By Cristy Hernandez
#Fearless Family Writer
“Mental illness is not a choice, but recovery is.” That’s the powerful phrase that I came across a couple of days after I decided to restart therapy this April. These words may seem simple and self-explanatory to most, but to me those words resonated so strongly. Even though I did not understand why that phrase was important at that moment, it remained very present in my mind.
Starting therapy again meant I was back in therapy full-time. Full-time meant I was not only in therapy in my literal 1-hour sessions, but in all aspects of my everyday life. I listened to my therapist and applied the skills I had learned with her. I took my medications and stopped fighting my psychiatrist. I took care of myself; my hygiene, my eating and sleeping habits, and I worked on the problems I have that kept me from moving on with my life.
Not even a week later? I burned out. I was exhausted.
I didn’t leave my room for 2 weeks. I was down and I was desperate; anxiety had taken me prisoner once again. I started thinking, why should I work so hard to complete simple daily tasks that other people don’t even have to think about? Why am I still having a daily fight with my toothbrush and why did I have a panic attack at the grocery store?
What went wrong was that I didn’t recognize that episode as one small bump in my path; I saw it as the beginning of another relapse instead. The simple fact that everyone has bad days escaped me, and I definitely could have done with more rest and free time in order to avoid burning out as well.
It was in this moment, though, that I discovered what recovery really meant, and what was to be the next step in my mental health journey.
I realized that choosing to go back to therapy on my own, even though it was a brave and courageous decision, was only the beginning. I had to keep choosing to fight for recovery every single day. I didn’t choose to have a mental illness, but I could choose to recover. This was the missing piece in the complicated puzzle after I was diagnosed with Panic Disorder one December morning back in 2013.
Recovery wasn’t a cure; it wasn’t a price or reward to be gained at the end of the race for my mental health. My initial interpretation was that this was a problem that could be fixed in a couple months after finding the right combination of counseling and medication. I had thought I could reach the finish line where I could see myself being rewarded with the recuperation of my previously “normal” and illness-free state of mind.
Mental illness, and mental health for that matter, does not work that way though.
I had put my life on hold for years; my career, my studies, my relationships, my everything. I stopped living because I wanted to be “fixed” before I moved on to the next chapter in my life. But the truth was that there was no fix, there is no fix. I can only put my life on hold for so long before I realized that life is not about getting rid of this constant panic.
Having anxiety and these horrible “abnormal” thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors that encompass my panic disorder are not something to hate, hide, ignore or avoid. They are definitely not desirable, but I don’t have to suffer with them either. Working on my mental health meant learning to deal with anxiety everyday and accepting that some days might be better than others.
I like to think of my anxiety as this little cartoon character that keeps showing up in my life. The decision I can make is whether to let him beat me up and glue me to my bed in the fetal position or I can say: “Hi anxiety, what’s going on?” I can sit up and calmly discuss, analyze, maybe yell and rant a bit, and just talk through all the million thoughts that are going through my head that are leading me to panic at the moment. Then I can stand up.
I get up and stretch and start flailing around my arms and moving in a non-rhythmic fashion to keep combating the urge to crawl into a ball. Now I feel stupid; I start laughing at myself, but it’s that silliness and laughter that brings me out of my threat system and into a safe mode. Welcoming anxiety is the key I think, because that means that I have accepted panic disorder as a part of me. My mental disorder is something I have and that I can learn how to live with if I choose recovery everyday.
Recovery is a constant daily choice, not a one-time decision; but discovering recovery as a process and not a prize, and focusing on that mindset, were completely different.
My story is still a work in progress. I struggle everyday, but I take it one day at a time, and if I couldn’t leave my bed one morning, the important thing to keep in mind is that whether it takes minutes, hours, or days to re-enter my safe mode, once I do, I can simply leave the confines of my (actually very comfy) room.
People say that it gets easier with time, and I want to believe that, but I’m not quite there yet. It sucks, because I want to skip to the end where my life does become a success story, but the truth is that my story is the struggle.
I’m choosing recovery so I can be my true self: mental illness, panic disorder and all. Even if I fall a few more times, even if I do move on with my life, I know it won’t be perfect and I will be stumbling through, but I would finally be able to say, accept, and believe: well that’s just me, a little crazy, a little feisty, but always passionate!
Thank you to Cristy for sharing her wonderful story!
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