Yea, I know that saying I’m thankful for my mental health journey is really strange. Who would be thankful for the disease that is depression and anxiety? Before I dive into what I mean, I just want to acknowledge that my experience with my particular flavor of mental illness is unique. I think of mental illness as a snowflake in that each illness in each person is completely different from someone else’s. I also realize that I’m privileged to have the tools I do to help me deal with my mental illness. So while I may be thankful for some aspects of my journey with mental illness, I completely understand that this may not be the case for everyone.
When I was diagnosed with depression in 2003, the stigma around mental illness had me believe that I was forever ruined and doomed to a life of sadness. I popped my prescription of Prozac Weekly 90mg and didn’t tell anyone other than my parents about my diagnosis. And I kept this up for years until my depression outgrew my medication. In 2011 I checked myself into a mental health hospital, where I learned to manage my depression and a shiny new diagnosis of anxiety.
Peaks and Valleys
My journey with mental health has been rocky to say the least and there is a part of me that wants to focus on the bad. The bad is terrifying and makes me question everything. I absolutely hate that part of having a mental illness because the lack of control I have over my very own brain fuels my anxiety and can sometimes lead to a very cyclical downward spiral.
Without the low valleys of the bad, I wouldn’t know about its exact opposite; the beautiful, sun-filled peaks of good. And without either the peaks or the valleys, I never would have had the opportunity to crawl out of the valleys to the tops of the peaks. The multiple trips I’ve taken from the valleys to the peaks and back again has forever changed me in ways I am thankful for.
One thing that’s grown over the years because of my journey with depression and anxiety is my empathy. I suspect I’ve always been empathetic, but perhaps my empathy is a direct result of having a mental illness. Having been in deep emotional pain many times and going through years of therapy to unwind it has made my default reaction to people be “I wonder what’s hurting them.” That default helps me to connect with people on a very deep level and that’s a superpower that I wouldn’t trade for the world. There’s nothing like a deep relationship where you and the other person can see and accept one another 100%. This isn’t a superpower that’s unique to me though. The most empathetic and understanding people I know also deal with depression or anxiety.
The Benefits of Therapy
If it wasn’t for my journey of mental illness, I wouldn’t know about the benefits of therapy. Having been in therapy for a while now, I truly think everyone, mental illness or not, can benefit from talking to a therapist. The form of therapy I engage in is called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy which, on a very simple level, helps a person recognize distorted thinking patterns and then develop helpful problem-solving skills to cope with a difficult situation . If you think of your brain as just another muscle, and CBT is the exercise you engage in regularly, you’re building a more resilient brain; a brain that engages in healthy problem solving, self-awareness, and emotional intelligence. Let’s face it, us humans aren’t naturally born with such skills, but if we workout our brain with CBT, only good things can happen. Anyone, mental illness or not, can benefit from that.
The other thing my mental health journey has provided me is strength. Having been through so many valleys (with some of those valleys threatening to consume me), I’ve developed an inner strength I never knew I had. For those of you that have never had depression, getting out of bed, eating, taking a shower etc. is a simple task. But to those of us who have periods where we’re in the thick cloud of depression, those simple tasks can sometimes feel impossible.
When your brain is telling you that the world is awful and you’re not worth it, getting out of bed is the last thing we want to do. But we engage with all the mental strength we can muster and get out of bed anyway. That’s hard. Really. Friggen. Hard. There’s a reason there’s a saying that says “running is 90% mental and 10% physical.” Mental strength and resilience are so much harder to muster than physical.
For years I used to think of my mental illness diagnosis as a curse. To this day, I still wouldn’t wish depression or anxiety on my worse enemy because the valleys are dark… very dark… and no one deserves that. But I no longer think of my depression and anxiety as a misfortune and it’s taken me close to 15 years, to truly believe that. I’m truly thankful for the journey of mental illness because it’s helped shaped the very best parts of me. And it’s those parts of me that I’ll continue sharing with the world to help defeat the stigma around mental health.