Mental illness is a funny and unpredictable thing. For some people, it’s brought on by an external stressor, such as a death in the family or financial burdens. For others, it’s biochemical; for whatever reason, the chemicals in their brain just go haywire and mess things up. For the people that experienced mental illness after a major life event (or many smaller life events at once), I don’t want to say that it’s any easier to deal with, because it’s not. But there’s a little more understanding to it than there is with people who just randomly experience mental illness. “Oh, this major, stressful thing happened in my life and now I’m experiencing depression/anxiety. I know why this happened, so maybe we can get to the root of the problem and deal with these emotions to lessen the symptoms.” Whereas if it’s biochemical, there’s more uncertainty. “Oh, you were completely fine, and then out of nowhere, you started experiencing depression/anxiety/bipolar disorder? Well, it’s probably chemical. So, let’s put you on some meds to help balance things out. Oh, but wait, there isn’t a one size fits all with psychiatric medication. Each one affects each person differently, and there’s no way to guarantee which ones will help you and which won’t. So… let’s trial and error things til we find out what DOES work.” There can be overlap as well (having a biochemical imbalance along with an external stressor that triggers the onset of a mental illness), which can make things tricky too. You may know what triggered everything, but then there’s still that tricky medication adventure you have to endure to try and get better, no matter how much therapy you go to or how well you improve your situation.
Time has passed. You’ve found the perfect combination of meds, therapy, and coping skills. Your symptoms are little to none. You finally feel like you’re in a good place. This feeling could last years for some, but only a few days for others. Regardless, out of nowhere, you wake up. Something feels off, but you’re not sure what. Your mind is duller, you don’t have as much of a spark. You get that feeling like there’s a pit in your stomach. You begin to have unwanted thoughts in your head. Then, it clicks. You know this feeling, the feeling you fought so hard to get rid of and overcome. The feeling that your mental illness is creeping back in. You don’t know why, but it’s happening. Sometimes, it comes on like a ton of bricks. If you’re like me, it sneaks back in gradually. If you could imagine a veil floating ever so lightly over your face, that’s what it feels like. You can almost see the life draining from yourself.
Here’s the tricky part: you see it coming, you know it’s happening. But… you don’t know how long it’s going to last. Am I just having an off day? Or am I going to experience another year of bottomless depression?
With my experience with bipolar disorder, I experience this more often than I’d like. I naturally have waves of up and down moods. With the meds that I’m on now, I’m in a pretty good place most of the time (unless I forget to take my meds one day. Oops). A lot of times, I won’t know what my mood is going to be for the coming day. I literally have to wake up each morning and evaluate myself as to whether I’m going to be manic, normal, or depressed. I can HOPE that if I’ve been normal for quite a while that it will continue that way. But the reality is that I could very well just wake up manic or wake up depressed, with no rhyme or reason. On the days I randomly wake up depressed, I almost feel MORE depressed than my body/mind intended because I don’t know how long it’s going to last. Granted, my depressive days tend to only last 1 or 2 days at a time now. But I’ve been in a place where I’ve had depression for well over a year. You can’t blame me for having that fear of, “Is it happening again?”
How do we deal with this? My best advice is to hold on to hope and reach out to those that help you, whether that be a doctor, psychiatrist, friend, or family. You’ve been in a good place before. It can happen again. You got through it, you can push past this bump in the road. Ask your therapist for some coping skills. See if you can adjust your meds to help get things back under control. Let your loved ones know you’re going through a rough time and need extra support–that alone can help tremendously, because it gives you a sense of security that you’re not left on your own to survive the storm. But most importantly, you have to believe that you can get past this relapse. Mental illness is a parasite; it sucks the life out of you, the host. If you give in, it can eventually kill you. If you continue to fight back and work on getting rid of it, you’re going to be so much better afterward. You just have to fight.