Mental Illness Superpowers: An Intro

I’m Ali.  I am a full-time occupational therapist.  I live in a house with my husband and fur-babies.  I have been married for almost four years.  Some of my interests include traveling and spending time outdoors, puzzling, playing music and creating art, writing, and watching my favorite TV shows, The Office and I Love Lucy.  Oh, and did I mention I have a mental illness?  Well actually I have two, but who’s counting?

In the last couple of years I have been diagnosed with a bipolar disorder and anxiety disorder.  I have been admitted to a psychiatric hospital, have completed two partial-hospitalization programs, have been to literally hundreds of therapy sessions, and have tried many different medications (seriously, I think I’ve lost count).  But most importantly I have learned a lot about myself, and ultimately what it means to live a life worth living.  I would be lying if I told you I am an expert in mental health or even in managing my own disorders.  I would be lying to you if I said the management of my disorders is going well right now, or that I’m successfully functioning in my life.  And I would be lying to you if I said I considered mental illness a superpower even most of the time.  But if I’ve learned anything through countless therapy sessions, psychiatry appointments, group therapies, and mental health classes, it’s that hating my mental illness gets me nowhere.  So why not consider it a superpower?

For a long time, I rejected my illness, refused to accept the reality that was staring back at me.  I would constantly say to myself “This isn’t fair,” “I should be able to fix this,” “Why me?” and “I give up.”  I would hide my mental illness behind the “perfect” outer shell of myself.  Okay, honesty check, I still say those things to myself often; I still hide.  But when I am able to access my wise mind, with emotion and reason equally balanced, I whole-heartedly believe that turning your mind toward acceptance is the road to fulfillment, no matter what struggles you are facing.

So my challenge today is twofold.  One: Be painfully honest and vulnerable in describing what I hate about having a mental illness.  Then two: Describing just as many of the positive “superpowers” that come from having a mental illness.

Many days, I HATE my mental illness.  Here’s why:

  1. Managing my mental illness takes a LOT of work and a LOT of time.  Trying to keep up with therapy appointments and homework, psychiatry appointments, mood tracking, and medication management is overwhelming and exhausting.
  2. Managing a mental illness is EXPENSIVE.  Even with great health insurance, paying for medications, therapy appointments, psychiatry appointments, regular bloodwork, hospitalizations, partial hospitalizations, well…it adds up.  Then add to that reduced salary for short-term disability needs and unpaid FMLA days.
  3. Life with a mental illness often feels unstable; inconsistency or instability in relationships, work, moods and symptoms, social life, and self care.
  4. Many people with mental health disorders, myself included, have co-morbidities that make management of chronic illness more difficult.  According to NAMI.org, having a serious mental illness makes you more likely to develop many diseases, including cancer, diabetes, and heart conditions.
  5. The symptoms of mental illness can be disabling.  For me, my bipolar disorder causes me to experience cyclical depression and my anxiety disorder causes panic attacks and long periods of distressing physical anxiety symptoms.
  6. As a female with a mental illness, pregnancy and parenthood get a lot more complicated.  I have to consider medication safety and potential medication changes with pregnancy, mood stability with the addition of pregnancy and post-postpartum hormone changes, worry thoughts related to the likelihood of passing on mental illness to a child, and serious concerns with my parenting ability, knowing that there are times I am just barely surviving myself.
  7. Sometimes mental illness can cause unwanted cognitive deficits. For me, I sometimes have trouble paying concentrating, remembering things, and staying focused.

Okay, that list feels pretty heavy.  So the challenge now is to describe my mental illness superpowers:

  1. My mental illness facilitates empathy.  I’ve always considered myself an empathetic person, but going through deep suffering has brought me a new level of understanding and compassion for anyone else who is suffering.
  2. My mental illness has taught me to be an excellent listener.  I am working on moving away from “fix it” listening toward compassionate listening.  And believe it or not, compassionate listening alone has strengthened many relationships in my life already.
  3. Remember earlier when I said this is all a lot of work?  Okay, this is making the superpower list too.  Why not spend time and energy on yourself?  Having a mental illness has forced me to take a hard look at myself and spend a lot of time on self-improvement to a degree I never would have done without it.
  4. I’m not going to say I typically cope well with difficult or unexpected situations, but I sure do have a large toolbox of coping skills at the ready, skills I’ve learned only as a result of mental health treatment.
  5. I do not take the small joys and accomplishments in life for granted.  I may not always be able to see the shine, but I always try to turn my mind back to the things for which I am grateful.  Without suffering, there is not happiness.  So to me, great suffering also means great happiness.
  6. When you go through a difficult time, you develop a strong support system.  And the more vulnerable I am in sharing my struggle, the more that support system and my connectedness grows.
  7. Resiliency.  When I looked up the definition, I read “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.”  While I don’t necessarily agree with the “quickly” part of the statement, I know this statement describes me.  I have fallen and gotten up more times than I can count.  I am still here.  I am still fighting.

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