It is common for people to have their first episode of depression, mania, psychosis, etc. in late adolescence up to the time when they are in their early thirties. I think I suffered from depression many times through my teenage years and my twenties, but I didn’t experience psychosis until I was twenty-eight.
What does it mean for people who are going along with life and then suddenly (it probably isn’t sudden, but it feels like it) discover they have a mental illness?
Not only do you have to adapt to the illness, the medications, and the symptoms, but for many of us, we have to mourn our former selves.
I have shared the story of writing poetry in my early twenties and starting to get published and then going on medication that made it impossible to write. I mourned the loss of my budding writing career for over twenty years. There are times when I still mourn for the young woman who was incredibly fashion forward (I can’t be bothered with fashion now). I mourn the loss of the young woman that would hop on a plane, and go cross country to see a friend, or visit a city (I am far too cautious and fearful to do that now). I mourn the loss of the young woman that could do almost any job she tried and did it well. I mourn the loss of the young woman that talked to strangers and never feared the outcome. I mourn the loss of the young woman with an active social life.
As heartbreaking as the interruption in my writing career was, I think the hardest part to handle is the loss of the trust I once had in my mind. Because mental illness rarely occurs in very young children, most of us with a severe mental illness can remember what it was like not to think about the possibility of depression, or mania, or psychosis.
Before I became ill, I charged through life in every direction leaving quite a few regrets in my wake, but the point is, I didn’t fear losing touch with reality. Now, I know that is a possibility, and I don’t charge forward at all – I proceed as if a caution sign was above my head in regards to even the smallest of challenges, opportunities, or desires.
These are all things to consider when dealing with someone who is newly diagnosed. They have to adjust to so much more than you can imagine. It isn’t simple. It isn’t easy to change your life in one day. It can take a long time to recover from a first episode because it isn’t just accepting that you have a mental illness. There is also the grief, loss of trust in one’s mind, relying on medications, side effects, etc. and all of these things can play a part in disrupting the road to recovery.
I feel like I was a shadow of my former self for all those years that I was silent about my illness and the battles my husband and I had to go through. I feel like not talking about my experiences hindered my progress and growth (and I don’t mean telling the whole world, I mean telling a therapist or friends and family).
It has taken me over twenty years to integrate my personal and public life, and I think that has been a blockage in my self-confidence, the recovery of my writing, my self-esteem, and parts of my recovery.
I can’t change the fact that I have symptoms daily. I can work on feeling good about myself, though. I am trying to retrain myself by attending school and writing almost every day. Working toward a career that I think I can manage with or without symptoms- something I can be successful at that increases my self-worth instead of beats against it every day.
Just so you know, there is more to being successful at living with a mental illness than just managing symptoms – that is a huge part, but not the whole story.