As a person living with a mental health diagnosis and also a family member and friend of people living with mental health diagnoses; I am in the unique position to understand both sides. Whether you are the individual living with mental health condition, or you are the loved one, a mental health diagnosis affects your life on so many levels. Sometimes it feels like the diagnosis has taken over everything.
Mental health is a funny thing. It is so hard to define and understand that people find it easier to just shove it under a rock and ignore it. They may call you dramatic, bitchy, maybe you’re a cry baby or an attention seeker. Clearly you should just be able to get over it and move on with your life. No one needs all these messy emotions laying around all over the place. Goodness, they might be catching. But, in all seriousness it’s not that easy. When I was at my sickest, in many ways I was blind to what I was putting my loved ones through. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t heartless; I did feel guilty because I knew I wasn’t the easiest person to be around. I worried about being too much of a burden on others. But in all honesty, those feelings were also symptoms of my diagnosis. I didn’t have a good view of myself so naturally I assumed others also felt similarly.
It’s like my therapist once told me, depression is a selfish disease. Oh, that stung to hear; but it wasn’t wrong. When you are so sick and overwhelmed that getting out of bed and taking a shower is a daunting task, thinking about others isn’t really in your wheel house. It’s not an intentional kind of selfish behavior by any means. You just need so much! No one should be able to fault you for that neediness, you’re sick. But unfortunately, the sick individual is often blamed. I have been guilty of that myself; I have blamed the ill person. I have been angry, frustrated, sad, and a myriad of other negative emotions. Why are you acting this way? Your making me crazy, please stop! Oh my God I can’t be around you right now. I have felt all those things. Likewise, I have also been on the receiving end of those same comments.
One of the single most important things to remember as both the person with the diagnosis and the family member or loved one is this… A mental health condition is a brain disorder. What that usually means in generic terms, is that the brain is either making too much of or not enough of certain necessary chemicals. These chemicals effect all kinds of things in a person’s body. Their mood is an obvious one, but it can also create many different physical symptoms in their body. Prescription medications can help fix that chemical imbalance in many people, but they aren't a magical cure. People living with a mental health condition don’t take a pill and become the person they were before the condition struck.
Medication is used to help the chemical imbalances but a mental health condition is not just a chemical problem. It can also have a triggering event, such as a traumatic emotional experience or a head injury. Consequently, even after you have jumped through the hurdles to find the right medication and dealt with the crazy side effects; the majority of people will continue to have good mental health days and bad mental health days. These good and bad days, are not automatically because that medication is or isn’t working. Although, it is good to keep in mind that body chemistry does change over time due to age or go through other physical changes such as injury, childbirth, or illness. This can change the way medications work in the body. The most likely culprit is the crushing weight of the person's original trauma. Sometimes there are also new traumas that come later. Therapy addresses the environmental factors, that medications do not. Things like meditation, peer support, or spiritual beliefs can be of great help as secondary methods of mental health management.
To make things even more difficult, some people and some diagnoses don’t respond to medications very well. I am personally diagnosed with a disorder that is not known to respond to medication. Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) doesn’t have a "go to" medication. My brain disorder doesn’t function in the same way as some of the others. I don’t necessarily have an overabundance of, or too little of, any chemical in my brain. What I do have is a brain that is wired differently than most people's. However, doctors can’t seem to agree on exactly how a person living with DID’s brain is different.
I like to think of it like this: the neural pathways in my mind are like roads. I’m sure we have all dealt with bad roads and construction delays. For most people it’s frustrating and annoying, but just part of life. For me, the traumas that occurred in my very early years are what created "bad roads"; or neural pathways in my mind. The continued influence of that early trauma and additional traumas that occurred later in my life, forced my mind to make detours to go around those events. Each new path or detour is created for a specific purpose. Sometimes that led to the creation of a new driver who was tailor made to best deal with that particular road hazard. These drivers skillfully maneuver my minds roads and keep me from seeing, dealing with, and sometimes remembering those hazards.
The logistics of a DID brain get really confusing pretty quickly; but the long and short of it is medication can’t fix my brain. It won’t get rid of my extra drivers or the additional road ways they use. It can, however help with some of my secondary issues such as depression and anxiety. So, if medication isn’t a magical cure for mental health conditions, what is? There has to be something right? Scientist continue to study mental health and the brain to find better ways to treat mental health conditions, but they haven’t found a cure yet. None the less, don’t be discouraged. Recovery is possible. That doesn’t mean the disease is gone; think of it like when a cancer patient is in remission. Just like how a cancer patients’ body still knows how to make those unhealthy cancer cells, all the things that led to your relative’s mental health diagnosis are still present in their body.
The journey towards recovery is different for every person. The process of getting to recovery is usually a long, slow one but that is not the case for everyone. For some people medication and positive healthy life choices such as exercising and eating right do a pretty good job of keeping their condition in check. For others it may require medication, therapy, and hard work to help correct a lifetime of negative thoughts and poor life choices that came from trauma and unbalanced brain chemistry. The support of loved ones and peers can also be a huge help when living with a diagnosis. Some find religion/spirituality to be a guiding light on their way to finding a healthier life.
The important thing is to keep trying and working on it. It’s hard and uncomfortable. Some days the things that normally help you feel better don’t work, or maybe even make you feel worse. This is extraordinarily frustrating for both the diagnosed person and their loved ones. Many people describe it as a rollercoaster ride. I would describe it more like a rollercoaster that’s in bad shape, missing rails, screws falling out, paint peeling, cars hanging all willy-nilly and not a safety restraint in sight. Here you are, hanging on for dear life, as you and your loved one sail down that rickety track at break-neck speeds right over a giant hill where you can’t see the bottom. How in the heck is anyone supposed to deal with that?
When I was my sickest, I honestly couldn’t have imagined that recovery even existed. Little by little I found things that helped me. I built an incredible support system, I found meds that helped me deal with my secondary symptoms, I found a doctor who was right for me, and I worked my ass off. Slowly but surely my rollercoaster began to look a little less shabby; new paint job, repairs to the track and even some fancy new safety harnesses. Now, I want to be perfectly clear, my rollercoaster isn’t gone and it won’t ever be gone. It’s more like a kiddie rollercoaster most of the time now. I will always have bad days and good days. Sometimes that rollercoaster adds a giant hill or swooping turn, but I know I can handle it. Recovery for me includes having to relearn how to be a useful member of society, how to create and maintain good relationships, and figuring out who I am now. It’s a lot of playing catch up with my life and figuring out what that means for my future.
I know that it was hard for my family to see all the potential I had seem to evaporate. I know they had a hard time watching me fail and fall over and over. I know what that feels like because I have seen the same things happen to my own loved ones. I am creating new dreams and deciding who I want to be in this better “recovered” life I am building. I’ve lost a lot of time and left more than one dream behind. But I am learning to be ok with that. Thankfully as my family goes through recovery with me, they are also big fans of the new me. Life is funny. Anyone can go through a catastrophic change that completely obliterates what we had planned and dreamed for, yet we are all capable of simply astounding recoveries. We carry on and find new ways to live our lives to the fullest. What amazing creatures we are!
I want to take a minute to say thank you to all the people who have supported me along my road to recovery. I want to offer my comfort and solidarity to those who support their own loved ones. I want to encourage those of you who are walking on your own paths towards mental health recovery. Ultimately, we are all human beings striving for our best life. No matter how we get there, how long it takes us, whether it is easy or hard; I hope that you will also take time out to show compassion and understanding for your fellow travelers.