I have ADHD, an anxiety disorder, and mild depression. Some of it is genetic. Some of it has been exacerbated by difficult circumstances. Either way, it has had a huge impact on my life in a neurotypical world. Even though I have had the financial support of my family, I’ve had to navigate most of my mental health journey and gather wisdom on my own.
Over time, I have improved with the help of God, therapy, therapy books, and my wonderful friends. I have gained a great deal of wisdom over the years that I would like to share with you because I know that some of my readers need to hear this advice. I am no mental health expert, but I have found these things to be true.
1. If you have a mental illness, you do have something wrong with you. There is a real chemical imbalance in your brain. You are not making it up to get attention no matter what anyone says.
It sounds ridiculous but the hardest truth I have had to get myself to accept is that what I feel is real. There are so many people, in my family and friend group included, who do not understand and underestimate what I feel. Many people underestimate how difficult mental illness is to manage.
As a result, I have spent a long time trying to convince myself that emotional suffering is suffering, too. I am not exaggerating when I say that this doubt has tormented me for years. I have spent many hours praying, talking to my friends, talking to my therapist, and reading the Bible to make myself accept my problems are real. It is only when you accept this truth that you can begin to fix your problems.
2. Having a mental illness does not make you a bad person who does bad things. Your mind and soul are unhealthy. That’s all. Being sick and being evil are two different things.
One of the worst things anyone has ever said to me is that my depression and anger could make me a school shooter. I understand now that she was trying to persuade me to repress my emotions, so I wouldn’t become dangerous. She wanted me to fear my feelings. She thought she was helping, but she was wrong to say that.
I hardly should have to explain why thinking like this is wrong. Firstly, it’s misleading. The mentally ill can be violent, but that doesn’t mean they will be. Secondly, it hurts how the mentally ill see themselves. It makes the non-neurotypical see themselves as a danger to society simply because of their illness. Thirdly, it’s alienating. It stigmatizes the mentally ill even further from others. It also pushes the mentally ill to repress their feelings and withdraw from society, so they won’t harm others instead of addressing their problems and getting the help they need. What you need to know is that people will think that, but they’re wrong about you. You’re not a criminal for having problems in your head.
3. There are people close to you who will probably never understand what you endure with your mental illness, but if there are people in your life who do, you can get through it. You don’t need to waste your time making people understand if you have others who do.
I have people in my family and in my friend group who don’t understand my mental illness and probably never will. They think that I can will it to stop if I try hard enough or that taking medication is somehow wrong. Fortunately, many of these people are supportive even though they don’t understand, but unfortunately, there are others who deride me for feeling bad and those who even think that I’m holding onto my emotions out of spite.
The same will go for you. Our culture underestimates the pain of mental illness, and there will be people close to you who do the same. They may support you anyway which is great, but there are other people who will think that you’re holding onto your feelings to spite them or that you are simply not trying hard enough to act normal.
However, as is the case with me, there are people who will understand what you’re going through and be there for you to talk to when you need it. These people will be your support system, and if you have them, you can endure without the support of the others.
4. Struggling with emotional trauma doesn’t mean you are unforgiving. It means you are still hurt. There’s a difference.
Let me say this louder for the people in the back. Struggling with emotional scars from a dysfunctional relationship does not mean that you haven’t forgiven your perpetrator. I know this from personal experience. People have hurt me, and despite how difficult it has been, I am forgiving them and moving on with my life. However, that does not mean I’m not damaged from the experience and don’t have to deal with the scars.
For many people who’ve made mistakes, it’s hard to understand. They have turned their lives around and want to move forward, so they expect you to be able to do the same. When they see that you’re still hurt by the experience, they take it as a sign that you’re still angry at them when usually that’s not the case.
The scars in most cases have nothing to do with your feelings for the person you’ve forgiven. They are side effects of the negative experience you were forced to endure, and you must deal with them whether you like it or not. It took me years and a conversation with an understanding friend to know this to be true.
To go back to my previous point, you may want this person to walk with you as you deal with the emotional trauma, but odds are that they can’t because for them it is too painful. If they want to, that’s great. If they’re not emotionally capable of doing so, you must accept it and move on.
5. There is no shame in going to therapy. Therapy helps you understand your problems and move on.
I spent years foolishly thinking that I could ignore my emotional scars and deal with the issues on my own. I was wrong, and it took a difficult semester studying abroad in 2015 to finally accept the truth. Since I’ve started therapy, I have improved mentally and grown as a person.
Odds are you need to do the same. You need help dealing with your scars. You can’t do it on your own. It’s impossible and will only make things worse. Trust me. Finding help is the only way you can help yourself move through your illness.
I know that therapy can be expensive. I’ve been blessed to find a therapist within my church’s ministry who could give me discounts, but if you look hard enough, you can find something. I recommend looking at https://www.7cups.com/. It’s a website for people with anxiety or depression who need someone to talk to. I have never used it myself, but I have heard great things. It does not replace the need for therapy, but it is a good place to find support.
In addition to therapy, I have been reading psychology books to help me understand my feelings. However, while these books have been incredibly helpful for me, I hesitate to recommend them since they are mostly written by Christian psychologists with a Christian worldview. I am not sure how helpful non-believers would consider them to be despite the validity of their advice.
Of these books, the most helpful one has been Happiness is a Choice: a Manual on the Symptoms, Causes, and Cures of Depression, written by Dr. Frank B. Minirth and Dr. Paul D. Meier in the late 1970’s. Ironically, I have not finished reading the whole book since I salvaged it when my church nixed their library in high school, but what I have read has helped me understand the underlying reasons behind my anxiety and depression. Believers and non-believers can learn from them. The only downside is that since this book was written in the 1970’s the views on issues such as homosexuality are a bit outdated. Nevertheless, this book is very insightful when it comes to understanding the psychological reasons behind one’s own emotional troubles.
The one more secular psychology book I have read is The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck published in 1978. This book is well-known, but I did not read it until my good friend, then a British expat working in France, sent me the book as a Christmas present in 2015 once I decided to seek help in my journey to psychological healing. This book played a heavy roll in finally getting my mind to accept that psychological problems were real issues that affected people. In addition, it opened my eyes to how neurotic I really am and what a problem it really is. The book outlines what it means to the author to be a fulfilled person in his experience as a person and a psychologist. As a believer, I did not agree with every piece of advice he gave, but I respect Peck for his wisdom and for treating religious beliefs respectfully as something that needs to be encouraged if they help and questioned if they hurt. That last bit means a great deal to me since I have dealt with well-meaning people who have tried to convince me that my religious beliefs, or that having religious beliefs period, was something insane that needed to be dropped to make me healthy, but I digress.
The point is to take psychological books with a grain of salt. Even if they are written by wise, seasoned psychologists, their advice may not necessarily always be right for you. On the same token, you should read these books with an open mind, especially if you are as stubborn I am. These people are smart and know what they’re talking about. Psychology is a science, and even if their advice is not helpful for your situation, psychologists’ words about psychological conditions apply to everyone.
Again, I am no mental health expert. These are only things I have learned over time as I have navigated the world of mental illness mostly on my own. I hope I can give some of that desperately needed guidance to people like myself, so they don’t have to spend years wandering like I did.