However much the pharmaceutical companies would have us believe it, taking a pill or even a cocktail of pills probably won’t make your diagnosis of mental illness go away completely. Recovering is a verb — a series of actions you need to take.
That’s a tough thing for many people to accept when you can’t have the TV on for more than half an hour without an ad for some pill that is touted as a “cure” for some part of what ails us. But it only takes listening with half our attention to the rapid fire list of side effects that those ads are compelled to include at the end to give us pause. Those “cures” come with a price.
That’s not to say that medicine doesn’t have a place in treatment. Sometimes the benefits are very worth those side effect costs. It can take the edge off the suffering. It can help a person with mental illness begin to function again. But even when the medicine is helpful, as a treatment it is incomplete.
A treatment team can do what medicine alone cannot. Professionals on your team probably include your prescriber, your counselor, and your primary care physician. Additional support can come from family members and friends who care about you. But no matter how much they all want to help you, they can’t do it without the most important member of the team — you. To engage in recovery means to take seriously that you do have a part in it. That means learning your own signs, tapping into your inner resources, asking for help and doing the routines of a healthier you.
Recognize your signs. Once you’ve been ill, you know how it feels. It’s your job to pay attention to those feelings and to start taking care of yourself right away.
Signs might include sleeping too much or too little, a change in appetite, feeling anxious or down, isolating yourself, being overly sensitive and taking things too personally — or feeling like you just don’t care what anyone thinks. It might be that you start feeling really negative or that you lose interest in sex and other activities that usually give you pleasure. Or you might feel it’s just too much trouble to do whatever it is you are supposed to do. If you recognize the signs that perhaps you are slipping into another episode of mental illness and treat it right away, chances are you can slow the slide.
Tap into your inner resources. Remind yourself of your coping skills and use them. Hopefully, your original treatment included some coaching in mindfulness exercises and cognitive behavioral techniques to manage your thoughts and feelings. If not, it’s time to either take a class or return to therapy to learn them. If you are a person of faith, this is the time to turn to your higher power for comfort and support and love.
Reach for your outer supports. Give yourself the external structures you need when you are having a difficult time holding it together. Contact your prescriber and your therapist. If you’ve been part of an online or in-person support group, clubhouse or recovery network, send out an SOS and accept the help they are able to offer. Let family and friends be helpful. If you haven’t done so before, tell the people who care about you as specifically as you can just how they can be helpful.
Do the routines of good health, even if you don’t feel like it (especially if you don’t feel like it). Routines help hold us together even when life seems to be falling apart. Doing the simple routines of daily living will give you a sense of control. Being clean and cared for does wonders for your self-esteem and will help you feel like you are on the road to health.
- Stick to your normal schedule as closely as you can. Go to bed at a reasonable hour. Get up in the morning. Act “as if” you are more like your usual self to regain some sense of control.
- Take a daily shower. Put on clean clothes, do your hair and brush your teeth. (Don’t waste time thinking about whether to do it. Just do it.) A little self-care goes a long way toward regaining self-esteem.
- Make your bed, even if you don’t usually do it. Seeing an orderly room when you enter it will make you feel more orderly, too.
- Get out of your house for at least some part of every day. Your body will appreciate the endorphins that come with a little exercise. Your mind will appreciate a change of scene.
- Do something for someone else. Give a homeless person a dollar or call someone who can use some support. They will feel better and so will you.
- Count your blessings. Every day, write down three things you can be grateful for. These can be as small as being grateful that you have a toothbrush to as large as a lottery win. Positive thinking is the foundation for health.
You are the most important member of your treatment team. In spite of illness, relapses or times of despair, you are still here. That means there is an inner core of resilience to work from. Dig deep. Use that resilience. Accept the help that the rest of the team can offer.