Sometimes dealing with mental illness can be completely overwhelming and all consuming. This happens in bipolar disorder when symptoms break through or there is some kind of relapse causing either a manic or depressive episode and in some cases both at the same time. But in other times when the illness is relatively stable it becomes really important to focus on other things beside your diagnosis.
Recently I had to remind myself that I had more experiences than simply my visits to the psychiatric hospital. During one of my depressive episodes I didn’t even feel good about my Olympic experience. Someone ask me about it and I just kind of shrugged my shoulders like it really didn’t matter anyhow. This is what can happen when we get so bogged down in dealing with recurring symptoms and managing a disease. It takes a toll on the balancing aspect of life and becomes a central focus of our lives.
As I began to remind myself about the good things that I had experienced or the things I considered accomplishments I had to balance those thoughts without allowing myself to get sad because I didn’t feel like the person I used to be. It was like thought dominos falling from one good example to “why did I have to get this illness?” It was a fight that I eventually won and came out on the positive side of things.
But it is really easy to see how people who suffer from mental illness can become so into their own thoughts that it actually makes the conditions worse. When we are to inside ourselves without some kind of external stimulus we begin to believe all the things we tell ourselves. We need to remind ourselves always that we are more than our illness, more than a diagnosis and certainly not a label.
As I took a look back and identified things I was really proud of, I highlighted my Olympic experience as being something that I would always cherish. No amount of mental illness drama was ever going to take away my positive feelings about marching in those opening ceremonies, with all the world watching. For a moment in time I was a part of something much bigger than myself and I had to remind myself that this experience still mattered regardless of how my life had twisted and turned.
I also started looking at other people who I thought were good examples of how to live with adversity. I began to think about one of my old college basketball coaches from the University of Tennessee, Pat Summitt. A few years ago she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Instead of drifting into despair she took action and created an organization with a mission to help fund Alzheimer’s disease research. If Pat wasn’t going to give up how could I? My illness was far less severe than Alzheimer’s. “There must be something I can do to make a difference in the world of mental illness,” I thought to myself.
I made myself start focusing on the whole picture of “Amy,” and stopped viewing myself as a broken down version of a picture perfect past. The ruminating began to stop and I started to gain better self-esteem and more confidence. I could tell by the way I walked and the way I talked I was getting better everyday. Essentially I put myself in training to “get outside” my own head.
All these things in combination with reading other people’s stories have really helped me out of a dark abyss. There are few things that are worse than suffering from continual depressive symptoms that are debilitating, but I knew I needed to put myself in a position where I could focus on the things I could control and let go of the things I could not.
I won that battle by insisting my doctor put me on a medication that had some evidence of working in depression. I also advocated for removing a medication that was causing severe side effects. These are the things I could control. And for my part I became focused on understanding the psychological aspects of grieving from mental illness losses. In short, I made a plan and I stuck with it.
Getting better has allowed me to lift up my head and recognize I don’t have to think of myself as “lesser.” Just because I can’t say I work at a big Fortune 500 company anymore I’m not any lesser of a human being. I have those experiences, yes, but even that does not make me any better or worse off than anyone who does not.
The next time you can’t stop thinking about your diagnosis try getting outside your own head and think about “you” the whole person and not just the person with a label. It might make a small difference in your day.