A Life, with Mental Illness, Worth Living

April 21, 2015

Thanks to the effects of a traumatic brain injury and a couple other subsequent concussions, my memory can be pretty spotty. I have entire chunks of time that are fuzzier and less substantial that those white wishing-puff seed balls that dandelions turn into. Yet I vividly remember lying on my bed or sitting in a group room at the behavioral health hospital in which I stayed on five different occasions. And I remember wishing a wish that felt flimsy, fleeting, and forever out of reach: that I would once again have a life worth living.

Life is stressful. It’s a roller coaster ride that can make even the most thrill-seeking adrenaline junky ill. Add mental illness to someone’s life, and sometimes the roller coaster seems to fly right off the tracks and into a wall.

In the aftermath of the car accident in which I sustained the brain injury, I was ultimately diagnosed with bipolar 1 disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety disorder. It was a long, tumultuous process. Initially, it seemed that it was just about people discovering things about me and telling me who I was. Ultimately, when I was in the hospital for the final time, I realized that the diagnosis of mental illness wasn’t about others discovering things about me. It was about me. It was about discovering myself.

For me, the foundation of it all, the foundation that stands firm today and the one on which I continue to build, was that I did very much want a life worth living. Just this realization felt great and provided a boost into action. I didn’t always feel that way; many times I didn’t want a life at all.

Once I knew I wanted a life worth living, I decided to live one. That proved to be a bit on the simplistic side! Yes, my goal was to create this life worth living, but I continued to sometimes ignore, sometimes deny, sometimes fight, my symptoms of bipolar disorder and anxiety. It wasn’t until I owned my mental illness that I could truly discover myself, the full, multi-faceted “me.”

The journey to redefine myself, to come to understand myself on a new and complete level, and finally to accept myself wasn’t a fast one. (And to put that in the past tense, “wasn’t” is actually inaccurate, for life isn’t linear nor is self-discovery nor is living with mental illness [or without it, for that matter].) I had to break things down into workable pieces.

I write, among other things, novels that portray mental illness in order to increase empathy and understanding. Leave of Absence takes place largely in a behavioral health hospital (incidentally, it’s a fictionalized version of the one where I received help). At one point, one of the main characters, a man named Oliver, is told by his psychiatrist,

“When someone is wrestling with something this devastating, it is often extremely difficult and painful to look down the road and even imagine moving on. To try to picture that is overwhelming. I’m not asking you to give me a plan for a perfectly cheery future. I actually don’t want you to think about that at all right now. I want you to instead think about little things. What can you do each hour to stay afloat? For right now that means what can you do in each group, or what can you do at mealtime, or during visiting hours, or whenever, to find something good at that moment? Just think hour by hour right now and nothing beyond that.”

For me, it was when I stopped trying to create this big, vague, looming concept of a life worth living and instead started to create moments worth living that I was able to transcend all of the difficulties that mental illness brings to one’s life. To be sure, the difficulties don’t fully disappear. My brain is my brain and it does what it does. That won’t change. But it also doesn’t define “me.”

By understanding exactly what bipolar disorder and anxiety disorders are, I can recognize and better manage their symptoms. By recognizing and better managing their symptoms, I can live more fully in each moment of my life. Step by step, I can craft my hours so that I make joyful moments in them. Moment by moment, hours turn into days which turn into months and years to become a life – not just any life, but a life worth living.

Pull the seeds off your own wishing puff one by one. Plant them, nurture them. What happens next is nothing short of miraculous: a new flower blooms, and that flower is your life worth living.





Tanya J Peterson 2015

With credentials as a Nationally Certified Counselor andpersonal experience with mental health care, novelist and columnist Tanya J. Peterson uses writing to increase understanding of and compassion for people living with mental illness. Her most recent work, My Life in a Nutshell: A Novel (Inkwater Press, 2014) was awarded a Kirkus Star, an honor given by Kirkus Reviews “to books of remarkable merit.” Further, Peterson’s My Life in a Nutshell: A Novel was named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2014. The novel also received a coveted “Recommended” rating from The US Review of Books. Her novel Leave of Absence (Inkwater Press, 2013) was selected as a Finalist in the National Indie Excellence Awards. Losing Elizabeth (Createspace, 2012) has been nominated to receive Storytellers Campfire’s Voyager Marble Award for its “contribution to the world.”

Additionally, Tanya J. Peterson is a weekly columnist for HealthyPlace.com’s Anxiety-Schmanxiety blog. She writes articles to help readers understand and overcome difficulties with anxiety disorders. The Anxiety-Schmanxiety blog was dubbed one of the Top Ten Anxiety Blogs of 2014 and awarded a “Best of the Web” designation by renowned psychology and mental health authority PsychCentral.com


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