get ready for the day, spend time with friends, and get things done. I can smile a real smile, and even laugh a true laugh. On these good days I don’t focus on those terrible moments, or hours, or days. On the really good days, I find myself grateful for what my mental illness has taught me, and who I’ve become through my battle. One of those good days happens to be today. And today I honestly believe my battles with depression, anxiety, self-harm, and an eating disorder have made me a better person. And here’s why:
1. I know my strengths and weaknesses.
In my experience, therapy only works if I’m being open, honest, and often vulnerable. That means discussing my often harmful perfectionistic and people-pleasing qualities, and bringing to light those negative thoughts I have about myself and my body. I know my triggers to negative behaviors. I know what I can handle on bad days, and what I can’t. And of course my treatment also includes learning to recognize the positives. What am I good at? What do I enjoy? What makes me tick? One of my “assignments” was to make a list of my strengths. Trust me, it was tough, because depression and low self-esteem means I often have blinders on to everything besides the negatives. But I did it. And now I can more easily admit my positives. And not only that, I’m proud of them. I’m compassionate, smart, and sensitive. I care deeply about others. I’m thoughtful and warm. Without the treatment for my mental illness, I’m not sure I would ever have reason to be so reflective about who I am as a person.
2. I am perseverant and strong.
There are days I just want to give up. Days I shake on the floor sobbing, wishing only that it could all just be over. But I’ve made it through each moment of hell and out on the other side. I’m made it through residential treatment, eating disorder day programs, ER visits, and self-harm treatment.  Days like today, I look back on all of that and feel like I could do absolutely anything.
3. I am honest and open.
First of all, in therapy. At first I was closed off and embarrassed, but I slowly became more confident and comfortable with my therapist, and now I don’t hide a thing. 
Second of all, with others. Outside of sharing my struggles with about ten close family members and friends, I kept my mental illness a secret for a long time. But after three years I couldn’t take it anymore. I wrote a blog post about everything and put a link to it on my social media. I received messages from my friends asking questions and seeking answers, and I’m more than happy to tell them about my experiences.
4. I am compassionate and better able to understand others’ struggles.
I’ve dealt with depression, anxiety, self-harm, and an eating disorder. I know what it feels like to have no motivation, to be terrified of social gatherings, to want to cancel get-togethers and hide under blankets all day. I get those feelings of not being good enough, or self-loathing, or feeling like none of it’s worth it. So when I see others struggling, I can be there with a listening ear and a helping hand. My “I understand” is a genuine understanding. It’s an “I get you. I get this. And I’m here for you.”
5. I don’t take the good for granted.
Having experienced so much darkness in the past few years, I have learned to be more appreciative of the light. With depression, I never know how long a period of ok will last, so I don’t take it for granted. And after days or weeks of feeling lonely and unmotivated and numb, a day with some motivation and hop in my step feels like a miraculous gift. You know when you’re in a dark room for an extended period of time and then someone turns on the light? And for a moment you’re blinded because your eyes aren’t used to the brightness? Good days with depression are like that. Light is so much stronger after becoming used to the darkness. And good days seem so much better after becoming so used to the bad ones.
On the worst days, I wish only that my mental illness could be taken away and I could live a “normal” life. But on days like today, I can say I’m truly grateful for what my struggles have shaped me into. I look at myself and what I’ve gone through, and I’m genuinely proud of the person I’ve become. On days like today, I wouldn’t change a thing. 

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

A Letter of Thanks For Everything My Therapist Has Done

I got this story published today on The Mighty. Here's the link to go directly there:

In case you don't feel like creating an account, I put it here too. :)

Dear therapist,

Thank you for everything.

In the moments when I was too anxious and overwhelmed to make any sense, thank you for being patient with me, for trying to understand my jumbled thoughts.

On some days when depression made it hard to get out of bed thank you for giving me motivation, because I knew a conversation with you was awaiting me. And I was sure to feel better after.

When I was convinced I wasn’t enough, thank you for sitting there and telling me I am, and I am worth it, and that I am loved and deserving.

When I got to the point where talking about my emotions became too overwhelming and I shut down, thank you for reminding me it was OK to be uncomfortable, OK that it was difficult and that this was a room free of judgment. Thank you for sitting there patiently with me while I tried to process.

When I walked into your office in the most pessimistic mood, thank you for gently encouraging me to look at things in another, more positive way.

When comments from others had me convinced no one understood or would ever understand me, thank you for saying the things I needed to hear to convince me otherwise. Thank you for reminding me I am not alone.

When my world was filled with change and turmoil, thank you for standing as one trustworthy constant.

On days when I was sure things would never get better, thank you for reminding me of how far I’ve come.

When I admitted to my eating disorder, thank you for encouraging me to talk to my family and for sitting with me as I planned out what to say. And thank you for making the phone call with me, seeking professional help.

When my symptoms got worse and it was clear I needed more support, thank you for your wisdom, your recommendations, and for letting me know you’ll still be there for me, even while I was away getting help in residential. Thank you for being there when I got back.

When things began to improve and I was upbeat and confident, thank you for sharing in my joy — for laughing with me, sharing our inside jokes and reminding me there is goodness and happiness in this world.

When I moved across the ocean to experience life abroad, thank you for telling me how proud you were of how far I’ve come and for assuring me if I ever needed anything, you would still be there.

When I think about how much you’ve done for me, how far you’ve helped me come, how much I’ve grown with your help and how you’ve supported me at my worst and encouraged me at my best, “thank you” falls far short of adequately expressing my immense gratitude.

But still, I say it anyway.

Thank you, therapist, for everything.