An Open Letter To My Teenage Self (Before You Try To End Your Life)

Dear Teenage Sam,

I want to tell you where I was this morning.

I woke up with the California sunshine peaking through the blinds, falling on my face, colliding with my eyes. You wouldn’t believe how beautiful it is, waking up like that. It’s my favorite way to wake up, and we get to wake up this way every day now.

While I was drinking my coffee, I was curled up on the couch crying. You and I don’t do much crying these days, because you fell in love, moved across the country, and found an antidepressant that helped you to understand what happiness actually feels like.

(We used to cry a lot. You never understood why – but I promise, you will one day.)

I have a brilliant friend who says that recovering from depression is kind of similar to wearing high heels for a long time – that moment when your feet touch the ground, and you remember what walking is supposed to feel like.

When you wiggle your toes, stretch your feet, and remember what solid ground is like underneath you.

This morning I was crying because I finally understood what that really meant.

Put another way:

Yesterday, I lit a lighter by myself for the first time.

We were always afraid of fire, you know, afraid of something catching fire or getting burned. 25 years old, and I’d never made a fire until last night.

(And I think this can account for, at least in part, why you’ve never taken up smoking cigarettes.)

When I held it in my hand, I knew at last what it was like to hold fire. What it was like to glow brightly without getting burned.

And I learned that it wasn’t fire that we were so afraid of – it was the belief that we could never be trusted with something like that. That, given the chance, we would always destroy something good. That we could come so close, and draw so near, but we could never control the fire.

(And I think this can account for, at least in part, why bonfires and fireplaces always frightened you a little.)

But last night, I held the light between my fingers. I watched the flame flickering and dancing in the dark, and I finally understood that I could trust myself again.

Sam, do you understand what I mean?

I mean that, one morning, you will wake up and know what it’s like to move through the world without aching feet, the ground reliable and solid and soft underneath you. And you’ll know joy not just as the absence of pain, but the PRESENCE of something.

Something ecstatic and whole and hopeful that you didn’t know you could feel.

I mean that, one night, you will know what it feels like to be bright and unstoppable and in motion, without fearing what might happen if you get carried away – if you love too hard, if you feel too much, if you trust yourself too deeply. You will love, you will feel, and you will trust with beautiful abandon.

You will know what it’s like to be in awe of yourself, startled but not afraid.

I promise, there will come a morning – tears sliding down like beautiful gems scattered across your cheeks – and you will say underneath your breath, “This is the way I was supposed to feel.”

This moment will be made possible only because you survived.

I can’t stop you from trying. I know that. I know this because I spent many years looking for you behind closed doors, flashbacks deceiving me, trying to spare you before you stopped breathing.

I know this because I remember how desperate you were to end your pain. There wasn’t a single force in the universe that could’ve intervened.

(When you’re older, you’ll become acquainted with emergency rooms, and meet the doctors that will ultimately diagnose and save you.)

I forgave you a long time ago – for this, and all the trauma to follow – from the moment you woke up, as the room spun and closed in all around you and I knew you needed someone to care for you.

You need to be brave. And you were brave, Sam, you have always been brave.

This is a remarkable thing you’ll learn about yourself soon – that you might always struggle with the impulse to hurt yourself, but you will never lose the instinct to care for yourself, stitching up your own wounds.

Surviving is what you do. You will survive this, too.

I know this now, having courageously and stubbornly picked myself up so many times, a lesson I learned from watching you.

***

If you or someone you know are thinking about suicide, you can always call:

Let’s Talk About Self-Sabotage.

Confession: When I’m happy, I freak out.

A blog-reader-turned-bestie (yes, sometimes I befriend y’all in real life because you are lovely human beings) and I were recently talking about this over milkshakes. Being happy is terrifying when you aren’t quite used to it.

You know, that dreaded sense that the other shoe will fall? Yeah. That. It’s the worst.

The pressure of trying to sustain something that we’re not used to can create a lot of stress for us. And we might feel the impulse to self-sabotage, especially when we don’t have the support we need to cope.

Sometimes I even have suicidal thoughts when I’m happy. Do you?

The idea that I’ve peaked, and that I might as well die now while things are still good. It seems like the perfect time. Then I fall down the rabbit hole of, “Am I actually happy if I’m having thoughts like these?” (Save yourself the time: Yes. Suicidal thoughts aren’t exclusively the domain of depression.)

And of course, I don’t know how to explain this to the folks I love – that joy is triggering, because I am so used to that joy being taken away from me.

Mental illness has taught me that happiness is inherently unstable and temporary, that I shouldn’t trust it. That mistrust is the product of repeated trauma. It can make me impulsive, hypersensitive, and fearful. It makes it difficult to be grounded.

And worst of all? It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I start to act out because of that fear, which reinforces the fear itself.

I thought it was just me, until I started talking about it. I actually found that lots of people with mental illness or experiences of trauma have this same mistrust of joy. It can lead us to making some lousy choices – in an attempt to regain control and cope with the fear, we make some misguided decisions and push away the very happiness we’ve so desperately wanted for ourselves.

Sound familiar?

Being happy makes me a little crazy. And if you’ve ever thought you were the only one, I assure you – it’s actually a really common thing.

When you’ve spent years associating happiness with the calm before the storm, it’s no surprise that you might associate joy with a lack of safety. In fact, maybe you find depression or anxiety to be a little safer – because it’s more predictable, something more known to you.

I’m here to tell you, friend, that this is totally understandable. Brains are very malleable things – and trauma can lead us to develop some pretty maladaptive impulses, including the impulse to self-sabotage.

I am the Prince of Self-Sabotage. Happiness absolutely terrifies me. It terrifies me because  it feels like it’s only ever betrayed me. Just when I think that I’ve gotten into a good rhythm, life throws me a curveball and I’m not only depressed again, but also grieving the loss of the stability I thought I’d finally had.

Has happiness betrayed you? If so, it’s no surprise that your first instinct is to push it away.

Recently, I’ve gotten to a good place again. Courtesy of Wellbutrin (quickly becoming a favorite of mine), the most sarcastic/excellent psychiatrist on the planet, the love and support of community, new job prospects that leave me totally ecstatic about what’s to come, and personal growth that surprises and delights me every day.

And of course, cue the terrible thoughts like, “Okay, what gives? When does the other shoe drop?” and even, “I kind of feel like taking a chainsaw and splitting myself in half” (to which my psychiatrist asks me, “Um, do you have access to a chainsaw?” Fear not, Doc. No, I do not).

What’s a kid to do? Well, in my opinion, it starts with just acknowledging that happiness is scary, and that’s 100% okay.

Sounds deceptively simple. But you and I both know this is easier said than done. I have to remind myself of this fifty times a day – that there isn’t a disaster waiting for me around every corner. I have to remind myself that I’ve been conditioned overtime to believe that happiness isn’t safe, but that doesn’t make it true.

It’s also good to check in with myself about how I’m dealing with that stress. Am I reaching out for support from a therapist and/or friend? Am I talking about my fears or ignoring them? Am I staying busy? Am I taking care of myself?

I’m a big fan lately of guided meditation when I’m not feeling so grounded. More specifically, there’s this app that I can’t shut up about called Stop, Breathe & Think, which recommends a few meditations (and even yoga videos!) based on your emotions (imagine, like, a self-care mood ring).

You tell it how you’re feeling, and it makes custom recommendations for you. When I find myself freaking out – like my skin is crawling or I’m claustrophobic in my own body – it’s the perfect thing. (Nope, they didn’t ask for the plug – I just love and appreciate them that much.)

A lot of people believe that self-care is only crucial when you’re in a bad place. But I’ve found that self-care is absolutely critical when I’m happy – because the moment I’ve stopped prioritizing my mental health is when I’m actually most vulnerable.

Let me repeat that, because it’s super important: The moment I’ve stopped prioritizing my mental health is when I’m most vulnerable.

Got it?

I know it might seem counterintuitive to reach out for help when you’re happy, of all things, but it can be very necessary if your happiness is a stressor.

And this is a process, of course, one that I know will be ongoing throughout my life. But it helps to know that I’m not alone. And I hope that this reminder can be helpful to you, too.

When we start seeing happiness as a completely understandable trigger and learn to be gentle with ourselves, instead of letting trauma dictate how we should respond, we can start to do the really important work of recovery and healing – which is absolutely something each and every one of us deserves. Yourself included.

6 Things People With Mental Illness Might Be Scared To Admit

You know, it’s possible that everything on this list is just me. But working in mental health advocacy for some time now, I’ve learned that it’s never really “just me” or “just you” – if we’re struggling, it’s almost guaranteed that someone out there knows that struggle.

Confession: I was hospitalized four months ago and I’ve been afraid – afraid of myself, afraid of my friends, afraid for my life – almost every minute since then.

Of course, I was scared to open up about it until I realized that it’s the fear that holds us back. If we never admit that we’re hurting, we can never find the support and reassurance that we need to pull through.

It’s true that I don’t know your story or your struggle. But I hope that, by knowing mine, you’ll feel less alone.

Because it’s okay to be scared – and you’d be surprised at just how many of us are putting on a brave face, hoping that no one sees just how afraid we really are.

Since I got out of the hospital, I’ve been faking it with the hopes that no one sees how much pain I’m in. But today, I’m letting my guard down – I’m hurting and I’m afraid, but I know I’m not alone.

1. I’m afraid that I don’t deserve to be happy.

I recently posted on the LQTU Facebook page about how many people with mental illness tend towards self-sabotage when they’re happy.

And, no surprise, many people responded with comments and messages about how they’ve sabotaged their own recovery – and at the root of it, it seems, is a conviction that they didn’t deserve their recovery to begin with.

Been there, still there. What I’m scared to admit sometimes is that I don’t feel like I deserve to be happy – so I push my happiness away.

Happiness scares me because I feel like I’m going to let everyone down. There’s so much pressure to be “recovered,” so much pressure to be “better,” so much pressure to have your shit together.

Sometimes I try to dismantle my own happiness because I don’t feel worthy or good enough – like I can’t live up to the expectations of being healthy – and it feels easier to relapse and let things fall apart with no room to disappoint myself or anyone else.

For me, alcohol is the quickest way to sabotage myself – and damn, I am a skilled self-saboteur when I’ve got a glass or a bottle in my hand. But before I pick up the drink, I try to remind myself that instead of fearing happiness, I should give myself permission to feel it.

Happiness is not a prize that you win or a reward reserved for the best or sanest people – it’s just a feeling to be enjoyed and a feeling that everyone is entitled to.

You don’t have to be “good enough.” You just have to let it in.

2. I’m afraid that if people see my illness, they’ll think less of me.

When I had my breakdown, I was lucky enough to have friends supporting me – in ways that were often to their own detriment. Much of it is gone from my memory, but I have flashbacks, and when I do I’m always gripped with one thought: they will never see me the same way again.

I’ve always been afraid that if people saw me during a breakdown, they would realize that I’m not perfect.

I don’t have it all figured out, I don’t always have it under control, I can hurt people, I can be selfish, I can be psychotic – and everything that I was up until that point is replaced with the memory of me at my worst.

I’ve believed that if I didn’t control my mental illness and package it in a way that was acceptable or inspiring, my value to other people would be diminished. And these days, I’m constantly afraid that I’m not worth enough – even if nothing anyone has said or done indicates otherwise.

I try to remind myself that my worth can’t depend on how others perceive me or my illness. When I’m obsessing over how others see me, I ask myself, “Well, how do I see myself?”

And if how I see myself is particularly negative, or I am noticing things about myself that are harmful or not good, I know that I have some self-work to do – and that’s not the responsibility of my friends or loved ones. That’s work only I can do.

3. I’m afraid that I’ll lose control.

Happiness is not a guarantee for anyone, but when you have a mental illness, you can sometimes become hypervigilant, convinced that at any moment an episode will grab you by the ankle and pull you down.

I’m tapering off of my anti-psychotic medication right now, and it’s felt like walking on eggshells, tracking my mood every day and searching for signs that something might be wrong.

Every time I see something out of the corner of my eye, I worry I might be seeing things again; every time I’m sad, I panic that it could be the beginning of a depressive episode.

It can feel like any particular thought or feeling is a sign of impending doom if you scrutinize it too much – and it starts to feel like you can’t trust yourself or your perception of reality.

Especially when you’ve just come off of a breakdown or traumatic experience, it can feel like the ground underneath you will never be solid. The instability can make you a little crazy (literally).

But it comforts me to know that as I work at my recovery, I’ll slowly get my footing again.

4. I’m afraid that my illness makes me a bad person.

It has taken a long, long time to be okay with saying, “Sometimes I act in really shitty ways when I’m struggling with my mental health.”

I’m not going to sugarcoat it: I have hurt people. Sometimes I’m a walking stereotype of borderline and it takes a lot to deal with my shit, be accountable for my mistakes, and reel it in.

What I’ve realized overtime is that being “good” or “bad” is not the point. I think it’s really a question of being responsible or irresponsible about the impact of our behaviors.

I spent a hell of a long time being more concerned with denying that I was hurting other people because I didn’t want to think of myself as being “bad.” It was about my ego; it was about preserving this image of myself as being “good.” It was irresponsible because I opted for denial instead of ownership of my behaviors.

But in recent years, I’ve worked on accepting that instead of being “good,” I should aspire to be responsible: recognizing when I’ve done harm, being accountable for it, and helping to facilitate healing between myself and my loved ones.

Whether or not you are good or bad isn’t important. But your choices will determine the kind of impact you have in the world – so commit to making the best choices that you can.

5. I’m afraid that I won’t survive it next time.

I can’t tell you how many mentally ill folks I’ve spoken to who have all said, “I won’t make it past [insert young age].” Episode after episode, it feels like we barely scrape by, and when we get to the other side we’re certain that we could never face it again.

Sometimes when I try to imagine battling another psychotic, depressive episode, I swear up and down that I could never survive it. And when I imagine trying to live with these illnesses for much longer, I despair about how it’s almost guaranteed that I won’t live a long life.

But when I’m convinced I won’t live to see 30, I remind myself that there was a time when I thought I wouldn’t live to see 20.

I also remind myself, like I explained in this article about depression (it’s one of my favorites, you should read it), that sometimes mental illness tricks us into thinking we can see the future – the simple truth, though, is that we never could and we never will.

Back when I was attending AA meetings (which was… interesting, to say the least), the thing that stuck out to me was the idea of taking it one day at a time. Sobriety, just like mental health recovery, feels huge when we look at the long term, the big picture.

But they both can feel a little more manageable when we keep our eyes on what’s in front of us, because that’s what’s within our power to control.

This seems (1) cliche and (2) laughably simple, I know. But even so, the only way we can move forward is one step at a time – so every day I remind myself that the only moment that’s relevant right now is the one I’m living in.

Believe me, I understand the fear. I don’t know how long I’ll live, and that scares me. I don’t know if I’ll be able to manage the next episode, and that terrifies me.

But what I do know is that the choices I make today – the ways I choose to take care of myself in the now and the support I put in place – can make a difference tomorrow, and even beyond that.

And really, for better or for worse, that’s the best I can do.

6. I’m afraid that this illness is all that I am.

Everyone likes to remind me that I’m more than my illnesses. But this struggle is my every day – if I’m not drowning in a depressive episode, I’m fighting hard to keep my head above water and my life intact. There isn’t a single moment that I’m not somehow impacted by these labels.

Sometimes I fear that this struggle is so central to my existence that it overshadows everything else that I am – if I am, indeed, anything else.

And sometimes I worry that it has consumed my life to the point where it’s the only thing anyone else can see.

Every day, I’m still trying to uncover who I am apart from all of this. Trying to get in touch with the joy and passion and thrill that is buried underneath all this, the part of me that lives for something and comes alive for something.

I want to know what that part of me is like, what it takes to bring it to life.

I’m never going to pretend that these illnesses aren’t ever-present in my day-to-day.  I’m never going to pretend that my choices won’t always be informed or influenced by my struggles. And I’m never going to pretend that the impact this has had on me hasn’t touched every aspect of my life.

Just looking at this list of fears, I ask myself if mental illness will always have this kind of grip on me – if I’ll spend every day of my life afraid.

But all any of us can do, really, is try to cultivate something beautiful for ourselves. Something that makes us feel whole. Something that gives us a sense of purpose. Even if the garden is barren, even if it’s covered in snow, we find a way to make something – anything – grow.

We can have something more for ourselves, something that belongs to us. That may not define us or help us put the pieces of our identity back together – but it gives us a place to start.

5 Reminders For Anyone Who’s Depressed

I’m a little over two weeks into a depressive episode. According to my therapist, anyway. I’ve been a human slug, inching my way around my apartment, dramatically sighing and eating microwave meals and watching the dishes stack up in the sink.

You know the deal.

This, just two months after being hospitalized (can I just catch a break?). You’d think that all the intensive therapies, support groups, medication changes, and workbooks would have prevented this. But alas, here I am – sometimes depression manages to get a foot in the door despite your best efforts.

Sometimes when I’m entering into a depressive episode, I like to write down reminders that I want to hold onto as I go through it. They can be affirmations, reality checks, or words of wisdom.

Anything, really, to keep some perspective when I’m dealing with my episode. I try to write down the words I think I’ll need to hear as I struggle – because too often, we lose sight of the important stuff.

This time, I figured, why not share my list? And even better – encourage people to write their own.

Here are five of my own reminders to get us started.

1. Sometimes what’s best for us is the thing we resist the most.

I wrote about this recently in another article – how mental illness can encourage us to do the exact opposite of what we need to be doing. For example, my depression often urges me to stay in my apartment, even though going out into the world and socializing would actually boost my mood.

When you lack energy and motivation, and you don’t find the things you used to love as pleasurable as you once did, it can be damn near impossible to find a reason to do anything but curl up in bed.

Our instincts, clouded by the depression, often leave us opting for behaviors that are worsening our mood.

Some days, I am simply unable to move or participate in things. And that’s totally okay! It’s most important to be compassionate with ourselves and take care of ourselves.

But I’ve found that sometimes, telling myself to ignore my depressive instincts and do some self-care – even if it sounds unappealing, exhausting, or boring – really does help me.

You get to decide, ultimately, what’s feasible for you and what’s not. But it’s good to remind yourself that depression does not always have your best interest in mind.

2. Surviving depression involves being skeptical of 95% of your thoughts.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received was something like, “Not everything you think is true.” This is especially relevant advice when dealing with depression.

Too often we forget that depression doesn’t just impact how we feel, but it affects how we think.

Things like low self-esteem, pessimism, suicidal thoughts, catastrophizing, rumination, and harsh self-criticism are just a small slice of the impact that depression has on our thinking.

Which is to say, it’s important to approach our negative thinking with a certain amount of skepticism.

Some healthy questions worth asking yourself: (1) Have I always felt this way?, (2) How do I know, logically, that this is true?, (3) What advice would I give to a friend who struggled with this?, and (4) Could depression be impacting my feelings about this?

When I’m grappling with low self-esteem, for example, and I go down the shame spiral of feeling like I’m not worth anything to anyone, I can go through these questions.

No, I haven’t always felt this way. And logically, none of my friends have told me I’m not worth anything to them – quite the opposite. If my friend were struggling with this, I would encourage them to reach out to their friends and express how they’re feeling. And yes, it’s possible that depression is impacting this because I guess it’s neither permanent nor logical.

Sometimes the questions help, but sometimes I’m too depressed to think outside of my situation. Regardless, it’s one useful tool amongst many in my toolbox that I can call on any time, and it’s helped me to push back on a lot of the negative self-talk that is so typical of depression.

3. Asking for help is sometimes the most difficult but necessary thing we can do.

My recent breakdown required that I call on my friends and ask for their help despite desperately wanting to leave everyone out of it. And while in hindsight there’s a lot I would do differently, I can’t say for certain that I would be alive today if I hadn’t reached out.

Asking for help is really hard. I will never invalidate the very real fears that come with reaching out.

We’re afraid of the possible rejection we’ll face from others. We’re afraid of being burdens on the people we love. We’re afraid that we’ll push people away. We’re afraid of being ostracized by our communities. We’re afraid of being further stigmatized.

And sometimes, we’re just ashamed to say that we’re hurting. We don’t want others to see us when we’re vulnerable. We don’t want others to see us at our lowest. I can assure you that I know how that feels.

Reaching out when you’re struggling with a mental illness is complicated, and everyone’s situation is complex and different. I can’t tell you what the right road to recovery looks like for you.

But at the end of the day, I’d like to remind you of this: Your survival is critically important, your life holds value, and you deserve compassionate care that will help you through this struggle.

Often times, sadly, that care is only within reach when we ask for it. And often times, that care is not just optional – it’s necessary if we are going to survive.

As I navigate recovery, I’m grateful every single day that there were people in my life there to help me. I would’ve died a long time ago if they hadn’t been.

I don’t know your situation, but I will say that I hope you are able to find the support that you need – even if it’s scary to ask, your life and your happiness are worth it.

4. None of this is your fault. None of it.

Damn, this one is too real.

Sometimes when I’m depressed, I get caught in this loop of self-blame that seems never-ending. If I had done this differently, if I just pushed harder, if I had better coping skills, if I went to more groups, if I did this, or that, or this, or that… apparently depression would disappear by sheer effort alone.

That’s not how it works. Depression isn’t a matter of willpower. Deep down, I think most, if not all of us understand that.

…but this is kind of incredible, right? Because part of my profession is knowing stuff about mental health, so you’d think I’d get the message by now. But depression shows up, and suddenly everything I know about mental health goes out the window and I’m punishing myself for something beyond my control.

I would never go up to someone with mental illness and say, “You need to try harder.” But apparently I’ll tell myself that twenty times a day?

(See, this is what I mean about being skeptical of your thoughts.)

So here’s the reminder for that inevitable moment that I fall back into that unending loop: It’s. Not. Your. Fault.

If it were a matter of willpower, the depression would be gone by now. If you could do something more, you would’ve already been doing it. No one chooses their depression.

But if you’re looking to make life changes to address your depression, I do have some advice. Make changes in the name of self-care – not in the name of self-blame. Because yes, you deserve a lot of care right now and no, you don’t deserve the blame.

5. It is impossible to know what the future will look like.

When I’m deep in a depressive episode, I find myself saying – with complete and total conviction – that nothing will ever get better, that my future is empty, that I will always struggle, that there’s nothing worth living for.

(Pro-tip: Words like “nothing,” “never,” “always” – or any words that exist in an “all or nothing” framework – are really big red flags. Folks dealing with depression often think in absolutes, which can feed into the hopelessness that we’re already feeling.)

As someone who both struggles with mental illness AND regularly supports people who do, I see it time and time again.

We’re deeply depressed, and then we’ve convinced ourselves we already know what the future looks like – despite the reality that none of us could possibly know.

Remember that skepticism I talked about? We’ve got to utilize it here above all else. Because our feelings about the future can drive our depression.

It’s so important to remember that you can’t know what the last page of a book says if you’re only in the middle of the book.

It makes perfect sense that, when we’re depressed, we see the future as being hopeless. But it’s impossible in any given moment to predict the outcome of our lives, no matter how despondent and awful our present moment might be.

The future is always unknowable. I’ve learned this the hard way many times, when I made rash decisions to harm myself under the assumption that nothing would get better, and later regretted it as I discovered that the future was not as predictable as I thought.

To be clear, I’m not asking any depressed person to remain hopeful about a future that they can’t see. Hope is a feeling that depression often robs us of.

But I am asking depressed folks to consider not making decisions based on a future they’ve assumed will happen, and instead, try to deal with the present, one day at a time.

It is possible that things will not get better. None of us can know for sure. But it’s also possible that they will. And I sincerely believe that every one of us deserves the opportunity to find out – and the tools to make that future as bright as possible.

On the days when I am crumbling under the weight of depression, and the future seems utterly hopeless, I try to remind myself of the many times I counted myself out, only to discover that there was something in the future that was waiting for me – something I never saw coming.

This may sound cheesy, but I had people to meet, and places to travel to, and articles to write, and communities to be a part of. I couldn’t have imagined these things in my life, but now I can’t imagine my life without it.

If there’s only one reminder that you take from this list, it’s this: There is a life for you beyond depression. 

And I’d like to believe that there’s one for every one of us.

6 Things Mental Health Recovery Has Taught Me

When I say that I’m in recovery, I mean it. It’s basically my part-time job.

My recent psychiatric hospitalization flipped my entire world upside-down. When I saw the aftermath of my breakdown, I knew it was time to confront my bipolar disorder and make a real commitment to my wellness.

So I went all in, taking advantage of every resource available to me (which I recognize is not the same for everyone).

Three days of the week, I am in intensive outpatient, which consists of mindfulness exercises, meetings with psychiatrists and social workers, group therapy, and skill-building.

Additional hours are spent in support groups around mental illness and sobriety, workshops on triggers and crisis management, reading every book on bipolar disorder that has ever existed, journaling to reflect on what I’ve been learning, and meeting with other folks in crisis to do some co-supporting and processing.

I couldn’t guarantee that I would never have another episode. But I could do everything in my power to make sure that I was ready for whatever this disorder threw at me.

Recovery has taught me more than I could possibly compile in a single list. But I did want to share just a handful of the things I’ve been reflecting upon lately as I start to emerge from the other side of this crisis.

Here are six things I’ve learned as I navigated my recovery:

 

1. Ignoring your illness doesn’t make it go away.

I can’t restate this enough. I spent the last two years evading the reality of my illness, which ultimately meant that I missed all the red flags as a major episode approached.

You can pretend that your mental illness doesn’t exist, and you can put it on the back burner if you’d like. But you can’t outrun it – it will always catch back up to you.

 

2. You are not helpless in the face of mental illness.

This can seem completely counter to everything our illnesses are telling us, especially if we’re feeling particularly hopeless.

But it is absolutely untrue that there’s nothing we can do to manage our illnesses. There are countless forms of therapy (both in human form and in the form of very accessible workbooks), coping strategies, self-care, and mindfulness practices that can help.

We can track our moods and sleep patterns, we can find communities of support, we can become aware of and minimize our triggers.

This is not to say that we control our illnesses. But we can certainly mitigate the kind of control that our illnesses have over us, and become aware of the warning signs that we need to prevent acute episodes as they approach.

 

3. Plant your feet firmly on the ground, in the here and now.

You can run on the hamster wheel of the past, overanalyzing what you could and should have done. You can ruminate on the future, and how seemingly impossible and overwhelming it really is.

Or, as they often tell us in recovery, you can take it one day at a time.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was in a support group, when I was rambling about how much remorse I felt about the way I had handled my breakdown, and everything I should have done differently.

Suddenly, someone interrupted and said to me, “Sam, is this helpful?”

I paused, taken aback. It wasn’t helpful at all.

And I highly recommend, when you find yourself ruminating on the past or panicking about the future, that you ask yourself who it serves. If it’s not helpful, opt for some good ol’ self-care instead.

 

4. Grief is an absolutely valid (and expected!) part of recovery.

I remember telling a social worker that I was worried that I was getting depressed again. I was having frequent spells of sadness and rumination, and I thought it might be an indication that things were taking a turn.

She asked if it was possible that I was experiencing grief instead, gently suggesting that instead of trying to push my sadness away, I should let it be.

“You’re used to fighting sadness,” she said to me. “With bipolar disorder, sadness always meant an impending crisis. But you seem perfectly stable to me. Maybe it’s time to get acquainted with sadness, with grief, instead of pushing it away.”

Grief is an expected part of recovery, especially if you’re coming off of a crisis. There’s so much to grieve – the loss of trust in yourself or your reality, a deep sense of vulnerability or even mortality, the shattering of your own security or feelings of normalcy, and any trauma that was endured.

When you’re mentally ill, you may be conditioned to fear sadness and grief – but it’s okay to sit with those feelings instead of resisting them, knowing they are simply a part of the recovery process, and that they are, in fact, transient.

 

5. Returning to your “normal life” is overrated. Build something better instead.

For the first two weeks of recovery, all I wanted was my “old life” back. I wanted to go back to work, I wanted to finish outpatient and go on my big East Coast trip, I wanted everyone to act as if it hadn’t happened.

I was reading a book on bipolar disorder – it had an entire chapter on lifestyle changes – when I realized two things.

The first was that my “normal life” would never be the same, and that it wasn’t something I could return to.

But the second more important realization was that it wasn’t something I wanted to return to.

My recovery was now an opportunity to build a life that was better than the one I had before – with more mindfulness, more resilience, better coping strategies, a real commitment to sobriety, and better boundaries.

Instead of seeing recovery as the road back to “normal life,” I saw it as a chance to create something better for myself.

I think that has been an incredibly important realization for me.

 

6. You have never been in a better position to change your life.

When did I get so disgustingly optimistic? (Y’all, they put me on some really great medications…)

I know, I know. But listen, it’s true – there has never existed another moment in your life where you’ve had the same awareness, knowledge, and lived experience that you do now.

So really, in this moment, there has never been a better time for you to make a commitment to your own wellness and recovery.

Dive in. Read everything you can get your hands on. Watch as many videos on self-care and coping strategies as you possibly can. Get yourself a good shrink if you’re able to. Give yourself 90 days of sobriety. Seek out a support group, online or offline, and pour your heart out.

Check out your local community college and see what classes they offer; get in touch with your local NAMI chapter and see what resources are available to you. Study yourself, study your illness, delve into your history with complete conviction – study like it’s the last class before graduation and you need to ace the exam.

Recovery is not about going back to the way things were. Recovery is about shaping your life to resemble the way you want things to be.

And there’s never been a better moment to do that than the one we’re in, right now.

Maybe It’s Time We Stop Punishing Ourselves And Start Asking For Help

I had a family member who, in his old age, used to pull the emergency cord in his apartment – a cord designed for seniors should they fall or become very ill – almost every week.
 
Over and over, he would pull the cord and be taken by ambulance to the hospital, where the doctors would assure him and our family that there was nothing wrong.
 
I was a child back then, and I remember asking my parents why he kept pulling the cord if nothing was the matter.
 
“He’s lonely,” they told me.
 
When I was that young, I couldn’t understand why he didn’t just tell people that he felt lonely.
 
But as an adult in the grips of mental illness, ten years later, I understand why he kept pulling the cord.
 
I understand that sometimes the hardest thing in the world is to admit that you need help or support.
 
And I’m certain that if there were a way to instantly combat the loneliness I’ve felt – no need to utter a single word or plea for help – I would have pulled that cord hundreds of times these last few weeks alone.
 
I wish we lived in a world where seeking out emotional support could be taught in healthy ways, encouraged and affirmed as a necessary part of emotional resiliency, and not looked at as a sign of weakness.
 
That’s not the world we live in.
 
We live in a world where the thought of being a burden is scarier to us than the immensity of our own pain.

A world in which we choose to silence ourselves and suffer alone because we think it’s noble to do so.
 
My family member pulled the cord more times than I could count for a year until he passed. The nurses knew, the doctors knew, our family knew – and everyone played along.
 
That’s the world we live in. Everyone plays along.
 
We write vague and anguished Facebook statuses. We run away hoping others will follow. We type “I want to die” into Google search bars because we’re too afraid to tell our friends. We push people away because we don’t know what else to do. We fake smiles hoping that someone will see through them.
 
We’re all pulling cords in our own way because it’s harder to just be honest and say, “Please, I can’t be alone right now.”
 
We’re all pulling cords because we don’t know how to say that we’re hurting.
 
And I guess what I’m saying is that, if you’re reading this – maybe, just maybe – we can all start to push back against this fear. This fear that tells us to keep quiet, the one that tells us our pain is too much or too heavy.

Maybe it’s not.

Maybe we can start saying what we really mean.

And I will, too.

Tonight, I am lonely.

To Anyone Who’s Ever Shamed a Teenager For Being ‘Attention Seeking’

The scars I have from cutting myself as a teenager have faded. If you looked at my body today, you would never know the hell that I put it through all those years ago.

But the wounds from people labelling me “attention-seeking” or “emo” or “dramatic” are still wide open, ten years later.

You could say that I have a bone to pick. And you would be correct.

When I was a teenager, all I understood about what I was going through was that I was depressed and detached from myself. Set adrift in my pain, I fell apart. I didn’t know why, let alone what resources were available to me or how to ask for help.

In a society which does not openly discuss mental health, it should come as no surprise that a fourteen-year-old kid didn’t know what to do when he was suicidal.

A decade later, I still don’t know what to do half the time. But I’m grateful to that teenager for doing what he needed to do to keep himself alive. I wouldn’t be here without him.

I can’t tell you the number of times that people saw me suffering – desperate, hopeless, lost – and, instead of validating my struggles, they wrote them off by saying, “He’s just looking for attention.”

I can’t tell you the number of times I hurt myself, only to hear someone say to me, “Quit being so dramatic.”

And to this day, I hear the word “emo” and a part of me cringes because I remember the way that word was used to completely invalidate my pain.

To set the record straight, if I was looking for attention, it’s because I needed it. If I was being dramatic, it’s because I couldn’t contain the depth of my own turbulent emotions. And if “emo” is just another word for mentally ill, then yes, I was certifiably insane but you were too busy laughing at my eyeliner to give a fuck.

Sure, I’m emo. I’m emotional. It’s called bipolar disorder, and maybe I would’ve gotten a diagnosis sooner if someone had paused to consider that maybe I wasn’t faking it.

Call me bitter, but I can’t help but wonder how my life would be different if someone had had the courage to intervene instead of the cowardice to mock me.

Yes, this one’s personal.

Yesterday – ten years after I heard the word “emo” for the first time, ten years after my so-called friend said I was pretending to be sad, ten years after a high school counselor told me my cuts weren’t deep enough – I needed help.

A depressive episode hit me so hard, I lost my balance and I hit rock-bottom. I wasn’t in my right mind.

But instead of asking my friends for support, I felt that gut instinct that’s been ingrained in me since I was a teenager – the one that tells me not to be a burden, not to be dramatic, not to bother anyone.

Suffice to say, I ended up drunk off my ass a block away from the train station contemplating thoughts I can’t let myself say out loud just yet.

Take it from a real-life “emo” kid: When you tell us that we’re just looking for attention, what you’re really saying is that we don’t deserve to be seen.

When you tell us that we’re faking it, what you’re really saying is that our pain doesn’t matter, that WE don’t matter.

When you tell us that we’re emo, as if it’s funny to you, what you’re really saying is that our suffering is a joke.

You tell us that we don’t need help. You tell us that we don’t deserve help.

And you create the kind of world where people who are struggling feel like they have no other option but to end their own lives.

You create the kind of world where people who have a mental illness won’t find out until ten years or more after the age of onset, if they’re ever diagnosed at all. That’s a statistical fucking reality and it’s the reality I’ve been living in for a long time.

You create the kind of world where young people learn to bottle up their emotions, to lie about their pain, and to go it alone until they wind up in hospital beds, on train tracks, on concrete, in graves.

And you know what? I’ll take an attention-seeking teenager over a dead one any day of the week.

I want teenagers to shout it from the rooftop. I want teenagers to write it all over the internet. I want teenagers to make their pain known in every damn way they can.

Because guess what? That’s how you survive.

And I don’t know about you, but I want a world in which teenagers who are struggling with their mental health can get attention if and when they need it. Because every one of us deserves to have our pain seen, validated, and affirmed. 

And if that makes me “dramatic”? So be it.