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How I Finally Overcame Mental Illness

Jan 18, 2019

Whoa…overcame? That’s a pretty bold statement in the title, even for me. Mental illness (anxiety, depression, PTSD) has dogged me most of my life, and handicapped me for a good portion of it. But not today. Not for a whole year. And now, I’m going to do my very best to back up this outrageous and seemingly over-confident claim.

As I sit here writing, I’ve got Lauren Daigle on in the background. Her album, How Can it Be, was the soundtrack behind the bravest thing I’ve ever done. Exactly one year ago, I checked myself into a mental health clinic for a 30-day stay. And as Daigle’s album plays, it stirs up curiously fond memories of my time there, and reminds me of all God has done in my life since then. 

The Back Story

Going to the clinic was not the first line of defense in my battle. I had been in counseling on and off since my twenties, had countless ministry appointments, inner healing sessions, alter calls—even deliverance—but still, mental illness had its grip on me. Don’t get me wrong, I had made a LOT of progress over the years. I worked hard on my part of the healing process, and consistently chose to address whatever I was aware of at the given time.

As the years went by, my nuclear meltdowns got fewer and farther between. But when they did happen, they were bigger and more frightening to me than they ever had been. I lived with the constant fear that one of these days, I wasn’t going to be able to rebound. And then I would be stuck, permanently crippled by insanity.

Just after the New Year, I had an episode that became my line in the sand. I was deeply troubled by some news I had just received, and without meaning to, I picked a fight with one of my kids over something stupid. I ended up swearing at her—something I had never done before—and, wracked with guilt, I retreated to my bedroom, where there happened to be a hefty stack of acrylic plates and cups leftover from New Year’s Eve, waiting to go up in the attic. Overwhelmed by a flood of frightening emotions, I began hurling the cups and plates against the wall. As each one exploded into shards of broken plastic, I felt more and more out of control.

By the time my husband made it upstairs, I had decided that it all must end, right here and now. I was done being held hostage by the fear, anxiety, and swirling thoughts. And less than a week later, on January 20, 2018, I was on a plane to Tallahassee, to spend a month in rehab.

A New Kind of Freedom

I’ve already shared (in a 3-part blog post) what I learned from my time there, and those lessons are just as relevant and valuable today as they were then. Still, I wouldn’t say that I charged out of the gate running and it’s been a smooth ride ever since. How life would be once I was at home was one of my biggest worries. There is a sort of safe “bubble” around you in rehab—even though you’re facing all your stuff, it’s in a controlled environment. And it’s not, well…real life. Because the world around you is not suddenly going to adjust to your new-found healing. It isn’t going to stop throwing those curveballs and triggers. And people are still going to be people. Some will hurt you, some will disappoint.

What had to change and adjust was me, how I processed what came at me, and what choices I would make in response to them. Just as you might expect, I had plenty of opportunities to practice all this. And it’s been a learning curve, like everything else. I’ve handled some things really well, and I’ve messed up on occasion, too. But in the entire calendar year, I’ve only had one “episode” (basically a panic attack) when one of those curveballs was thrown in an area I didn’t expect. I was caught off guard by it, and reacted before I even chose a response. But unlike every other time I experienced a panic attack, I was able to pull myself out of it very quickly and rebounded strong.

And, aside from that one episode, I have been living in total peace and freedom this whole year. Obsessive thoughts and worries have disappeared. No bouts of uncontrollable crying. No outbursts of anger. If this is what “normal” feels like, it’s the best feeling I’ve ever experienced!

And Now, the Hows:

So, the question is, what were the keys to this all working, that I can now claim to have ‘overcome’ mental illness?  Well, here they are. They’re not fool-proof, obviously, and maybe they won’t free you from every kind of affliction. But I’m sharing them because they worked for me, and what if it works for you, too? You do want to be free, don’t you? Well, here’s how:

 

1. You Must Have the Will to Change.

This is Step Numero Uno, and it is a crucial one to take at every juncture along the way. Notice the wording. You must, by your own free will and sheer will, want to change and choose to change. And, you have to want it bad enough to push through what will inevitably be a difficult, painful, and sometimes, scary process. You need to want your own healing and want to change even more than anyone else wants it for you.

 

2. You Must Learn the Value of Submission and Humility. 

This goes hand-in-hand with the will to change. When you operate in humility, you recognize and own your shortcomings, your issues, and the fact that you are definitely not ‘fine’ as you are. If you are focused on others being the cause of the state you’re in, you will unlikely ever receive the deep healing you need. There’s a place for recognizing what’s yours to own and what belongs to others, but if it’s your healing you want, that can’t be contingent upon someone else’s actions or consequences. And secondly, you must be willing (and choose) to submit to the healing process. All of it. Whatever it takes. You must find skilled, trustworthy professionals to help you, and you must follow through with your therapy and assignments. If you truly knew what was best for you, you wouldn’t need the kind of help you do. Sometimes other people do know better, because they have the benefit of objectivity and perspective.

 

3. Do Your Homework. Every Single Time. 

Homework is given to accomplish stuff that can’t be fully dealt with in a counseling session. It takes you further and deeper through the healing process than you can get to without it. And in my experience, it’s where some of the deepest learning and understanding happens. Quiet time working on your assignments gives you the space to reflect, and more importantly, opportunity for you to hear God’s voice in what you’re doing. Then, when you go to your next appointment, you and your therapist can process it together. Finally, doing your homework demonstrates your commitment to doing what you need to do to get better.

 

4. Train Your Brain to Think Differently. 

One of the most fascinating and miraculous things about the brain is that there are areas that can be regenerated, renewed, and awakened. I am far from a brain expert, but I do know that our experiences, particularly if they involve trauma, physically affect the brain. They lay down neural pathways that function like well-traveled superhighways, so that certain thoughts and behaviors are inextricably connected to those past events. These pathways actually fire faster than the ones we use to reason or use logic. That’s why so many of us react before we even think it through. But we can retrain our brains by rehearsing new thought patterns, especially if we can connect them to new (good) experiences. If we can commit ourselves to rehearse new, healthy, positive truths and beliefs, we can actually change how we automatically think. I can personally attest to the fact that it works!

 

5. Seek to Eliminate Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms.

If you’re honest with yourself (and you ask others,) you will know what those specific things are for you. Realistically, you can’t get rid of all of them at once, but you’ll know where to start. I went without social media and television for a year, so I could truly focus on the Lord and my healing. At another point, I gave up drinking for an extended period of time, until I knew that I would not use alcohol to manage my anxiety. I can’t say I don’t sometimes cope in other unhealthy ways, but I’m trying to just tic them off my list, one by one. When you do take away a coping avenue, you will have to face head-on what it is you’re coping from. And that’s a good thing.

 

6. Have a Real Plan in Place for When Mental illness Symptoms Surface. 

I call this my Disaster Recovery Plan, and I keep it in a bright blue notebook in my office closet. It is created from a template that helps me identify what is going on, where it’s coming from, and what I can do next. This has absolutely saved me from spiraling into irrational thoughts and behaviors, and just knowing I have it if needed helps so much. If you’d like a copy, you can sign up to download it here.

 

 7. Rebuild and Embrace Your True Identity.

(hint: mental illness isn’t part of it!)  My firm belief is that the only way to do this accurately, is to get to really understand who the Father is, and who you are because of Him. How He’s made you. How much He loves you. Spend time in the Word. Read some good, solid books by wise people who’ve walked where you have walked. There are many I can recommend if you want to reach out. One of them I wrote myself and highly recommend! 

 

8. Make Peace with Your Diagnosis.

Whatever your diagnosis is—you have IT, IT does not HAVE YOU. Don’t own it as who you are, any more than you would say diabetes or psoriasis is part of your identity. It’s a condition that many, many other people have. You are not alone. There is no shame in it. If you are like the vast majority of people with mental illness, you are not helpless, and you have choices in how to manage it.

 

9. Take Medication if You Need It.

Again, no shame here. There are a multitude of options available, so don’t get discouraged if it takes a while to find the right thing for you. For me, medication was the final step in my process. Not because I wasn’t doing well, but because I recognized I was still experiencing anxiety despite addressing everything else. I can’t find the right words to describe how I feel, except to say there’s a ‘lightness’ I feel that I’ve never felt before now. It’s wonderful.

 

10. Have a Support Network Around You. 

This is last, but certainly not least important. You need good professionals helping you and they are out there. You need good friends. Family. People that will love you even if you’re difficult sometimes, and people who love you enough to a) be completely honest with you, and b) celebrate BIG when you make significant gains. Find your tribe.

 

That’s a lot of stuff, I know. I think it’s the longest post I’ve written so far, but it’s so important to get this out there, that there is hope for those with mental illness.I’m sure you can see by that list that none of this is easy or quick. I’ve been at this stuff a long time.

In fact, I turned 50 this year, and you know what? It’s the best freaking year of my life so far.

Am I cured? Probably not.

Triggers will still be there. Tendencies towards anxiety and PTSD will most likely remain with me the rest of my life. I’m not cured, but I am FREE.

Free from a lifetime of bondage. Free from worry that I’ll lose myself to my broken brain.

I have been empowered. Healed.

I have overcome

Friends, I’m back from the brink.

And I’m here to stay.

 

(this song, right here, was my ANTHEM at the clinic. They even played it when I graduated from the program! Now, it’s a beautiful reminder of all God has done.)

Don’t leave me hanging here, all vulnerable and alone—comment below. This is a safe place.

 

 

30 Comments

  1. Melissa Henderson

    Thank you for your honesty and for sharing your journey. I have dealt with anxiety and depression for many years. I am so happy that more people are sharing their diagnosis and life. The more we share, the more people will be helped. God bless you.

    • Michelle Wuesthoff

      I totally agree! I feel a real obligation (that’s probably not the best word) to share my testimony, because He’s been so good to me. I’m so blessed I have the platform and vehicle to shed a little light and hope whenever I can.

  2. Debbie Ratte

    I am terrible at writing comments. I’m still processing everything I just read, and being distracted by little ones who haven’t had my attention while I read it.
    However, I feel a need to honor your vulnerability and courage in not only writing this post, but also publishing it.
    I thank you, and I will try to remember to follow up with you when we finally have that cup of coffee.
    (Hugs) ~ Debbie

    • Michelle Wuesthoff

      Thank you, Debbie! Can’t wait to meet in person. 🙂

  3. Jessica Gallant

    Absolutely love Lauren Daigle.
    I’m so glad you are doing better with your “disease”, and I say that with love. I have similar struggles, and even as reading through this I saw myself so many times. I’ve also had similar breakdowns and it took years to admit- and stay- on medications.
    God bless and continue to stay strong in Him.

    • Michelle Wuesthoff

      Thank you, Jessica! I am definitely trusting Him to guide and direct my journey! May He continue to bless you and bring deeper levels of healing on yours.

  4. Claudio

    Michelle, your ten reminders are very helpful. They are practical steps that can be taken to help deal with anxiety. Thank you for sharing your story and the ten steps. And congratulations on your perserverance and faith.

  5. Anne Mackie Morelli

    Michelle, I really appreciate your authenticity and transparency and courage in sharing your story. As a registered clinical counsellor I echo the insightful points you shared. Your willingness to share about wanting to change and accessing a combination of counselling, medication and faith to heal are powerful witnesses to being open to all that is available and that there are multiple paths to healing, that are different for each person. So often people of faith turn to prayer and discount other options – but while prayer is always an answer, counselling and medications may also be an answer and a critical component of a treatment plan. Your honesty has the power to encourage and enlighten others to at least consider all options, and to generously and lovingly support all those who struggle with their health in any way. Thanks for your post.

    • Michelle Wuesthoff

      Wow! Thanks so much, Anne! I was in a Christian clinic myself, and their approach was to pull from all available tools to facilitate healing. Psychiatrists, counselors, nurses, a chaplain, and classes on the spiritual-biological connection were all made available to us. I am so incredibly grateful to have had that kind of help.

  6. Emily | To Unearth

    This is a beautiful testimony of how God can work through any situation! Thank you for sharing your story and also providing really great action points to help others!

    • Michelle Wuesthoff

      Thank you, Emily! I love action points!!! One of the very worst feelings for me is helplessness, and when I know there is something I can do, it gives me hope, direction, and that boost I need to keep going!

  7. Hannie

    Thank you! My english is not good enough to go into details about my feelings after reading this… But I really want to say that God is working so personal with me (with people) when I give the Holy Spirit permisson to lead me through all this stuff.

    I love you and I am gratefull that you share this.

    • Michelle Wuesthoff

      I’m grateful for you, too—and for the brave new places He’s taking you. xoxo

  8. Yvonne Morgan

    Much needed post to help them who are suffering in silence. Thanks for taking on such a difficult subject.

    • Michelle Wuesthoff

      It’s a privilege to share what God has done in my life, Yvonne! Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  9. Jessica Brodie

    I am SO GRATEFUL for your post and for the way you are sharing God’s transformation in your life, Michelle. God bless you! This helps me in so many ways.

    • Michelle Wuesthoff

      This is so wonderful to hear! I’m truly honored that you’ve read it and feel it is helpful to you and others! xoxo

  10. Peggy Bodde

    I’m so grateful for your brave honesty! I lived in trauma until I was 13, and never thought about how that would affect me as an adult. I spent a lot of years trying to prove I was “fine.” I love that you’re using your experience to help others – it’s a comfort to hear stories of struggle and victory over PTSD and everything that comes with it. Thank you for your practical and inspiring words! Such strength.

    • Michelle Wuesthoff

      Thank you so much, Peggy! I hope you have found healing yourself for what you’ve experienced. May God bless your journey with more freedom than you thought possible!

  11. Melinda Viergever Inman

    Michelle, there need to be more voices like yours out in the world. You’re authentic and transparent. You share the grit as well as the beauty, and you provide the tools to help others to get help. Praise God for this outcome in your life and for the hard work you did to get where you are! God empowered you, you dug in with grit and determination, the Holy Spirit enabled and transformed, and the result now shows in your life and the message you have for others. I’m so glad we met on Twitter, not that long ago, that I could read your testimony, and now that I can share your words with others.

    • Michelle Wuesthoff

      I’m truly humbled by your kind words, Melinda. It’s actually a privilege to share my story. When I first got home from my stay at the clinic, I had to decide whether I would essentially hide the fact that I went there, or just put it out there openly. I’m glad I chose the latter. I feel no shame at all anymore about my struggles or my treatment, and I pray that my story helps others to feel that same way about their own. I’m very glad we have connected also!

  12. Julie

    Thank you for sharing your story!

  13. Anneliese Dalaba

    I’ve never had to deal with mental illness issues personally or even depression. Sure, I’ve felt down before and have even had the occasional panic attack years ago, but basically, I’m a very optimistic and even-tempered person. However, I found your post helpful in understanding what many people in our culture face every day. Your advice is sound and very good. Thank you for teaching all of us. I’m so glad you are using your painful experience and ongoing battle to help others. God bless you.

    • Michelle Wuesthoff

      Thank you, Anneliese! I don’t exactly remember what the statistic is, but a surprisingly high percentage of our population (and that’s just those that report it) suffer with some kind of mental illness. Glad you gained some insight—if we don’t experience it ourselves, we certainly know someone else who does.

  14. Linda Samaritoni

    I definitely want to keep your list. Something to remember and to share with others if it seems appropriate.

    • Michelle Wuesthoff

      Thanks, Linda! So glad you found it helpful!

  15. Jody Davis

    Your blog is on point, encouraging and transparent. Thank you for you who are, for your friendship, and for being a part of my life and journey as well. I love you.

    • Michelle Wuesthoff

      Jody, your words mean a lot to me, thank you. And thank you for being one of those who walked me through my darkest days. I love you too!

How I Finally Overcame Mental Illness