Healing from a mental illness is a difficult process for many reasons, but one of the most challenging aspects for me was redefining who I was. After being depressed for a couple of years, I honestly couldn’t even remember what it was like to be happy. I couldn’t remember what I enjoyed doing or what motivated me. I’ve written before about self-sabotaging my own recovery because I was afraid to find out who I was under my depression. It’s a frightening journey, and certainly not a linear one. I wish I could have reassured my past self to say, “It’s okay. You’re still here. You’re not the same person, but who is after a few years? You’re still you, and you’re still here.”
One of the most unsettling and scary parts of a mental illness is that it’s so hard to tell what’s you and what’s your illness. In my experience, depression was especially tricky because it was like a little black cloud sitting on my shoulder whispering things in my ear over and over again until I believed them – and worse, believed that they were inherent to me and my personality. The negative self-talk became my only truth. I can’t do this. I’m no good. I’m just lazy. I don’t want to go out. I don’t think I’ll have a good time. Everything is awful anyway. I started to put myself down for being so negative, instead of recognizing the depression as the source of negativity. I blamed myself for being down all the time, for being unable to meet commitments and for taking twice as long to get things done. Every time I managed to get excited or motivated about something, the inevitable crash that came later would just cement my beliefs that I shouldn’t have bothered caring because I was never going to care long enough to make a difference. I couldn’t hang on to any sense of purpose and I felt like I had very little to contribute to the world.
I think that even a few weeks of thinking like this would weaken your sense of self, let alone a couple of years. I tried to separate my true thoughts from my depression, but they often seemed outnumbered. It was like my brain defaulted towards the negative and didn’t want to reroute that pathway. Think about the last time you tried to change an old habit. Changing your thinking patterns is hard enough on its own, without the added weight of a chemical imbalance and life stressors. I started keeping a log of every time I felt happy, accomplished something on my own, or completed a goal – no matter how small. Then every time I felt hopeless again, I would force myself to think of something from my log, and remind myself that I was capable of doing those things.
As my mental health started to improve, it became slightly easier to recall the successful moments of the week instead of the lower days. I thought about who I was before I started to feel depressed and I tried to make that identity stick. I would repeat to myself, “I am a cheerful person who just happens to be depressed” even though it sounded ridiculous at the time. Every time I found something I enjoyed doing, I would think: this is the real me. I started paying more attention to activities that piqued my interest. I found out that I enjoyed baking, something I had rarely tried before. I kept looking for more recipes to try, and although I made a lot of inedible experiments, I realized I had discovered my first new hobby in a long time.
Small discoveries like these helped me redefine my sense of self. Determined to reclaim my identity from depression, I made a mental note any time something made me happy. Each one was a small step forwards for my mental health. It is an ongoing process, and I believe that our identities are continuously shaped by the events in our lives. Sometimes I still feel like my sense of “me” is a bit shaky, but I think that’s okay.
Photo credit: “Infinite Loop – Self Portrait” by Lorenzo Basile Photography on Flickr.
About Jasmin Yee
Jasmin Yee is an Ottawa-based young professional who has dealt with mental illness since the end of high school. Now 24, she has a passion for mental health advocacy and breaking down the barriers that make it so hard to talk publicly about mental illness. She writes about her experiences with depression and anxiety on her blog, as well as her thoughts on how to reduce stigma. Jasmin aims to develop a career in health promotion so that she can connect with at-risk communities and enable them to take care of their mental health.