Note: This is the first in a three part Blog Series on being diagnosed with mental illness.
It does not matter if it is you, personally, receiving a diagnosis of mental illness, or your loved one. The acceptance and realization of the scope of that diagnosis can be a hard thing to swallow. I am not going to lie. Living a life with any type of mental illness is a challenge at best...sometimes it is downright HELL. Over my 50 plus yrs of trying to “cope” with mental illness, I have found that we have a choice in how we respond to the diagnosis. It is a choice of labeling ourselves as a Victim or Victor from day one. The path to living a life that involves mental illness is one of personal responsibility in the decision to carve out the best life possible in spite of the limitations the diagnosis holds. I have found the path to wellness is a self-inflicted journey. I describe “wellness” as being able to function, shower, get out the door, and live as normal a life as possible. To think that your mental health journey is in the hands of your therapist, psychiatrist, family doctor, family, or friends is NOT TRUE. I had a friend tell me recently that, “If only my mentally ill son could get to the right doctors, he would be ‘fixed’”. I had to tell her this was not true. That it works much the same as it is for an addict, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. It is imperative to understand that this is YOUR journey, as a mentally ill person, to accept and own it 100%. In Dialectical Behavioral Training (DBT), it is called “Radical Acceptance”. The sooner the diagnosis is accepted, the sooner your path toward wellness can begin. I will also share that for most of us, there is no cure. Don’t look for one. It is a journey of learning how to MANAGE your symptoms, triggers, medications, diet, health issues, ALL of it!
So let’s begin. The first place to start is with a diagnosis by a bonafide, well-respected psychiatrist, not a family doctor, or a minister at your local church. You need testing in a formal, medical atmosphere to see what, if any, mental disorder(s) you suffer from. Look back into your family history for clues. Who suffered from what? Which side of the family? Do you have any siblings or parent who suffers from mental illness? If so, what is the nature of their disorder? Once you get a legitimate diagnosis of your mental illness, let’s say for sake of example, it is Bipolar, you must then also find out if you have any other co-occurring disorders in addition to the main disorder such as Panic Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or Depression. It is quite common for other disorders to co-occur along with the main diagnosis.
The next step is to find a licensed therapist who specializes in the disorder of your main diagnosis. In my example above, that would be a therapist specializing in Bipolar. Research their background credentials, get referrals if you can, and then have one or two TRIAL appointments. Not all therapists will be a good fit for you. If they are not, please don’t handcuff yourself to them. Find another! I also suggest not spilling out your whole story yet, until you find a therapist with whom you feel comfortable. This saves both of you a lot of time and money. Get to know the types of therapy techniques they utilize and are knowledgeable and trained to use effectively. Examples would be Dialectical Behavioral Training (DBT), Cognitive Behavior Training (CBT), Trauma Counseling, Eye Movement Desensitization, and Reprocessing (EMDR). EMDR is a psychotherapy treatment that was originally designed to alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories. There are many specific areas of expertise your therapist should be familiar with to treat you for your particular disorder. Make sure their schedule aligns with yours. If you work 9am-5pm and cannot do daytime appointments, find a therapist that holds evening or weekend appointments. Check your insurance plan, if you have one, to make sure they take your insurance. If not, what is their charge per hour rate? Does it fit within your budget to start seeing them on a weekly basis? It is typical for appointments for treatment of any mental illness needing to be weekly, with a trained and licensed therapist, to maintain continuity and for you to make progress.
The goal of therapy is to give you the tools and strategies to master ways for navigating the symptoms you have, and whatever fallout is going on in your life from your disorder. You will develop skills to help you cope with stress or relationship issues, as well as how to manage your mental health diagnosis. A therapist isn't going to just hand over some life-changing advice or magic bullet and wish you well. The relationship with your therapist will develop over time. I have had many throughout the years and have found that each one was the perfect fit for that time in my life. You will know when you outgrow a therapist and it is time to change. Most of the hard work of therapy happens outside the consultation room when you start to put the methodologies you gained into practice. True progress can only happen when you apply what you’ve learned outside that setting, in your real life.
Next comes the psychiatrist hunt. This is a bit more involved. Again, you want referrals, to check their credentials, and have an interview with them to find out their beliefs and methodologies regarding treatment and dispensing prescription meds. The last thing you need is to end up finding yourself treated like a number instead of a person, and dealing with an unsympathetic psychiatrist when it comes to meds. I have been down that road quite a few times and it is a setback and a miserable experience. Make sure you find a psychiatrist that will take you, your individual personality, and wishes into account when prescribing medications for your disorder. You will also want to know what affiliations the psychiatrist has with your local hospital, psychiatric centers, and physicians. I believe that all of the physicians treating you should be in contact with each other as to your status on all levels of care. When your doctors work together with a team approach toward getting you well it is an advantage for you. I take the responsibility of personally making sure all of my doctors are aware of my medications, blood work and treatment(s), and that they are “all on the same page”. It makes for a much more harmonious journey.
It is important for you to research (Google) the types of medications that are commonly used for your disorder. There are many classes of medication from antidepressants to anti-psychotics. You need to be familiar with all the medications in regards to your disorder and their side effects and contraindications with other medications you may take on a regular basis. The truth is, you may have to try several meds in order to find just the right mix for your symptoms, that you respond well to and for which you do not experience any serious side effects. Tell your psychiatrist ALL meds you are on, including herbal supplements. Now is not the time to lie about taking recreational drugs, alcohol, or anything that may contraindicate with your psychiatric medication. The result could end up triggering or setting off another mental disorder in your brain, a serious physical impairment like seizure or stroke, or even death. Do not mess around with the drug situation. I have a friend that has developed permanent nerve damage from this issue. I will add here that it is never a good idea to go on or off a psychiatric medication without monitoring from your doctor. If you feel that, because you are depressed and your friend takes antidepressants, you can just “pop some of their pills” and you will recover, you are delusional. The psychiatric medication journey is a serious one that you should treat accordingly.
After these two essential parts of your journey are in place, it is time to form your “Safety Net”. This includes (hopefully) family members, close friends, perhaps your local church pastor, or anyone whom you trust totally with your most intimate self. It is time for you to inform them of your diagnosis and treatment plan. Find out if they are “in or out” for you to be in your Safety Net. This is a very honest, open discussion and please don’t be insulted if some opt out of this part of your journey. You need dependable people you can trust to not gossip your latest episode or personal information. You need people who are available during the day at a moment's notice if a crisis should occur, those you can call any hour of the night, and those who will meet over coffee to talk things out with you. Again, trust is the biggest factor.
You will want to look into resources available in your County for mental health. Most are totally FREE! First, find the closest NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) meeting held regarding your diagnosis. Another resource is Mental Health America. There is a wealth of information available online as well. Look for anything local that you can utilize to help you in your journey. NAMI offers FREE classes geared toward your family members or close friends called “Family To Family” that will teach your loved ones how to cope and deal with your symptoms.
If you have done all of the above things, you are now ready to dig in and start your journey toward healing. Healing can mean something different to each individual. Take pen to paper and describe what your healing would look like. Take into account your limitations and boundaries and set expectations that fit within those confines. Having a diagnosis of being mentally ill is not ever easy to accept. Your willingness to embrace the journey and own it will make ALL the difference. To live in denial, to expect those around you to enable you or for you to have unrealistic expectations about your life is detrimental to you and those who love you.
Mental illness is not a death sentence, unless YOU make it one. Unfortunately, there are too many whose journey ends in suicide. Accept that, acknowledge it with everything in you, and RESPECT IT. There may be times in your journey when suicide feels like an option. I assure you it easily can be for those of us who suffer, but it is NOT ACCEPTABLE. The fight with suicidal ideation (thoughts of self-harm or suicide) may be with you throughout your life. I said FIGHT, not giving in to them. I choose LIFE and Advocation instead. When you throw yourself into advocating on behalf of yourself and those like you, you are a part of the answer, not the problem.
With you on the Journey,