Befriending Your Mental Illness
The darkness of the room when the door swings open only enhances the darkness building in my chest. I drop the package I had just carried up the stairs, toss my keys aside, and quickly rid myself of my outerwear—hat, coat, gloves, shoes, backpack. They all find a home in a corner as I feel the aggression build in my gut. I don’t know what I’m angry at, there’s no logical explanation, so everything in sight is targeted by my rising anger—the cabinets shake from the force put into closing them as I begin searching for dinner.
The softest meow floats in through the anger, and winding around my feet is my elderly foster cat, her eyes darting toward her food bowl expectantly. Of course.
I’m angry for no reason, but I’m also responsible for this furry being’s life. I drop to my knees and start scooping dry food from the bag with the shot glass we’ve deemed to do the job.
That’s when it all builds to a cliche crescendo—all the anger, all the darkness, all the anxiety. It bubbles over and I fall onto my side on the kitchen floor. And I sob. I have a breakdown on the kitchen floor, but at least I fed the cat first. This has become my new normal.
I’m mentally ill—most recently, I’ve been told I’m bipolar. That checks out, but it’s still a hard pill to swallow. No pun intended. Learning how to cope with my own brain’s faults has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, it’s more difficult than any test I took in school. It’s something I’m still working on, something I’m still learning, but I have at least picked up a few notes that I feel like I should share with the class.
The single most important thing I can think of when it comes to understanding, and even befriending, your mental illness is to not be so hard on yourself.
This sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s one of the hardest things to do. I’m not saying that we should all use our mental illness as an excuse to call out of work every day, or ignore the needs of others around us. However, we should be more aware of where our headspace is, how we’re doing, and when we need a break. Whether that break is spending half a day watching America’s Next Top Model in bed, or taking five minutes to just sit by yourself and breathe, it’s important to take that break.
Along with that, it’s important to realize what your performance capacity is for the day. How you feel, how you act, and how productive you can be on your absolute best day, that is your 100%. When you’re feeling 100%, you know what to expect of yourself, you know what you’re capable of, and you know how hard you can push yourself. When you have a mental illness, though, not every day is a 100% day. Most days may be 80%, some may even be as low as 50% or 30%, and that’s okay as long as you remember to take stock and don’t push yourself to perform at 100% on a day that you’re only functioning at 75%.
It’s important to understand your own capacity, and where you are on any given day. This is something you kind of have to teach yourself, and something you have to take the time to learn. It takes some guess and testing, it takes time and self-reflection, but it’s worth it in the end. Being able to step back and tell yourself, “Alright, maybe this is out of my depth today because I’m only going at about 60%’ is beneficial to making sure you can get back to that 100% day.”
That is much easier said than done because people are expected to be performing at 100% in our society, self-care is still a new cultural trend and not everyone is as aware of what it can really be like to struggle with your own mind and emotions on top of all of the typical daily struggles. Not everyone understands the 50% days. You may not even understand it, but acknowledging that you aren’t always going to be in top shape is the first step to understanding it.
Understanding and befriending your mental illness is difficult, but it’s important to learning how to cope with it. Learning how to cope with it is important to knowing how to live with it without letting it control you or become an excuse.