What Recovering from a Mental Illness Really Looks Like

We’ve all had experiences with mental illness, whether personally or through loved ones. Especially in this modern era, with illnesses becoming more visible, more and more people realize just how common things like depression, anxiety, PTSD, etc., are. That’s great, and I encourage everyone to be open with their issues, and learn where said issues stem from. Recovery is a long road, but it’s wonderful being able to finally function when you used to shut down. However, there’s always hiccups. Relapses, panic attacks, triggers, they can affect even the healthiest of people.

Recovery from mental illness isn’t easy, or simple. Often, those who are struggling would rather continue to struggle than admit that something is wrong, and go about working to improve. And often, people don’t even have access to therapy or psychiatry that can be lifesaving. While there are still things you can do in that situation, things are still more messy than we’d like.

I’ve lived with depression and anxiety for years and years now. (and ADHD, but that’s beside the point) I first experienced these issues in junior high, and they’re the reason I dropped out of high school, and was later hospitalized. Now, in my final semester of college, I’d love to tell you that I’m finally free! But I’m not. After years of therapy, antidepressants, and a great deal of critical thought and effort to get better, I’m functioning. I still struggle, especially in the winter, and I still have hopeless days, and worse, the days of numbness. However, I’m doing better.

I still have to answer questions about the numerous scars on my arms, but there are no longer cuts and blood to explain away. I’m not ashamed of them anymore, and I wear short sleeves and go shirtless regularly. I still awkwardly talk about how I dropped out, but I’m in college and five years into a STEM degree and doing fine. I still have days where I don’t have the energy to leave my bed, but those days rarely last weeks anymore, and I’m better at forcing myself to do things.

I’m never going to be the person I was before my mental illnesses took hold, because they’ve shaped and changed me. But I am going to function and enjoy life when I can. I’m going to keep on living for a while, even though I don’t know where the future will lead.

A lot of us grew up expecting to be dead by now, and even if we didn’t, we were so often forced to simply survive that we don’t know what to think of the future anymore. This is further compounded by the fact that all the things we thought were part of adulthood are out of our reach. We were told about going to college, getting a degree, then a job, buying a house and settling down with a family, but those things are much, much more difficult now than they were twenty or fifty years ago. Even if we managed to get through high school and college, graduates are getting paid a pittance compared to the labor they put in. It’s even worse for those who couldn’t get to college. Almost everyone my age that I know, with or without a college degree, is working for less than $15 an hour. How are we supposed to do all the things that make us “adults” if we aren’t getting paid enough to even survive, let alone thrive? The jobs we do get treat us like garbage, we’re fired for minor offenses, and the cycle repeats. Sure, some people make it out and get better jobs, but that’s not the story we hear everyday from our friends and loved ones.

This all contributes to a “sense of a foreshortened future.” People will ask me all the time, “where do you see yourself in 15- 20 years?

How do I answer that when I spent most of my teenage years expecting or even wanting to be long dead by then? How am I supposed to plan for a future when half my friends are struggling paycheck to paycheck? Even if I graduate, get a great job in my STEM field, and “make it,” I’d rather help give others the opportunities I’ve had, than just sit on wealth thinking about how superior I am, like so many gluttonous billionaires do. Our hopes and dreams aren’t of mansions on personal islands. At least personally, they’re about being able to live comfortably and help those we care about.

The point is, I’m never going to be someone who hasn’t suffered from mental illness. I may get better at dealing with it, and I may need less help, but it’s not going to disappear. However, that doesn’t mean there’s no hope for recovery. It just means that recovery isn’t going to make my life look like everyone else’s. And, more importantly, it means that recovery doesn’t have a finish line. Don’t wait to live your life until you’re doing great, learn to live and enjoy yourself right now, even if that looks much different from the way people around you are living.

Stop trying to go back to who you were before. Before the trauma(s), or before your breaking point. Teach yourself to see through your own thinking errors. Sometimes, you’ll keep feeling bad unless you unpack your feelings about something deeper. And sometimes, the negativity is as ephemeral as we’d wish it always ways. Either way, being able to express yourself is important.

And finally, if you lost some of your teenage years (or any part of your life) to struggles with a mental illness, keep going. Recovery is long and difficult, and most of the time no one even notices how far you’ve come. But I’m here cheering you on every step of the way. You’re the one living with this, and you’re the one who has been living with this for years. You might be a couple years “behind” everyone else, you might be missing experiences others enjoyed, or you might be pretending nothing happened, but the important thing is that you’re doing better than you were.

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