People often assume that those living with mental illness are, or should be, miserable all the time, and hidden away at home. But this stigma needs to end
Mental illness isn’t linear – how you’re feeling can change from day to day, and week to week. It can be a struggle to live with, manage, and/or recover from. Then there will also be times when, although we may be ill, we feel we can go out and enjoy ourselves.
But often the stigma we encounter can stop us from making the most of these moments. I’ve experienced this myself. I’ve worried people will think I’m faking my illness if I’m seen smiling or laughing. When I’ve had periods of time off work because of my mental health, I’ve been anxious about being seen on an evening out and a colleague not understanding that I happen to be having a good day. With 15% of employees who disclosed mental health issues to their line manager reporting being disciplined, dismissed or demoted, it’s no wonder we worry about other people’s reactions.
It’s important to remember that your health is worth far more than trying to do too much
But we shouldn’t feel guilty for times of relief or happiness – and, in fact, we should try to embrace those moments when we can. I’ve learned that I can do the things I enjoy, even though I live with a mental illness. Here are four tips I’ve discovered that help me to do just that...
1. Embrace your ‘good days’
Everyone has good days and bad days. When living with mental illness however, the better days can seem fleeting. When I have that inkling of stability, I embrace it. That party I was invited to a couple of weeks ago that I was going to turn down, I’ll go to. That coffee date I tentatively wrote in my diary, I won’t think twice about not going. Socialising is an important part of maintaining a healthy mind, so I see it as part of managing my mental illness. When you’re in the midst of a particularly bad day, you can look back at those good days and know they will come back again. Write down the good things you did that day and put them in a jar. When you need to, pick a note from the jar and read it. This will remind you of what you are capable of and can look forward to when you’re feeling well again.
2. Know your limits
Understanding your limits is an important part of managing mental illness. If you know coffee makes you anxious, or alcohol disrupts your medication, stick with a soft drink. And while we should make the most of the good days, over-estimating how much we can do can cause problems later on. Fitting everything in, and trying to please everyone, can be draining, so I make sure I schedule rest days. Plus, enjoying yourself doesn’t always mean going out – it can be as simple as snuggling on the sofa watching your favourite film! Ultimately, it’s important to remember that your health is worth far more than trying to do too much.
3. Let go of the guilt
Guilt is synonymous with mental ill-health. It can be a tough habit to break, because it’s so intertwined with mental illness. I’ve realised that I need to allow myself to enjoy life, when I can. Just because I live with mental illness, it doesn’t mean I have to act as if I’m miserable every single day. Give yourself a break – mental illness is hard work and you deserve to enjoy yourself. Talking through feelings of guilt, either with close friends or family, a therapist or doctor, can help you understand this negative thinking. If this is particularly difficult for you, you might want to explore cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which challenges negative ways of thinking.
4. Lean on your friends
Lean on your ‘go-to’ friends. That small, core group of people that you can talk to easily. They’ll know you well and understand that sometimes you have to cancel, but other times you’re chatty and happy.
I’ve learned that there is a small group of people in my life that I can trust implicitly. I’ve explained my feelings of guilt to them, and how I worry they’ll think less of me if I go out. I’ve told them that my health comes first, and that sometimes I need to limit what I do to stay healthy. If they’re true friends, they will understand and support you through the good days, and the bad.