I got sick this past week. After my depression hit, I then got hit with a nasty cold and sore throat. Gotta love this time of year! Here’s the funny thing– it was so much easier telling people, “I’m home sick with a cold” than it was to say, “I’m going through a depression right now”. With a cold or any other “physical” illness, you get more sympathy. People get it. They offer to help. They don’t expect you to get up and shake it off. They don’t think you are weak or lazy or just trying to get attention. They understand that you are truly sick and that you need time to rest and recover. Why don’t we do the same for someone who is dealing with a mental illness?
If there is one thing that having a mental illness has taught me (and continues to teach me!), it is that I must learn to speak up and advocate for myself. An “advocate” is someone who pleads on someone else’s behalf. In verb form, it means to stand up for, to speak up for, to plead for, to support, or to champion a person or cause. The Latin root literally means “to call” (to one’s aid).
For me, being my own advocate requires 3 things:
First, being my own advocate means that I have to be honest with myself. Another term for this is “self-awareness”. Part of managing my mood disorder means tracking my mood and noticing patterns. I have to be self-aware and learn to recognize warning signs that I am starting to struggle. I have to know my own limits and listen to my body. Some of my personal warning signs include not being able to sleep, feeling more anxiety, feeling irritable, and pulling away from people.
Second, I need to be honest with others. When my mood starts to shift, I need to let my doctor and my family and trusted friends know. I have to say, “This is what I can handle right now, and this is what I can’t.” I have to speak up and say, “This is what I need.” This is easier said than done! I don’t want others to perceive me as needy, emotionally unstable, or weak. I just get sick sometimes, people! We all do. I’m fighting through it and I need a little extra support right now, but I’m going to be ok! I’ve been through this before and it will get better.
Over the years, I have learned new coping skills that help me to deal with stress, anxiety, and depression. I’ve gotten really good at deep-breathing! I have been learning how to meditate and practice mindfulness. I am constantly trying to learn new things to help me take better care of my mental health. I take daily medication to help manage my mood and I have another that I can take as needed, for anxiety and panic attacks. I have things I can do, tools on my belt, to help myself when I start to struggle.
I also have to rely on other people. Sometimes my own coping skills just aren’t enough. I have to have a good support network of family, friends, and healthcare professionals. I have the number for the Crisis Line in my phone in case I need to call. I’ve called them before at 4am, when I was wide awake and couldn’t sleep because I was having a manic episode. I just needed someone to talk to because everyone else I knew was asleep! Sometimes just a phone call helps. It makes me feel safe knowing that I am not alone and that there is always someone I can call if I need help.
Everyone I talk to who deals with mental illness is walking their own path. Even though we may have the same diagnosis or similar symptoms, we each experience mental illness differently. We are all in different places in our recovery. Yes, people want to help. Everyone has advice to share. But I have had to learn to trust my own instincts and follow my own path. I know what I need better than anyone else! I know what is going on in my body and mind. I know what helps me and what heals me. If I stop and listen, my body will tell me what I need. Sometimes it tells me, “Slow down. Take a break!” Today, when I was getting overwhelmed, it said, “Go on a walk.” Sometimes I feel the urge to write, share, or talk. Other times, I need to rest. When I listen to my own body, it reaffirms to myself that my needs matter. It teaches me to trust myself and my instincts. It shows that I love and respect and listen to myself!
For me, panic sets in when I feel like I can’t trust myself or others. When I feel like “I can’t do this!” or “I’m alone and I need help!”. The thought that most commonly triggers panic attacks for me is that “I’m not in control right now!” Learning to “let go” of the need to be in control and trusting that I can meet my own needs and that others are there to help has been a recurring lesson and part of my personal journey.
I also have had to learn to trust others. In times of struggle, I try to surround myself with people who know and love me and who don’t judge me for struggling. Establishing relationships of trust is so important! We all need to have people that we feel like we can trust and people we can call on when we need help! This past week, a few friends reached out to me. Some offered to help. Some asked for my help or advice, because they were struggling. And some asked me how they could best help a friend who was battling mental illness. Each of these people lifted me in some way. Knowing that I have good friends who care is empowering. Knowing that I am a trusted friend and a resource for others is so healing. It lets me know that my most difficult experiences can be turned into something good. Those struggles have prepared me to serve and help others. They have taught me empathy and compassion and given me a desire to run to the aid of those who struggle. It is humbling to realize that the Lord can use me (even when I am sick and struggling!) to help, encourage, guide, or strengthen someone else.
One thing that I am realizing is that when you learn to advocate for yourself and take care of your own needs, you can better advocate for and meet the needs of others! I want to be an advocate for those who deal with mental illness. And in order to help them in their time of need, I need to know how to take really good care of Becky! I need to be my own advocate. I’m learning, I’m on a journey, and things are getting brighter!