Sam Holstein

How to Survive Having a Major Mental Illness

How to Survive Having a Major Mental Illness

Despite the increasing level of awareness and activism around major mental health issues, it is still hellaciously difficult to live with one.

The day you get diagnosed often feels like a great day. Finally! I know what’s wrong with me now! But that great day gives way to the sobering reality that we can expect our mental health challenges to stick around.

Lots of people get discouraged by this. They believe their lives are forever limited by their diagnoses. My diagnosis is Borderline Personality Disorder, and there are many people out there who claim BPD is incurable. They say everyone with BPD is doomed to a lifetime of emotional dysregulation, impaired function, and devastating relationships. The same goes for other mental illnesses; for every mental illness, there is a crowd of people ready to tell you there is no such thing as recovery and that you will always live with your affliction.

You know what? It’s easy to give up in the face of challenges. Anyone can do that. I’m not giving up on myself so easily.

The human body and mind are capable of amazing feats of healing. There is much in the world over which I have no control, but I’m going to do everything within my power to heal from BPD and live a healthy and happy life.

According to all my research and therapy, this is what the human mind needs to recover from a major mental illness.

Step 1: Believe Healing is Possible

The first step along the road to recovery is believing you can recover. If you don’t believe you can recover, you won’t do what it takes to recover, and you won’t recover.

You will always have the brain that predisposes you to a mental illness, perhaps, but you can live a life free of mental illness. Even if you’ve never done it before.

Don’t believe me? Go to the Amazon Kindle store and type “[your diagnosis] recovery memoir.” There will be at least a few books written by people who are living happy and rewarding lives despite their diagnoses, people who have figured out how to manage, recover, or cure their condition entirely.

If they can do it, so can you.

Recovery always takes longer than we want it to, of course. I’ve been in treatment for BPD for nearly a year now and I’m only just beginning to scrape together small signs of improvement. It will certainly be years before I’m able to claim a happy and fulfilling life. But I know I’m going to get there as long as I don’t give up.

Step 2: Go to Therapy

If you have a major mental illness of any kind, you need therapy.

Some people think therapists can’t help them with their diagnoses. That’s wrong.

  1. If your illness is mainly pathological in origin, like depression and anxiety, and personality disorders, you need a therapist to teach you how to untangle and rewire your pathology.
  2. If it’s mainly physiological, like schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorders, or ADHD, you need a therapist to help you develop and maintain good coping skills.

Either way, you need a therapist.

I know getting a therapist is hard, especially if you’ve never done it before. When you are suffering and don’t know how to get through the day-to-day, the process of calling therapists, checking if your insurance covers them, and getting in for an appointment can feel as daunting as climbing Everest. But it is crucial you do this if you want to have a hope of being well.

If you can barely function, make the steps to getting a therapist your only goal, every day. Don’t bother with any other errands, tasks, or responsibilities. Make getting a therapist your number one sole priority.

If you have any people caring for you or supporting you, like a spouse or parent, ask them to make an appointment for you. They can look up therapists in your area, check your insurance compatibility, and make phone calls to set up appointments for you. All you have to do is show up.

Step 3: Protect Your Mindset

Recovery from any major mental illness is an incredibly hard job. It’s long and grueling, and… if I’m being honest… many people don’t make it. If we want to be the ones who make it, we have to protect our mindsets at all costs.

Here’s what I mean. I have BPD. There are a lot of internet commenters, forums, and even entire websites dedicated to “teaching” that…

When I’m feeling hopeless, it’s easy for me to visit these websites and bring myself down even further. I can practice my therapy skills all I like, but anyone would be emotionally devastated by an entire internet community that exists purely to preach that you are someone who is incapable of love and should kill themselves. If I’m to have any hope of recovering, it is essential I keep myself away from these corners of the internet.

These corners of the internet exist for any diagnosis.

Stay away from these places! Stay away from these people! Surround yourself with people who support you. People who believe recovery is possible, people who will encourage you to go to therapy, and people who will not judge you for your missteps along the way.

You need a team of people who support you, not rabble who hold you back.

Step 4: Take Care of Your Body

The body and the mind are connected. If you want to recover from a major mental illness, you must take care of your body as you take care of your mind.

You don’t need to lose weight or become a fitness nut. This isn’t about aesthetics. It’s about giving your body what it needs to thrive, the same as you would do for your children, pets, or even houseplants.

Eat Regularly, Eat Good Portions, Eat Whole Foods

All sorts of stuff about eating that comes naturally to able-bodied (able-minded?) people is a challenge for us.

  1. We often don’t eat regularly. Maybe we forget to eat, maybe we don’t want to eat, maybe we will hate ourselves if we do eat.
  2. We don’t eat proper portions. Maybe we eat a handful of potato chips and then we’re full because we’re too sad to eat. Maybe we restrict calories because of an eating disorder. Maybe we binge, again, either because of an ED or just because we’re using food to make ourselves happy.
  3. We don’t eat whole foods. Eating healthy often requires a level of energy we don’t have, so we eat whatever processed food is handy instead.

As a result, our bodies don’t get the fuel they need, our brains don’t function as well as they could, and we suffer for it.

If there is any way the people around you can help you eat healthy food regularly, let them. If your parents or spouse help care for you, let them cook or arrange healthy meals on a semi-regular basis. If a local church or charity has a food support program, sign up for it. Work with your therapist on ways you can better meet your food needs.

Move Your Body

Move your body, as much as you can, for as long as you can. The more physical challenges a human body undergoes, the stronger and more capable it becomes.

The raw strength is nice, of course, but it’s not the raw strength we’re after. A strong and capable body means a strong and capable brain. Physically active people experience better impulse control, better cognitive function, better mood, better sleep, better everything. It’s not hard to imagine how that can help someone with a major mental illness.

If you are up to it, both cardio and resistance training at the gym or through playing sports would be fantastic. But if you’re not, that’s perfectly OK. You know best which physical activity is right for you at your current level of health.

Don’t pressure yourself to perform. I visit the gym semi-regularly. Sometimes I get a full workout in, but I’ve had many days where I visited the gym, ran exactly one quarter-mile on a treadmill, lifted light weights for seven minutes, and called it a day. If your chosen activity is walking a mile every day, don’t beat yourself up if you can only make it halfway around the block.

What matters is that you make the effort every day. Get in the habit of getting started. The performance will come naturally over time.

Step 7: Do Your Homework

Many therapists assign homework. That homework might be as vague as challenging yourself to think differently about an issue, and it might be as specific as filling out a set of worksheets. If your therapist assigns you homework, do your homework.

Therapy isn’t like college. In college, even C’s get degrees. In therapy, though, you only get out what you put in. Your therapist gets paid either way. You’re the one who has to suffer longer with your symptoms.

Don’t stop there, though. Often the homework assigned in therapy is only the beginning of what you can do to put yourself on the path to healing.

I’m beginning to learn there’s no way to force oneself to have the therapeutic insights necessary for healing. Insights take the time they take. But it is possible to make the ground fertile for these insights. I do this by reading.

Over the last year, I’ve read dozens of books about Borderline Personality Disorder. Reading these books is like fertilizing the soil of my mind. I’m learning everything I will intellectually need to know to go through my recovery journey.

Sometimes, rarely, reading books like these directly enables an insight that allows me to take the next step on my recovery journey. Without these books, who knows how many weeks or months it would take me to come to a particular realization on my own?

There are other things we can do to help ourselves out, too, besides reading and doing therapy homework, like:

Step 6: Go Easy On Yourself

So far, you’ve been reading about a lot of should’sYou should exercise. You should eat right. You should go to therapy. But, as those who suffer from major mental illnesses know, we are not able to make good on most of those should’s. Especially early on in recovery, we spend most of our energy just trying to get through the day.

When you fail to do something you know you should go easy on yourself. Say this:

I know I didn’t do what I should have, but I know did the best I can. I forgive myself for not doing this and I’ll do the best I can going forward.

Then don’t think about it anymore. You’ve forgiven yourself, you’ve committed to doing your best going forward, and that’s the end of the matter.

I can write you a list as long as my arm of all the ways I fell short in my recovery in the last month alone. If I let myself dwell on ways I could have done better in the past, I’d never get out of bed. But the past is the past. It can’t be changed. Even if that past is only 5 minutes ago.

Learning to forgive yourself this way doesn’t come naturally. It will feel awkward the first few (dozen) times. But keep practicing. Eventually, it will become second nature.

Which is important, because you will fall short a lot.

All paths to recovery have stumbling block after stumbling block. One step forward, two steps back. The number of missteps you take will begin to feel numberless. But you need to be able to forgive yourself and keep going, each and every time.

Step 7: Don’t Give Up

After spending nearly two years in some kind of therapy and seeing so little in the way of concrete change in my quality of life, it’s easy for me to feel like I’m always going to be trapped in an ever-worsening vortex of mental illness. It’s easy for me to want to give up on life, either metaphorically by giving up on all my dreams and goals, or sometimes even literally.

But giving up won’t get me across the recovery finish line. All giving up does is ensure I’ll never get there.

After reading countless memoirs written by people who recovered from mental illness, there seems to be a common theme. Everyone goes through a long, dark period, filled with years of therapy that yielded only slow and painful progress.

But underneath the surface, important things are changing. The patient is tearing down and rebuilding the entire way they experience the world. And one day, after years of struggle, all the pieces come together. In a matter of months, the darkness lifts, the sun returns, and recovery has arrived.

We can’t give up, people.

If we give up, all we’re doing is ensuring the darkness will stay forever.

The sun is out there. We just need to find it.