All behavior has a purpose. It’s a form of communication from our minds and bodies, whether we are cognizant of it or not. Rather than being strictly an expression of our personalities or feelings, behaviors are often rooted in basic instinct. Think of it this way: a brand new baby doesn’t cry for no reason, it cries because it needs something. Most often something very basic, and it has essentially one approach as to express that; through its behavior. Often times people’s behavior is simply the manifestation of their inner child crying out for help. If I’m going to share my journey I’d like to distinguish what mental illness and mental health are, and what they mean to me.

Mental illness as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders:
“A mental disorder is a syndrome characterized by clinically significant disturbance in an individual’s cognition, emotion regulation, or behavior that reflects a dysfunction in the psychological, biological, or developmental processes underlying mental functioning. Mental disorders are usually associated with significant distress in social, occupational, or other important activities.”DSM-5

Changes in behavior, thinking or mood should be continually present for two or more weeks, and can occur with and without evident or traumatic cause, aka trigger. This is meant to pertain to any number of mental health challenges, however, I’d like to make one clarification regarding depression specifically as the word ‘depressed’ gets thrown around a lot and it’s meaning has become a bit lost or diluted. Everyone gets the blues sometimes. A major life event occurs, you’re affected by it and things are different for a while because you’re sad, but it doesn’t consume your entire being and life, and you have not lost control of either of those. You eventually recover and resume your standard routine. Depression is often already present in a person, generally in the form of some kind of PTSD, and/or chemical imbalance, and can be triggered by life events, or it can just creep up out of nowhere and blindside a person, forcibly degrading their quality of life. It’s not something one can just ‘get over and move on’.

Recovery as defined by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration: A process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.

Recovery looks different for each individual and begins with specific goals. SAMHSA’s working definition of recovery is fairly comprehensive, and covers 10 specific “guiding principles” (see link for additional detail) that are further delineated to the 4 major categories in bold:

  • Hope
  • Person-Driven
  • Many Pathways
  • Holistic
  • Peer Supported
  • Relational
  • Cultural
  • Addresses Trauma
  • Strengths/Responsibility
  • Respect-based
  1. Health: Overcoming or managing one’s disease(s) symptoms — for example abstaining from use of alcohol, illicit drugs, and non-prescribed medications if one has an addiction problem — and for everyone in recovery, making informed, healthy choices that support physical and emotional well-being.
  2. Home: A stable and safe place to live.
  3. Purpose: Meaningful daily activities, such as a job, school, volunteerism, care-taking, or creative endeavors, the independence, income and resources to participate in society
  4. Community: Relationships and social networks that provide support, friendship, love, and hope.

Because no two journies through mental illness are alike, these definitions are meant to be interpretive in a manner that compliments your path to wellness. Here’s what my personal definitions look like given my journey through depression, anxiety, and ADHD.

Illness: Continuous or consecutive days of lack of typical daily function, productivity, and motivation. Specifically marked by apathy, sadness, impairment of cognition and focus, behavioral degradation, fatigue, body pain, restlessness, anxiety/excessive worry, insomnia, withdrawal from social activities, loss of appetite, guilt, fear, rumination, and general malaise. If I’ve fully relapsed, I’m having 2+ weeks of consecutive bad days, missing work and social obligations, have lost weight, am hiding in bed, won’t leave the house, have stopped taking care of myself, and at that point if I haven’t sought out help yet, I very much need to.

Recovery: This is what I consider being in good mental health — In short it means mostly good, satisfactorily productive, steadily continuous days. The days I wake up and feel well and happy, ready to go and take on the day. The days I want to and feel good enough to do life. The days where I feel like getting out of bed by my own volition and am looking forward to what’s ahead instead of feeling forced out of it only to trudge through another day of the slog.

I still have my slog days, sometimes for no apparent reason. If something happens and I get triggered, I can have slog weeks, but there has become a spectrum to my recovery that I keep a close eye on. I have to constantly check in with myself, be very aware if I start not feeling well, and know where the points are on my spectrum that mean it’s time to take action. It can be a slippery slope, and being consistently proactive is the best favor you can do for yourself or a loved one. But every time I’ve slipped and fallen I’ve learned a lesson about me, my temperament, my illness, and my recovery. As I learn those lessons I get better and better at keeping myself from slipping too far.

Another key to keeping my recovery is to continue to be gentle with myself when things get slippery. As soon as I hit an action point on my recovery spectrum I already know I’m going to lose something. Generally time and productivity. It’s always a bummer at first but then I realize that my health is truly my wealth, and without that I don’t have anything else, so I’d better put me first and work second. That was a huge blow back in the day when I first started to try and accept the implications of my illness, I wasn’t used to putting myself first and my achievements second. Now I just do a little stomping of my feet in my head, and face the fact that I already know my wellness is more important. Then I do whatever I have the energy for that I can accomplish to make myself still feel productive. If I’m not going to work because I need a mental health day I will read, or do something creative like painting, or writing is a big one, and meditation is huge. If I have the wherewithal I’ll go for a walk, or organize something around the house. I try to keep track of how much I’ve eaten throughout the day and when, and make sure I’m still taking care of my most basic needs to try and boost my recovery instead of staying stuck and ignoring them. I see it as a sort of “do what you can” reduced set of standards for self-care because I know I’m only capable of so much in these times.

It can be tricky, but you create your own personal goal-based bar for illness and wellness. As you heal and better learn to manage your illness, your benchmarks will grow and change with you. You become the watcher of yourself, you learn act instead of react. I’ve always felt that I had to accept that mental illness recovery is going to be two steps forward and one back. As long as I watch my steps as closely as I can and manage them with care, I’ll always end up being OK no matter which direction they’re in.

Peace, love, and wellness.

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