After suffering from chronic depression, unbearable anxiety, and panic last year that lead to an all-out mental breakdown, I’ve been on the long, hard road to recovery. I’ve had good days and bad, perfect weeks and weeks of relapse where I slip backward, but all in all, I’ve been on the mend one act of self-care at a time. I’m happier now than I’ve ever been because for the first time in my life I’ve actually learned how to take care of myself. Specifically, my mental health. I don’t mean I’ve finally got on top of the laundry because honestly, I’ll always suck at that.
I grew up in a pretty tough family. My great-grandma was institutionalized after a breakdown, my grandma suffered in abusive marriages, and my mom experienced the kind of childhood that people make movies about. The women in my family have been through some serious shit and because of that they’ve got grit to spare, but absolutely no patience for wimps. Like zero tolerance. If I fell down as a kid, my mom would lean down and say, calmly, “you’re fine, if you’re going to scream and carry on, I’ll give you something to cry about,” when we moved eleven times and I changed school after school, I understood that I wasn’t allowed to complain. Not because my mom is an asshole, but because she knew the world could be dangerous and unforgiving and above all things I needed to be strong. And even though I don’t feel strong most of the time, I’ve learned that I am. My therapist once said I’m “one of the most resilient” people she’s ever met. But sometimes, being able to cope with horrible things can work against you, like when my brother died in 2008, and I shut down and did my very best to forget him as quickly as possible–I couldn’t even begin to process something so terrible, so I didn’t. Feelings are not a thing that I do well and after decades of numbing out and pushing forward, my body had had enough, my brain basically imploded, and I ceased to function as a normal human being. It sucked. I cried. I panicked. And luckily, I got help. The entire thing has forced me to examine myself up close and learn for the first time ever to identify feelings, toxic behavior and to use fancy words like “post-event rumination.” Which basically means, obsessing like a lunatic about things that happened and driving myself crazy in the process. Once you can identify it, you can manage it. And, most importantly, I’ve realized the true value of listening to myself and taking care of myself.
I wish I’d known these things before my breakdown.
Self-Care Lessons I’ve Learned
Knowledge is Power: Reading is it’s own act of self-care even if you’re not reading about mental health or ways to heal. Although, bonus points for reading books that help you work on yourself and, most importantly, understand yourself. My friends and I started a self-care group and we read a book every month about self-care. We talk about it, implement the things, and support each other through our wellness journey. The things I’ve learned have been so valuable. As kids, so many of us are taught how to take care of our teeth, our skin, how to do our hair and dress nicely, but very few of us are taught how to take care of our mental health. I mean especially those of us who grew up in the 80’s. I was lucky if my mom even cracked a window when she chain-smoked. AmIRight?
Stress Catches Up With You: Eventually, after years of stress, trauma, or depression, shit will catch up with you and you’ll pay the price. There’s a strong correlation between complex trauma and immune disorders, gastrointestinal problems and things like fibromyalgia. You might not have a total mental breakdown, but your body will pay the price for things you’re not dealing with. Women are especially resilient and we think, “well that horrible thing sucked but I got through it.” But the truth is that all of that pain is in your body somewhere, hiding. And when it’s the most inconvenient it’s going to resurface all, “HERE’S JOHNNY,” to fuck with your shit.
Bodies Talk: For years, my body had been sending me signals that things were not okay. I’d lost my appetite but just thought, “eating is boring! Meh!” I slept poorly but just assumed it was because my husband tossed and turned or my dog moved around a lot. I yawned constantly for years for no reason. I became super jumpy and would scream when someone would come around a corner quickly at the grocery store. And I have no idea how I didn’t find that bizarre. But the truth is that living things are shockingly adaptive. Feeling like crap felt normal because it happened so gradually. It wasn’t until I started to have full-blown panic attacks did I realize something was seriously wrong. In retrospect, I wish I’d gotten help at the very first sign I needed it. It would have saved me a lot of trouble (and money on mental health services).
You Can Fix a Wounded Brain with a Little TLC: There is no such thing as a broken brain. Suffering from depression or anxiety is scary and I was terrified of being told I had a problem because the last thing I wanted was to be told that I had a disorder. But diagnosis doesn’t mean you’ll have it for your entire life, in fact, a good healthcare professional should reevaluate you annually to see if your diagnosis has changed. I was diagnosed with a panic disorder, chronic depression, and anxiety. Now? No formal diagnosis. My Dr. changed it.That being said, if your diagnosis is lifelong, that’s okay, too. The stigma that used to exist around mental health is lifting and people are coming out in droves to talk about their own mental health challenges. Self-care can help you manage and treat even the most complex issues. Anxiety, depression, panic, irritability, stress, migraines, fatigue, and pretty much any and all physical and mental issues can be improved through self-care. But most importantly, it can prevent issues from forming in the first place.
Prevention is Better: It’s so much better to learn how to manage stress and prevent larger issues from forming than to wait until your body and brain freak out on you. What’s that saying? Prevention is worth a pound of cure? I wish that I’d learned growing up how to pay better attention to my body and my needs. Seriously, self-care and mental health should be taught in school alongside sex ed. For decades we’ve known so little about the way the brain works and only now are we starting to really understand it at a basic level. We need more education so that we can take action sooner and prevent ourselves from slipping into something worse.
Any mental health lessons of your own? Put it in the comments below. And please share if you liked the post.