When I look back over my short 31 years, I often wonder when exactly I developed a mental illness. My "official" diagnosis came somewhere in my twenties, when I was struggling to cope with my divorce and my sexuality. But looking back, I realize I was exhibiting symptoms of a mood disorder, as far back as my toddler years.
I can remember being as young as 2 or 3, feeling a deep sadness over my parent's divorce. I can remember being 5 or 6 and not being able to communicate that the thoughts in my head were going faster than I could keep up with. By the time I was in elementary school, I had developed what I now know is panic, and started missing school because it began manifesting itself into stomach aches, and migraines. By the time I reached thirteen, I started having thoughts of suicide and self harm. All through these years, and the years that followed, I was seeing one therapist or another. None of them identified my reactions and behaviors as a "disorder."
Some people believe that having a mood or thought disorder is "all in your head" and that "you just need to get over it." Both opinions may very well be true. In my experience, the best way to cope with an illness that is "all in your head," is to find some acceptance, so that you CAN "just get over it." But getting to that place, is extremely difficult when your brain is programmed with a mental illness. The idea that mental illnesses are a choice, is absolutely ridiculous. Anyone with a mental illness can tell you they didn't just wake up one day and decide to have a thought or mood disorder.
When I was two, I didn't just decide I was going to feel sad all the time. When I was six, I didn't will my thoughts to race around in my head so that I felt as though I couldn't move. When I was thirteen, I didn't just wake up one day and think "I have nothing better to do than think of ways to kill myself." It just happened. And it was scary. So scary, in fact, that until I reached one of these "breaking points" I didn't want to share these thoughts and emotions. i didn't know how to, and I didn't want to be different.
Over time, these "breaking points" started coming closer and closer together. It wasn't just when I felt sad that I had thoughts of suicide or self harm, it was always lingering in my mind. I could be at a joyous event, and suddenly feel the urge to cut my wrists. I could be driving to see friends, and suddenly have thoughts to steer my car off the road. Every time one of these disturbing thoughts crossed my mind, I wanted them to go away. But the more I wished for them to disappear from where they came, the stronger they persisted. I reached my ultimate "breaking point," the day I checked myself in for my first hospitalization. Twenty seven years of trying to treat my symptoms, was no longer effective. I needed help in recognizing and accepting the entire disorder. I needed to find a better way to live with what was "all in my head" so that I could "get over it."
In the two years since my admission, (to both the hospital, and myself) I have become more educated on mental illnesses. I now know there is scientific proof that mental illnesses can begin as a chemical imbalance in the brain. I know that the more your resist emotions, they only persist, and grow stronger. I've learned that the first step in getting well, from the wide array of thought and mood disorders, is to want to get well and help yourself. I've also learned that it takes time, and patience, and it's trial and error. But more than anything, I've learned that I have to be vigilant. I have to be present everyday in my body, and in my mind. I may not have a choice in whether I have a mental illness or not, but every moment of everyday is a choice. I can either choose to give in, and give up, or I can choose to accept and move on.