I have been reading a book about a woman with Asperger’s Syndrome and bipolar disorder. I have Asperger’s too, plus bordelrine personality disorder, which has some similarities to bipolar disorder. When I was sad because I recognized some symptoms this woman experienced, my husband said that the experiences I described are entirely normal.
This was a bit of a shock to me. Of course, I’m more than my mental illness. I am a woman, a wife, a blogger, a crafter, etc. too. What shocked me was that, in fact, struggling to an extent is normal. It isn’t like, as a mentally ill person, I am always struggling, and it isn’t like, as a currently mentally healthy person, you’re always blissfully happy.
I also read a post on happiness yesterday. In it, the author writes that, in spite of depression or other mental health struggles, you can choose to be happy. I commented (I think the comment is sitll in the mod queue) about a mental health support group on Facebook that is called something like “Mentally Ill People and Supporters Who Love life”. This, plus the realization about certain “symptoms” not being symptoms of a mental illness per se at all, made me realize that maybe happiness has little to do with mental illness.
Of course, depression clouds our minds and people in (hypo)manic states, like the woman in the book, often feel ecstatically happy. But still, you can choose to be optimistic, to be positive in spite of depression. I have in fact met and heard of and read about many people with major depression who call themselves optimists.
Like with any other outside circumstance, we can change our perception of a mental illness. This requires looking at our mental illness as something outside of ourselves, and that takes mindfulness.
It feels a little counterinuitive to see myself as separate from my mental illness, but maybe that is what it takes to choose happiness in spite of my mental health issues. I may have mood swings and feel depressed, suicidal even one moment, angry the next and then joyful, only to go back to depressed. This doesn’t define me, however. It is in fact possible to look beyond the immediate darkness of depression.
My classical culture teacher in high school once said that there is only one moment when you can be happy in your entire life, and that’s now. Having practised some mindfulness has indeed helped me embrace this statement and choose happiness now. If I choose happiness for a minute every sixty seconds, I’ll be happy no matter what happens.
It of course isn’t that simple. Some people more easily find the peace of mind to choose happeness for a minute every sixty seconds than others. This could be related to mental illness, such as major depression often taking over your entire mind. In this sense, the comment in the linked post that you cannot look to medication to make you happy, is only partly true. While antidepressants don’t make you happy indeed – they don’t do that, and it’s nothing to do with how badly yu want them to make you happy -, they do take away the darkest shadows of depression, so that depression doesn’t completely take over your mind anymore. That way, people with major depression will have the ability to actually practise mindfulness again, because, in fact, severe depression does make this next to impossible.
Medications are not for mild depression or anxiety. They firstly do not work that well and may have side effects. In addition, however, when mental illness doesn’t take over your mind, you still have the ability to look beyond it and enjoy your life in spite of it. Cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy works far better for mild depression or anxiety than meds, because it teaches you to choose your thoughts and actions and therby choose happiness.
I have to make a confession here. I have thought of asking my doctor to increase my antidepressant, even though I have only mild anxiety now. I look at those times when I am joyful and wish these occurred more oftne. Now I realize that I in fact have a choice. Anxiety at this point doesn’t take over my mind. If it did, I’d definitely look to medication. This is why I won’t go off my medication, which helped me climb out of the valleys of an unquiet, anxious mind. Medication is there to treat mental illness, and it is quite effective in my case. I won’t say I’m free from mental illness, but with regard to anxiety, for the most part it is mild, more like everyday worry than severe, debilitating madness. I can still manage it if I put enough effort into it. I shouldn’t want a blissful life thanks to my happy pills when I can choose that sense of bliss myself.