A Healing Journey Back From Mental Illness
My name is Susan and I have a mental illness.
My diagnosis is Major Depressive Disorder (MDD).
It almost took my life.
Finding help was extremely difficult.
Even for this mental health professional.
I was fortunate and did get excellent care.
I did the work. Trust me, healing is work.
Today my MDD is in remission.
I can think, decide, sing, dance, sleep, regulate my food intake, exercise and be grateful for all I am and the joys in my life.
And I want to let you know you and your loved ones can heal from mental illness, too.
Some of you may remember me from 6 or 7 years ago. I had a two thriving businesses, a robust social media presence. I met many of you at conferences I was privileged to speak at.
Life was very good.
Then things started to slip.
MDD is sneaky. It often doesn’t look like sadness or a down mood. It can affect decision-making, sleeping/eating cycles. It can feel like tiredness that never lets up. But day-to-day you can function enough to get by.
I lived in that state for a very long time.
Like all life journeys, mine has complications.
Layered in is a past history of childhood emotional abuse which colors all of my relationships and interpersonal skills.
So my MDD is most likely a result of past abuse and brain chemistry. This is good to know because it informed my treatment and helped me recover.
The Symptoms and Fallout
Initially my symptoms were minor.
I didn’t feel like myself.
I was losing interest in things that used to bring me happiness.
My motivation was low for anything outside of work.
My mood wasn’t up or down, rather it was numb.
In retrospect, I started feeling depressed at 11 years old and the symptoms waxed and waned over the years affecting all aspects of my life. It affected my relationships with others and myself, choice of work, my ability to be a present parent.
When the wheels started to fall off was when I acknowledged my childhood abuse.
I was still able to work, but everything else shattered.
I entered a tailspin of depressive illness and my life because very close to chaos.
What kept me tethered was my son and my need to make a living, so I had to keep it together enough to work.
I am not proud of the choices I made, the relationships I harmed, the chaos I threw my son into.
But I am not ashamed because the honest truth is I did my best when I was very ill.
Mental Illness is Lonely
When someone is physically ill, we ask how they are, we console and validate, we offer help.
When someone is mentally ill, we look away, judge and ignore.
The hardest part of my mental illness was the loneliness.
Very, very few people saw my shift in behavior and functioning and asked, “Susan, how are you? You don’t seem like yourself. Are you ok?”
The truth is, people made up stories for themselves to explain my changes. And they were not caring, compassionate stories. I was ignored, rebuffed, spent holidays alone. On days I could tolerate it, I confronted people who were being unkind in front of our children. You may judge me, but do not show contempt for me in front of my child.
And the friends who did stay---I will be forever grateful. You saved my life.
My life became so hard to live.
I could barely get out of bed. I’d sleep through weekends starting Friday at 6pm.
I was suicidal. With a plan. No intent. Yes, I called the National Suicide Hotline (800-273-8255—post it on your fridge. You never know who needs it.).
My eating habits were out of control and I gained a great deal of weight.
I tolerated more abuse in my personal and professional life and could not think straight enough to extricate myself.
Nothing was fun. Nothing felt good.
Leaving the house felt like the equivalent of running a marathon.
One of the worst symptoms was a complete loss of concentration. I couldn’t read a book or watch a movie from start to finish and comprehend the story-line. For someone who has always found solace in reading, this was scary and frustrating.
I knew something had to give.
My Treatment Journey
I lived in a constant fog.
Finding help in this state was a Herculean task.
I had no help, no one to make calls for me, or arrange appointments. It was all me and life had lost all meaning, so imagine trying to find a mental health professional in this state.
Aside: I am not alone in this. Finding mental health treatment while suffering mental illness is a challenge for many. But the irony is that I am a mental health professional. And it wasn’t any easier for me.
It is very hard for me to ask for help.
But I knew I wasn’t going to live long if I didn’t get better. I know the desperation of suicide.
I went to my primary care doctor, who I trust, and told her what was going on. She started me on an antidepressant and gave me the name of a local psychiatrist to work with.
This was my turning point.
My psychiatrist was excellent. She listened, we changed medications a few times, she treated me as an equal who also nudged me towards better choices.
After about a year, we found the medication that cleared the fog.
Medication was the key for me.
Once my brain started to function better, the dark, gray shroud I was under lifted enough for me to realistically look at my chaotic life and start to make changes.
The First Steps
My first step towards healing was sitting quietly and petting my cat. She has been my emotional support animal in the most precious and necessary of ways. When I have been alone, Micha has been my friend filled with unconditional love. She has kept me here because who else will feed her? Never underestimate the power of a pet to help heal mental illness.
Once my nervous system was regulated enough to focus a little bit, I started journaling.
Journaling every morning helped me get clarity on my swirling thoughts. I could do a “brain dump” and then sort through it to uncover what was real or imagined, what needed tending to, or was just fine to let sit.
Though my journal practice I started to see all of the abuse in my life and remove myself from it.
This started by leaving an awful work environment in July 2021.
I was still rather ill at this time, but it was the first step in taking some control of my life back and giving me some breathing room to examine other ways to change.
Five months later I left an abusive relationship.
There was more chaos with work, so I restarted my private practice in January 2022.
I then added in exercise, which has made an immense difference.
When you are depressed, the idea of exercising is horrifying. But I know through personal experience and robust clinical evidence that exercise is a big part of healing from any mental illness.
I started with gentle yoga in my living room. Thank you, YouTube. (I was not going to a class…I could barely leave my house at that point).
Then I worked my way up to joining a local gym and walking on the treadmill a few times a week.
The improvement in my mood and functioning has led me to exercise daily now including cardio, weight training and yoga.
My psychiatrist left her practice so we no longer meet. I am still on the medication that works so well for me. I’m in no rush to change it.
Currently, I am not in therapy, because as a psychologist, I need to walk my talk. And I do now.
Major Depressive Disorder in remission
I am not “cured.”
My MDD is in remission. My brain is vulnerable and depression can cycle back.
Looking back at patterns in my life, I now know that I need daily exercise to be healthy. I am also working on improving my food choices because crappy food makes me feel crappy.
I am very aware of managing my stress and energy. If I am tired, I sleep. If something is high stress and I feel myself getting foggy, I pull back.
I make a conscious effort to connect with my good friends. They are precious to me and such a joy to be around.
And I am making time to make new friends and develop healthy relationships which is a new kind of journey.
I’m reconnecting with music, singing and dance. Now I know if music stops being joyful to me, I need to take care of my depression.
The Power in Truth
The major lesson I have taken from this round of MDD is I need to be truthful to myself. When things don’t feel right, they are not right. When I am not feeling well, I am not being too sensitive, complaining or exaggerating. I am ill. And I deserve compassion, care and patience—from myself first and foremost, but from others as well.
There is some debate in psychotherapy circles on how much of ourselves we can share with clients.
Being authentic is a personal value for me which is why I am sharing that when I work with my clients, I understand their experience from a very personal place.
When clients talk about suicidal thoughts, I understand. I know the dance we can all do with them for a very long time.
My life experience informs my work, but I do not make my experience a part of others’ healing. Sometimes when someone is feeling hopeless I may share bits of my story to help them, but others’ therapy isn’t about me.
That said, I do think it’s important to share my story.
Part of walking the talk is educating others on mental illness and decreasing stigma.
I am not ashamed of having MDD.
I wish my behavior while symptomatic hadn’t hurt other people, especially my son. He had to grow up quickly in some ways. We do talk about my MDD. I have shared parts of this that can be helpful to him like genetic markers, signs of depression he should look for, treatment options. And I have apologized for my choices that have negatively affected him.
It Gets Better
We can recover from mental illness.
It isn’t easy.
It is work and requires us to be uncomfortable, make change and examine parts of ourselves and our past that we’d rather ignore.
Healing also takes time.
I have been in this journey for the better part of two years. And I am still working every day to maintain my mental health.
My illness is chronic. Like treating diabetes or high blood pressure, I have to be addressing my mental health daily.
When I do that, I am not majorly depressed.
It gets better.
National Suicide Hotline: 800-273-8255