Eight years ago, I sat hungover in my dorm room unable to recall the night before. I looked over my side to see a note left by my roommate, along with a tub of Advil.
Out for brunch but figured you’d want to sleep in. You’ll probably need this. xo
I propped it open, noticing that I left my water bottle on the other side of the room. My body ached and walking felt too difficult. Instead, I took a pill and swallowed it whole, hoping I could accumulate enough saliva to make up for the lack of hydration.
A good friend of mine knocked on my door, letting herself in to sit on the bed next to me. I laid across her with a throbbing head and mascara smeared under my eyes. She scanned my face, searching for any essence of soul left inside, but drew a blank. I felt hollow, moving through each day aching for it to end, only to have to sleep and do it all over again.
“Do you remember what we talked about last night?” she asked me.
I shook my head. “Everything’s a blur,” I laughed off, but she didn’t join in. Instead, her head gazed down towards her feet.
“You know, the things you talk about when you drink, and the way that you feel all the time isn’t normal,” she said in a hushed tone, pausing momentarily. “I think you should see someone.”
I remember everything about that day like it only just happened. How we looked at options available, ones that my university provided free of cost because I couldn’t afford anything else. I remember my first appointment with a therapist I still see to this day, and I remember my friend sitting in the waiting room listening to podcasts so that I wouldn’t be alone after it was done.
There are certain moments in my life I can look back to and say: If that didn’t happen, everything would be different. This was one of those moments.
A lot has changed in the span of eight years, and thankfully because of therapy, I gained tools to manage my own mental health in ways I never thought were possible. Thinking about that day in comparison to the place I’m at now, I thought I’d dwindle down eight things I learned during these past eight years in therapy.
Boundaries are not selfish
This one has been circling around me for years and it was only last year that I actively put it into practice. For a people-pleaser like myself, boundaries have been pretty non-existent. I only placed them when I was at my tail-end, having no other option available. A visual practice my therapist recommended I do was to draw what I thought boundaries looked like versus what I want them to be.
When I sketched out the image in my head of what I thought they were, it was a young girl with a thick stone wall in front of her, alone and caged. The image I drew to represent what I’d like them to be moving forward showcased a beautiful fence with a gate I could open and close to my liking. Strings of vine draped around the edges as the fence stood at a height I could peek over. I scribbled “Good fences make good neighbours” on the bottom and stuck it on my fridge.
Looking at this image each day was not only a reminder, but also a visual to rewire my own thinking. Boundaries always felt so cold, isolating and selfish. They were a way of keeping people out. I had this idea that if I set boundaries, I would lose the people around me. What I’ve learned when I actually began to put them into place is that a lot of my relationships began to strengthen. Setting my own boundaries allowed for others to communicate theirs. It made room for more vulnerability and created an honest, safe space for myself and the ones I loved. Although they don’t always work that way and I’ve definitely had moments where I set boundaries that created more conflict, those were also important indicators for who respected the lines I drew.
Going back into a poor mental health state does not diminish the progress you’ve made
Each time I found myself back inside of a depressive episode, I felt like I was regressing. As if all the work I had done vanished into thin air and here I was starting back at square one. In reality, growth is not linear and mental health is managed, not cured. Over the years, I’ve begun to notice patterns that indicate I might enter a depressive state which help me mentally prepare by amping up the tools I have garnered. I’ve also noticed that a depressive state that once lasted for years is now far shorter in length. Sometimes it lasts weeks or months, but I also know (now) that it will come to an end.
When your mind is overactive, move your body
Speaking as someone with high levels of anxiety, my mind is always racing. The stillness of meditation has been a game-changer over the years, but so has movement. I find that in moments my anxiety is at an all-time high, the best thing I can do for it is to go on a walk, dance around my apartment, or work out. In a way, it sort of levels me out and brings more alignment into my being. In the thread of mind-body balance, allowing my body to take some of that edge off has been a significant tool I keep coming back to.
Create solutions for all your worst-case scenarios
Welcome, all my fellow planners and control freaks! Now, here’s the thing – if you’re not someone who quickly jumps to “worst-case scenarios” and then ruminates on all the potentially horrible things that could come from life, then please fast forward to the next point! However, if you’re like me and have a tendency to freak out over…everything, well, something I’ve learned is that worst-case scenarios are not a terrible thing. Actually, they may even be beneficial to taking risks and making big decisions.
What I noticed was my tendency to fixate on problems that might arise, rather than use them as tools to create solutions for any challenges that might come my way. See how they’re different? One is just focusing on what if, and the other is more action-oriented.
When my mind switches into worst-case scenario mode, I’m now better able to utilize it as a form of problem-solving. I’ll write down a list of all the horrible things that could come of the decision I make and then write solutions of how I could manage. Having these items written down helps me see what I’m actually afraid of. Is there an underlying theme or is it just that this decision will bring me into unfamiliar territory? Is there one bad potential outcome that weighs more than the others, and is that a non-negotiable or is that something I could work around?
Being someone who likes to feel prepared, I can walk into most situations knowing that I can handle challenges that could be thrown my way, and this is also a great tool for recognizing underlying fears, triggers, or wounds.
Allow yourself to be happy when you feel it
I’m always afraid of being happy because I know it will end. But if I can go through a difficult period and allow myself to feel sad, why is it so hard to go through a joyful one and allow myself to feel happy? Life is an ebb and flow and if we aren’t able to experience joy, then it all becomes a gloomy tale. Feel happy when you feel happy. Feel sad when you feel sad. It’s that simple and that hard.
Your body gives you cues if you listen
Just like we get cues to eat, our body also gives us insight into so much more. Like the uncomfortable sensation you have when you meet someone and just know that something feels off about them. Or when you enter into a space and feel right at home. When someone tells you a story and you can tell they’re not giving you all the facts. Our bodies often know more than our minds do and these small sensations are just instincts. We always expect some big sign to tell us what to do, but it’s actually just listening to these small, almost unnoticeable cues. Like bread crumbs, we can follow them to get closer to ourselves.
Having insight into how you are wired is liberating
When you know how you operate, you can also communicate it to the people that you love. For instance, when my mental health is worse, I now know what I need during that time. I can communicate to my loved ones that this is a challenging period and right now I might need some time to be alone and reflect, or maybe I reach out because I want to connect more. I also know what will calm me down when I’m angry and what will fire me up. I can reflect on why certain words trigger me and instead of reacting, I can have a conversation about it.
I feel more in control of myself and why I am the way I am. It’s not only helped put me at ease, but it’s also strengthened the relationships I have in my life.
Both sides of the story can be true.
There can be multiple sides to each story, and everyone’s experience is valid. Oftentimes, we’re wrapped up in our own biases and perspectives. We view things the way we interpret them and assume that everyone else will see them the same. Once I’ve finished being angry/sad/hurt by an experience and felt all of my feelings, I’ve made it a habit to switch roles, to try and tap into the way someone else feels based on how they think. Doing this allows space for others to be vulnerable around you, but it also opens up your mind, getting you out of your own bubble.
Have you gone to therapy, and if so, what are some lessons you’ve learned along the way?