A friend of mine asked me about this, but I figured it would make a good tumblr post so I am also posting it here.
One thing you have to accept when you are afflicted with mental illness of any kind is that it’s not “curable”. I mention this because some people are so perfectionist that they will not be satisfied until they are “cured”. It is something you will have to deal with your entire life. Once you can accept that, it gets easier from there. Because it is possible, once you begin to wholly understand your illness and how it affects you, to manage your illness so well that you feel problem-free, or at least mostly so, for extended periods of time. You will have episodes from time to time. Your goal is to stave them off for as long as possible. Try not to feel bad about yourself that you have an illness. While you have this illness, other people in the world have other problems. No one in the world is problem-free. Use that as motivation to help you realize that you can live a great life despite them. That the times where you feel better are victories you can celebrate.
One of the most important ways to manage your illness is to be as consistent as possible. This applies to a lot of things.
Medication is an important aspect of your recovery.
If you’re taking medication, put a lot of effort into making sure you take it properly… and that you actually do take it in the first place. While it might not seem like a huge deal to miss one pill, or if a medication isn’t working out well for you at first and you feel like not taking it is better, do what you can to correct the behavior. Follow what your doctor says, and if you don’t agree with something make sure you talk to your doctor first before trying to change something yourself (or switch doctors if you really need to). These medications can be very touchy, so you put yourself at risk when you try to handle it yourself without having medical knowledge. When you’re in the first year or two of being medicated it will likely be hard for you to notice the subtle changes that happen to your mental state when you skip your medication until it starts to get out of control. I promise you, once you’re experienced enough to start recognizing it you will be kicking yourself about it.
If you’re at the stage where taking your medication consistently is not working out well for you, there are several things you can do to mend this problem. First of all, keep track of things such as when/if you take your medication, your emotional state, your diet, etc. I use a modified version I made in photoshop of this chart that I found online. Print out several of them at once, even though it’s monthly, because if you forget to print out a new one it may be months before you remember to get back to tracking it. I know this, because I did precisely that and it ended up being 4 months before I printed out another one. Tracking this stuff is very important because not only will you know how failing to take your medication affects you, but also, after long-term tracking, you can uncover yearly patterns that emerge. For example, after doing long-term tracking you might realize that you have episodes every March and September. Or that you have episodes right in the middle of your menstrual cycle. Once you know this information you can prepare yourself ahead of time so that when the episode does come it won’t hit you quite as hard. Ideally you’ll be able to prevent it from happening in the first place. I would also recommend keeping a journal to write about it, too. Even if you can’t be consistent day-to-day, at least try to make time to write down how you’re feeling during episodes (or right after they end).
One last thing when it comes to medication is to have a system of taking your medication, especially if it is hard to keep up with. I intend to make a detailed post about how I manage it, but until then… I recommend buying a pill holder keychain. Have extra pills in there in case you need them. If you forget to take your morning dose but bring it with you in your keychain, it’s better to take it an hour or two late than not at all. Don’t wait until you need it; stock it in advance. If you don’t have a weekly pill container, get one. These are essential. You only have to fill it once a week instead of pulling out all your pill bottles a couple times a day. Make sure you put it in a place that will help you remember to take it. Set reminders on your phone to refill it, especially if you think you’ll forget, and even to take your doses (I recommend MediSafe, available for iOS and Android). If you have a parent, roommate, or SO around, ask them to remind you. Whatever you can do to facilitate yourself, do it.
It’s all interconnected; you also need to keep the rest of your health in check.
If you have mental illness it can be really easy to focus on just your mental state and neglect the rest of your health. During an episode you might binge or unintentionally forget to eat. But having a healthy and balanced diet is more important to mental health than you may realize. While you don’t have to be a perfectly clean eater, do your best to nourish yourself well. If you have time, read up on how poor diet can affect your mental state to give yourself more incentive. But do what you can to stay healthy and hydrated. Your brain, where your illness is concentrated, requires a lot of energy and nutrients to function properly. So treat it well. Exercising will help, too. Even if all you can manage is as little as once a week, do it. The endorphins are invaluable to improving your mental health. It doesn’t have to be intense exercise. Just get out there.
Though it should be a given, using drugs other than the medications prescribed to you (this includes alcohol) is a slippery slope that will not help you in your recovery. Some medications forbid you from drinking in the first place, but even if yours don’t, do your best to keep it to a minimum. If you’re being medicated then there is logically no reason to self-medicate (even if you don’t feel like your medication is working; that will probably only make the problem worse!). A strong support group, even if that only includes just one person, will always be better. If you can’t find someone or don’t feel comfortable talking to anyone you know, the internet is full of resources and people to help you out.
Self-organization is half the battle.
Keeping yourself organized is really important. Mental illness in itself is very chaotic, so if you can manage to keep yourself together as much as possible in other parts of your life you will be much better off. If one part of your life temporarily falls apart, this will help you make sure not all of it does. So here are a few key things to keep in mind in terms of that:
- Write everything down. Even if you think you have a great memory it’s so much less stressful to write it down and not have to just hope you remember it. I have a hardcover Moleskine I carry around that has a bunch of random notes in it. At the end of the day I take a minute or two to look it over. If I wrote down important dates that’s when I’ll dump it in my planner. Mental illness in and of itself is hectic, so give yourself peace of mind and write it down. Nothing is more stressful than trying to remember something important you forgot about. Especially if you can’t even remember that you forgot about something. Just avoid it all together by writing it down.
- Start your assignments right when you get them. Even if this means just roughly planning out how you’ll accomplish them (e.g., if you have a paper plan out days you’ll brainstorm and look things up, days you’ll find sources, days you’ll write it, etc.) rather than actually doing the assignment. Just take care of it immediately. This is easier said than done, I know. But start this on the first day of class, or even before then if you can. It might not seem important right at the get go but if you procrastinate when you barely have any work to do imagine how bad it’ll get when you have a lot of work to do. If you’re in that swamped situation right now write a letter to yourself about how you’re feeling and keep it handy at the beginning of next semester to motivate you to get it done.
- Schedule your life as much as you sanely can. You can schedule your life at a variety of levels: monthly, weekly, daily, hourly. You can choose to do some or all of those. See what works for you. Either the night before or the morning of I like to write out my day’s schedule. Literally how I am going to spend the entire day. It might say something like, “8:00am – Wake up. 9:00am-10:00am – Calculus. 10:00am-11:30am – Physics homework,” etc. I like to spread my assignments over the week, too. When it comes to studying for exams, which are usually about a month apart, I like to schedule over the course of those few weeks when and what I will study. I have a lot of ideas on this on my blog.
- Maintain a consistent sleep schedule. This doesn’t mean you have to go to bed early and wake up early (unless you have early class, then it kinda does). But much like food and exercise has an important impact on all aspects of your health, so does sleep. It’s not just about getting the right amount or quality of sleep. Sleeping at a regular time, and every day of the week (maybe give yourself an hour leeway on weekends) will help you get to sleep if you have trouble sleeping. And once you get into a routine sometimes, because your body has an easier time going into quality sleep, you may require less sleep. But overall, if you have inconsistent sleep it’s really easy to sleep in too much and waste your day away sleeping rather than allowing yourself to get work done (and once you get work done you have free time!).
- Schedule relaxation/self-care time. Literally schedule it. I know that for me, personally, it’s hard for me to remember to do this, but it’s very important to do. Trying to do all work and no play will burn you out, and if you can’t manage to get any work done because all you’re doing is playing around, that’s equally as bad for your mental health. Find a balance and prioritize. At the beginning of the semester feel free to overestimate a little bit how much time you need to spend studying so you can cut down on it later once you get a feel for how much work your classes actually require. It’s better to initially over-prepare to where you find extra free time later than under-prepare and become swamped. Alternatively, you could try to do 80% work and 20% play on weekdays then 20% work and 80% on weekends. One a smaller scale you can use the pomodoro method. But no matter what, make sure you have at least a little bit of relaxation every single day.
Know your limits.
This probably seems a little less encouraging, but hear me out. This is important. If you are finding that you just cannot handle school with your illness, that what you’re doing is not enough or you just cannot keep up, do something about it. This might mean giving up an extra curricular, reducing your work hours, dropping a class, taking an incomplete, starting off a semester at fewer credits, taking a break from school for a semester or two, or having a gap year between undergrad and grad school. If you do any of these things you are not weak or a quitter. You are being cognizant of your needs and prioritizing your health, which is very smart of you to do. If anyone questions you, first of all, it’s none of their business. If you want to tell them, but don’t want to give them too many details, tell them you were being responsible and dealing with your illness. There still exists a stigma, I know. So they don’t need to know what kind of illness.
Doing any of these things might take a little longer for you to get through school, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s more important for you to become healthy than it is to speed through your schooling. In the context of your whole life, a year or two is nothing. And if all you do is push yourself too hard without taking care of the problem, you may never recover. So do what’s best for you as a whole person, not just you as a student. As important as academics might be to you, you are more than your academics. Remember that.