The Words My Doctor Said That Changed How I Saw Mental Health Recovery

Erin Witkowski
black and white photo of young woman looking off-camera
black and white photo of young woman looking off-camera

When I first reached out for help with my mental health, I had a “quickly and quietly get help and get better” mentality. I expected the medication to start working in a few weeks and I agreed to visit my college’s counseling center. In therapy, I expected to learn some helpful tricks to help with my anxiety and depression. I thought I would struggle for a while and “get better.” I anticipated that it would be like any struggle I had in life.

I was extremely misled in my expectations and mentality. My quick “fix” turned out to be the opposite. My body rejected medication after medication. The dosages were wrong. Even if the medication partially helped, it would stop after a month. Treatment-resistant depression, they said. I was running this marathon in the dark. But there would be a finish line, right?

My “quick” stop in therapy turned into almost a year. I felt like I was going nowhere except down. Hopelessness was at its highest and I endured three hospitalizations for suicidal thoughts.

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I felt like a burden to my friends and family, who spent a lot of effort and time watching me at night and calling to check on me. Many people have no idea the amount of work it takes to take care of someone with a mental illness. I did, and the guilt seemed to eat me alive.

At my lowest and running out of options, I decided to check into an outpatient mental health program. After an extended stay in the program and a good combination of medications, the depression finally lifted enough for me to breathe again and to have moments of joy and interest in activities. This was almost a year since I had first sought help for my mental health. I was “cured,” right? I could have my success story, finally?

Still, I was wrong — left in this lonely and empty in-between space. I wasn’t in the depths of the pit of depression, yet wasn’t the same person as before my episode with mental illness. Yes, I had my moments of joy, but the depression and anxiety still lingered. This left me devastated and confused. Why was I not better? What’s the point if I just alternate between the pit and this mild, lingering depression?

Related:Why My Depression Reminds Me of a Butterfly

After talking to my doctor one day, the light bulb finally went on. What if the mental illness never went away? What if depression and anxiety, for many, is a chronic illness? This might sound sad and negative, but the way my doctor explained it to me made a big difference.

“If you had type 1 diabetes, you wouldn’t expect to one day get cured and reach a “normal you” before your diagnosis. You would still have to take your insulin, exercise and count your carbs. Mental illness is often no different. You might have it well-controlled with coping skills, diet, medication and therapy. You may also continue to have symptoms and needs the same self-care plus some extra support. You’ll likely have remissions and relapses.”

It doesn’t just magically get better. It’s a lifelong process of battling symptoms and to implement self-care. It’s about fighting for a new normal.

If you are someone continuing to struggle, keep fighting. Your life is worth it. It can still be beautiful even with a chronic mental illness.

Related:How a Depression Screening Saved My Life

If you have a friend or family member living with a mental illness, don’t give up on them. They may seem fine. Maybe they are, maybe not. But don’t stop supporting them. Continue to keep the relationship going by checking on them, spending time with them, and doing things to help them out. They are so strong, fighting an ever-going invisible illness. They are worth the fight. Never give up on them!

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