When I graduated from college and moved on to a few jobs that I just needed to fill my time and my wallet, I desperately wanted to write a book called ‘The Terrible Twenties’. The years of my twenties were perhaps the most confusing and painstaking on my self-esteem that I have ever experienced, even compared to the torture of living with the mental illness OCD in my teens. I graduated from college—my celebrated accomplishment…and I graduated from Exposure Response Prevention Therapy—perhaps my greatest accomplishment to date. However, there were no parties thrown when I graduated from ERP. There were no ‘congratulations, we are so proud of you’. I never heard anyone say, ‘I cannot believe that you survived and now you are doing so well!’. It was an unspoken, ‘well, thank goodness the disorder seems okay now, let’s just pray she doesn’t fall off her rocker again.’ My successful therapy treatment was swept under the carpet, just like my disorder and my survived suicide attempt. I had just experienced one of the most tragic events anyone could experience over the previous year and a half and my family, my friends, and I just moved on without speaking about it, without addressing the underlying pain, and without processing the massive emotional baggage that I was carrying around on my back.
The 5-6 years following my successful ERP therapy in my twenties were horrible. I was just like everyone else that was looking to feel important and adjust in the ‘real world’ in a way that made it look like we all had it together. The problem is, there are not many people in their twenties that have it together. Why? Because, we are just breaking away from what we have always known. We are venturing out into a new world where we are defined by an identity that was told to us by our parents, family, or friends. We are learning who we are and what we want and that is a very difficult thing to do because change is hard. Learning that everything we are used to does not necessarily have to be the right way or how we want to live is challenging. The adjustment can take a toll on our personal selves, our families, and our relationships. We create a fair amount of baggage in those years just by learning from all of the mistakes we make. Unfortunately, when you spend your teenage years and part of your twenties dealing with a major mental illness, you not only have emotional baggage, you have carry-on’s as well!
You are dealing with everything everyone else is, but trying to balance the symptoms and treatment of an illness that can leave you debilitated can weigh on you negatively. You may have weird quirks, distrust in others, and massive self-esteem issues as a result of your experiences and the personal stigma that goes along with mental illness. You may have to take time off from college to get your disorder under control. You may have to drop out of college. You may have to take jobs that you are overqualified for because you cannot handle the load. You may have destructive and unhealthy relationships and friendships. You may experience extremely low times even after you have had successful treatment. And all the while, you are unable to let people know just how bad you are suffering. Sometimes, you don’t let people know out of shame, guilt, or even pride. Sometimes, you don’t tell people because you are afraid of how they will react. And sometimes, you don’t want to burden other people with your illness. That isolation can make us feel like our accomplishments—which sometimes are just getting out of bed in the morning on bad days—are not worthy of praise or adulation. This can be a lonely time. This can reinforce our emotional baggage and seriously damage our self esteem.
I am 37 now, and while I cannot offer any reassurance to y’all who are in the terrible twenties, I can tell you that you are not alone. The twenties are a difficult time for everyone, not just those of us with mental illness. They can be a time of fear, confusion, and low confidence. But, as I told an individual that I coach just the other day, one day you will look back and remember that I said that everything that you are worried about in this moment will mean nothing in 15 years and you will be a better person for having survived through this illness in the long run.
Do you believe that statement?
Here are a few reasons to convince you that I am not entirely wrong:
• You will find out much later (if you have not already found out) that almost everyone is searching for meaning and to feel important, whether that is in their career, family, or spiritual life.
When I was in my twenties and trying to come to terms with the fact that I felt like damaged goods because of my mental illness, it never occurred to me that everyone else didn’t ‘have it all together’. I watched as my friends went back to grad school because they ‘knew exactly’ what they wanted to do with their life. I watched as people started careers that I assumed would be long-term. I watched as many of my friends got married and several had babies right off the bat. Just a few years earlier, I had assumed my life would end in suicide at the hands of my disorder—I didn’t think much past that! Now, here I am thrown into the world, with the idea that everything I had thought, worried about, and spent hours ruminating on did not really exist. Who in the heck was I? What in the world did I want? My entire life had been a lie! Now, I had to find out who I was and where I was going to end up and everyone else had a leg up on me!
It was shattering to my self-esteem. I entered a very long and very painful bout of anger. Why did I have to go through this and everyone else has it so easy? What did I do to deserve this? How will I ever be happy and be able to have a normal life like everyone else does?
If only I could go back and talk to Chrissie at age 25 and answer those questions!! Here’s the truth. Most people do not know who they are and where they are going at any given time. If they are lucky, they will keep learning, changing, and evolving without getting stuck into a rut of what they think they have to be. It’s one of the secrets in life I did not understand until my mid-30s (and I still think that is young!). Just because you have a mental illness does not mean that you are the only one that doesn’t have everything figured out. It gives you the extra carry-on’s in life, but it does not mean you are inferior, lesser of a human, or less intelligent. It may not seem like it in the moment, but there are many positive things that can and will come out of the perseverance and drive you have to manage your illness. These are real world qualities that many people do not experience until they are much older. Sure, you probably won’t put your brain disorder on your job resume, but just take comfort in the fact that you are clearing hurdles that in the long run will make you stronger, more courageous, and more compassionate of a human being.
If you are reading this right now and thinking that I am full of it, just take the risk and live with the uncertainty that there is some truth in this. Times can be hard during treatment and especially the years following, but trust me when I tell you that everyone is struggling with the same basic issues of who they are and where they fit in. You are unique because of your experience with your illness. It can turn into a positive if you let it.
• Focus on having met your goals in treatment lay the groundwork for your real-world goals.
I can remember feeling a bit apathetic about my Statistics homework after realizing that the ERP for my OCD was starting to work. Who cares about Statistics, I don’t have to be bullied by OCD anymore! Well, that didn’t really work, and I ended up having to get tutored to get a decent grade in that ridiculous class. Before therapy, I did not understand how to make goals and accomplish them. I had a monster of OCD in my head that told me every step of the way that I was worth nothing and was a horrible person. Anything that I did good in my life I attributed to chance or luck. I could never see that I had any will to do good or be a good person. When I went through ERP, I started to see that when I made goals and accomplished them and could eliminate the bully’s voice in my head, it was no one but ME that was making this happen.
I could accomplish things!!
I spent months in extensive therapy and there was not a goal that I did not meet. Sure, I was terrified at every new goal set because it seemed way harder than the previous one, but I pushed and persevered through and sure enough, I could make it happen.
The best thing I did for myself during this time was to take notes on how this process worked for me. Write the goal down, freak out a bit, doubt myself, read the goal again, and commit to doing it no matter what. Each day, I would reluctantly aim for the goal and I would be terrified that I couldn’t do it. But, each day it would get easier and I would get closer to making my therapy goal for the week. All the week through, I’d document my hesitance, my fear, and my doubts. They were always the same with the same intensity even though the goals were different.
I took this type of response, reaction, and commitment into my real life outside of therapy goals. I needed to start believing that I could be responsible for good things happening. I started with my cross-country goals on my collegiate team. I thought it was a long shot, but I could not believe that if I wrote the goal down, worked very hard, never gave up and persevered that the goal could be met. I would push through the fear, the doubt, and the hesitation and each time I was meeting the race times that far exceeded the ones from the previous years. This set the tone for me thereafter. To this day, I set goals and I wait for all of the negative feelings, I make sure to commit and persevere, and the goals can be met.
Therapy goals may seem like a different world when it comes to goals in jobs, careers, family, etc., but your strategy in creating the goals and achieving them lay the groundwork for how you will operate in the world. This is something to evaluate closely and to take seriously when setting goals other than therapeutic goals. Chances are, you have spent time beating yourself down about accomplishments and your ability to be successful because of your disorder. Being able to create goals in therapy and meet them can give you the opportunity to learn strategies for success. Also, accomplishing therapeutic goals can help you to feel proud of your success. You are working at and managing a serious mental illness—this is something to be proud of and to make note of the strength and determination it takes to do this!
Therapy is so much more than getting you healthy, it will lay the groundwork for you to be successful in your relationships, career, and your life.
• Learning to live and manage a mental illness will give you a depth of empathy that is immeasurable.
Empathy may not be your biggest goal in life at the moment, but trust me that it is one of the most precious attributes you can attain. Majority of individuals with a mental illness develop the symptoms early in life. A vast array of emotions in response to these symptoms in the early years may include confusion, isolation, anger, shame, and judgment. And throughout the course of your journey of onset to diagnosis to treatment, at some point you may come to the realization that you know things about life that so many other people never will.
When I first realized this as mentioned above, it came in the form of anger. WHY does everyone else have it so easy? Over the years I have realized that the benefit of going through my struggle with OCD at such a young age has helped me to develop intuition, empathy, and compassion. It may sound paradoxical, but I believe that individuals with mental illness have insight into surviving pain and suffering on a level that others will never be lucky enough to experience. I do not wish the misery of a mental illness on anyone for any reason, but given my life with OCD and the lessons I have learned and the person that I have become, there is not a day that goes by that I do not feel grateful for my journey.
There are so many people who have lives that are content, but that do not understand the depths of emotion because they have not had the opportunity to struggle or work through something so terrifying that it tested every ounce of their being. There are days where I could read that sentence and throw my computer across the room in sadness and anger…but overall, it is a truth. Working through something as complex and frightening as a mental illness and being able to learn to manage it and love yourself despite takes courage, brevity, and strength beyond measure. You learn lessons about the hard realities of life. You get to experience lows sometimes that are so deep that you cannot fathom how you survived. But, the contentedness and the love and respect for life afterward soaks into your soul. A true nature of empathy is created if you allow it to manifest out of the depths of your illness.
I have never said that it is easy to live with a mental illness. Some days, I wish I could be someone else…some days, I wish that I had never been born…but some days, I have an overwhelming appreciating for the hand I was dealt. As I get older and learn how to manage the pattern of OCD, those days become more frequent and I am grateful for that.
There is much reason to celebrate your recovery. There is an absolute reason to throw a party when you graduate your ERP therapy. There is an incredible amount of respect that you deserve from battling a mental illness every day. You are stronger than anyone will ever know, maybe even stronger than you will ever know.
Don’t ever give up. Don’t ever think that you are less than anyone because of your disorder. Try to see how you can benefit from what you have learned by managing the disorder. Never stop celebrating your victories over the disorder no matter how small they may seem. And, remember that the gem of knowledge you possess is that you understand human suffering to a degree that almost no one will ever be able to grasp.
Thank you for taking the time to read,
Mental Health Advocate, Public Speaker, The Stigma of Mental Illness Radio, Mental Health Peer Consulting, Effective OCD Treatment/CBT & ERP Coach