I know I haven’t posted in a long time, and now that I’m back to writing again, I debated whether or not I wanted to talk about why. This is something I’ve shared with only a few people in my life, because of the stigma associated with it. However, if I can help someone through this post, I want to try, because I believe what I’ve been going through is something that a lot of people struggle with, albeit in different forms. So here goes.
Last year was probably the worst of my life. It wasn’t terrible on the outside – I had great students and coworkers at my job teaching English, I liked Poland (although the company I worked for wasn’t my favorite), and I was living abroad. But my mental health was suffering.
When I was sixteen, I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder (MDD). I thought I had it under control, and most of the time, I did. I have a great support system in my family. They’ve helped me acquire the tools I need to combat my mental illness, which includes medication and coping mechanisms like exercise and eating right.
But a combination of a lot of different things – lack of stability, stress, no exercise, junk food (my doctor later referred to it as a “perfect storm”) – was making it harder and harder to be okay. When you have a mental illness, the worst thing about it is that it distorts reality. You think your world is hopeless, or that you are. You feel like you can’t relate to so-called “normal” people. You make decisions you normally wouldn’t make. And you allow things to spiral out of control.
That’s where I found myself by winter last year. I had pushed myself so hard – getting my master’s degree, traveling frequently and with little rest in between trips, taking jobs that offered no stability and no benefits – that I was on the verge of having a nervous breakdown.
After my contract ended with my current company, I had planned to spend the summer in Berlin teaching online until I found something else. But I quickly realized, with the help of my parents, that if I lived alone, spending all day working from home, the problems would only grow worse. I hadn’t been feeling like myself for the past year. For the first time in my life, I felt that the medication wasn’t helping. And no amount of vacation days was going to make up for that.
So I made the decision to go back home to spend two months with my parents. I saw my doctor and learned that my original diagnosis was incorrect – I was bipolar. I remember just feeling relief, because I finally had something to explain my severe mood swings, intense emotions, and obsessive thought patterns. I wasn’t losing my mind. I was prescribed new medication to help combat some of these effects. Not every day is perfect, but I finally feel good enough to go back out traveling. I’ve got a good job which I hope will give me stability and a place where I want to stay. But here are some things I’ve learned, and I hope they can help anyone struggling with mental illness, or anyone who loves someone who is.
Take care of yourself. I’m not talking about going to the spa, or throwing a bath bomb into the tub, or any other form of so-called “self-care” – unless, of course, that makes you happy. What I’m trying to say is that mental illness is hard. You may not feel like getting up at all in the morning. But you have to. One thing I know from experience is that if you continue to make excuses based on the way you feel (which is going to be awful some days), or exclude yourself from events because you “don’t feel like it,” you will become more and more isolated from everyone else. We have a saying in my house, “punch depression in the face.” Your mental illness is your enemy, and you have to fight it every single day.
Have a support system. I’ve done a lot of things I’m proud of – run a marathon, gotten a master’s degree, traveled and lived all over Europe by myself. But none of that would have been possible without my family. My mother educated herself about mental illness as soon as I was diagnosed, and probably knows more about it than I do. My family is very understanding when I have a bad day, and knows my triggers, as well as the things that will make me feel better.
Not everyone has a great family, of course, but great friends can help, too. You’d be surprised how many people I’ve talked to over the years who are struggling with the exact same things I am.
Finally, come up with a treatment plan. In conjunction with my doctor, I’ve come up with a treatment plan that includes medication and coping mechanisms such as exercise, healthy eating, and communication. Personally, I’ve never used therapy as part of my plan, but that doesn’t mean I won’t in the future, and it doesn’t mean it’s not right for someone else.
One thing I realize is that the medication doesn’t solve everything. I have to talk myself out of some of my behaviors, and use coping mechanisms for the rest. Fighting mental illness requires effort – unfortunately, there’s no “magic pill.”
My treatment plan has changed and evolved over time, as my situation and needs change. When I need an adjustment, I always come home to visit my doctor. I don’t trust anyone else. But I stick with my plan as much as possible, because when I start to let aspects of it slide, that’s when my mental health starts to slide, too.
I’ll get back to writing more soon, because that’s one of the things that makes me happy. But for now, I’m just going to take things one day at a time.