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5 Years - It Gets Better

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Hello everyone! It's my first time posting here, something I never anticipated doing. But I've written something that I wanted to share with all of you. It's a bit of a longer read because I wanted to mark my 5-year 'anniversary' with something that truly reflects my experiences. I've crafted it in a way that I hope can also be helpful to you, with tips on how I transitioned from merely 'surviving' to truly 'living' over the last five years of grappling with illness. Hope you find it worthwhile!


I didn't anticipate wanting to mark the passage of these five years. If someone had told me not so long ago that I'd be commemorating the half-decade anniversary of my mental health struggles, it wouldn't have made sense to me at all. As the fifth year of my illness approaches, I find myself not in mourning, but in a peculiar state of celebration—a celebration of survival, of life, of knowledge gained. As such, in this passage I don't offer lament, but rather an acknowledgement and celebration of the tumultuous journey of the last five years.

Five years ago, I awoke to an unwelcome reality. Despite the anticipation of a budding relationship, an exciting trip to India, and the joy of my university, I found myself, from one moment to the other, dropping out of university, retreating to my parent's home, engulfed in tears, for I had become sick. Days turned into weeks, weeks into months, as my reality became increasingly alien to me, nervous breakdowns, anxiety and depression, relentless and unyielding, became the backdrop to my existence. I waited, day after day, yearning for my promised reality to return. The symphony of life, once harmonious, now played dissonant notes. I was drowning in the depths of my shattered mental health.

As terrible as this all sounds, throughout these first months, I also sat in the sun, listened to music, danced with friends and embraced my partner. I re-discovered the senses that I had not lost, and I held onto them. I experienced gratitude for the things I still had; the joy of friends, the warmth of family, and the simple joys akin to a stroll in the park.

The beginning of my illness was also marked with finding out how I could deal with my newfound reality, and hopefully encourage recovery. As such, many sources, such as this forum, doctors, friends, or family, tried to give me advice on how to 'get better': I remember receiving a document, a guide on how to live with my illness, listing a very long list of things to incorporate in my life towards healing. I incorporated the recommended yoga, the daily meditations, and the weekly sports. The document also contained a long list of things 'not to do'. So, in the beginning, I spent a long time 'not doing': not drinking, not eating the wrong things, not stimulating my mind, in any way or form, whether through prolonged working hours, consuming coffee, or looking at a screen for too long. Finally, on this list, stood a cocktail of pills advised to ease the pain and an extensive list of supplements to encourage speedy recovery.

Admittedly, these tips and tricks served as a useful tool to encourage a healthy mind, but I was rushed to use all methods possible to alleviate the dread of my existence. I, however, needed time to craft my very own metaphorical toolbox—a repository of lessons learned and adaptations made. My toolbox is imaginary, and today it lives inside of me, allowing me to enjoy the pleasures of everyday life. My little toolbox is, in a sense, a combination of everything I have actively learned in the last few years, and how my body has adapted to the changing nature of my reality. This is what my toolbox is filled with today: forgetting the name of the condition, learning my limits, ingraining healthy routines, trusting my brain to adapt, letting go, travelling and celebrating every achievement. I described all of these in more detail hereunder:

For starters, I one day decided, to stop naming the condition. This changed the way I could talk about it to people, remove the taboos surrounding it, and simply place my focus on how I perceive the world. I perceive light and my reality differently from other people, for better or for worse, because even though the world is not made for people with my perception, I make it work.

Secondly, I learned my limits and began fostering a life that respects those boundaries. For example, I know that certain spaces make me uncomfortable, I know that partying beyond a certain point requires me to go home, I know to leave spaces when they are inconveniencing me, I know to take a rest day when I need it, I know to remind myself that everything is going to be okay, I know to go to the gym a couple of times a week to stay active and healthy, I know to breathe when I am overwhelmed, I know to look away when something feels off, I know how to live comfortably and respect what I can and can not do anymore.

This brings me to my third point, which is that I practice self-care. Getting sick forced me to rethink the way I ate, slept, and lived. Ever since I fell ill, I have ingrained some habits in my daily life that I could only recommend. Admittedly, I do not practice daily yoga and meditation anymore, although the coping mechanisms I have learned from this and still carry into my everyday life. I do, however, practice sports every day. I do eat healthy (to the best of my abilities), and I do take it slow when I feel like I can. Furthermore, I have done therapy and a lot of it. I attempted CBT four years back, which honestly did not work for me. Thereafter, I found a therapist who just allowed me to vent about my situation. For the first two years, I met up with her every week and just let go of everything I was feeling - this was a godsend. Nowadays, we meet way less often and usually spend most days talking about my personal feelings related to work, friends and relations - a testament to my improved mental health. Finally, I also did EMDR therapy, to remove any traumas associated with the condition or any traumas that could have caused it. This immensely helped me neutralise the threat of my condition. I began seeing my illness not as something dangerous, malicious or insidious, but simply as something that 'exists'.

The next element in my tool book: my brain adapted. Today, I unconsciously navigate my reality in a vastly different manner than I used to before I got ill. It is hard to describe, but I blink without realising it to avoid certain disturbances, I stopped noticing the bright lights in the morning when I wake up, I (most often) started looking past the persistent colours in my vision, and I stopped yearning for a cure or good health every passing moment. I appreciate how much my brain makes an active effort to create comfort for me without having to take medication. Admittedly, this took a long time, but nothing could have prepared me for the power of my brain to be so adaptive to the changes in my perceptions. Despite having to personally put much effort into it, I realise that so much of the work is now being done unconsciously.

Next, I do what I want to do. This is a shift that took place about 3 years into my bad health. For so long, I had lived so strictly in my routine, that one day I said: fuck it. I wanted to drink with my friends, so I began testing my ability to do so without hindering my mental health, and I did so, without beating myself up. I wanted to eat sweets, so I did. I wanted to drink a nice warm cappuccino, so I did. I wanted to party all night, so I did. I wanted to be crazy and young and feel like a person of my age, so I did all of those exact things, and it has been amazing to let go, in a healthy and controlled way, in a way in which I first test my limits, and explore were they lie, and what feels good for me. The freedom to be young and reckless, a privilege denied for so long, has become a cathartic release, a celebration of my life's fleeting moments.

Throughout the last few years, I have also travelled. Although I know this is not a possibility for everyone, for I know what I have been able to do has been a huge privilege, the act of travelling helped me re-shift my perspective and enjoy life to the fullest. It was not always easy, but my goal was to, despite the ongoing battle with my mental health, live a life that defies limitations. As such, I learned to speak Spanish by travelling across Latin America, visiting the peaks of Patagonia, the golden coast of Brazil, the warm cultures of Colombia and the colours of Mexico, and making friends along the way. I visited old friends in the United States, reconnecting with people I knew before my health began to tarnish. I continued travelling all over Europe, visiting all the countries and cities in which friends of mine lived. I made it to Everest Base Camp after a harsh 14-day hike in the middle of winter. Finally, and maybe most importantly, I travelled in a van to the Arctic Circle across the fjords of Norway, where I discovered a world where it was always daylight. My condition affects me most at night, under dark lights, so, the midnight summer sun of Norway was a blessing. As such, going to Norway was a pivotable moment in my healing journey, for I spent an entire month not thinking (not as much as I usually would), about my disturbed reality, and I came back home rejuvenated, for I now knew that there was time and place in this world, in which I felt safe.

Moreover, I celebrate the things I have accomplished despite all of the adversity I have faced. When I first got ill I thought I would have to live an isolated life, and that I would have to bid farewell to work and ambition. Despite this, I completed my undergraduate degree with distinctions. I also worked, for two different firms in the Netherlands, that contribute to causes that I believe in on a greater societal scale. I lived in many different countries, the Netherlands, where I worked on finishing my studies; Belgium, where I began my Master's Degree in Urban Studies and met many wonderful people; Vienna, where I continued my studies, learned German and met my current partner.

This brings me to my final tool, gratitude, which I firmly believe is the pillar to create your antidote for unhappiness. Although I am grateful for many things, I will keep this list short. First, I am grateful for the partner I have and have had. Partnerships are thread woven through my turbulent narrative and in five years, I had two. One who stood by me through the initial descent into sickness, offering unwavering support for over three years until we said goodbye. Another, a pillar of strength in my current daily life, supporting me in every endeavour. I am forever grateful for the support I have received from my partners over the last few years, I would have never made it this far without them.

I am also grateful for my family, who have had to carry to real burden of having someone fall so ill in their family. I am aware of the emotional stress this puts on close ones. Since the beginning, I have received the support and sympathy that I needed from them. I am thus, truly grateful for my family.

Finally, I am grateful for my very own brain. When I first got ill I hated my brain for deceiving me, for disappointing me, for not working as other brains do. Today, I try to give my brain the benefit of the doubt. I realise my brain is doing its very best, and I support it and thank it for trying. This might sound a bit stupid, but I found that just thanking my brain and body, for doing their best, and for continuing every day, has offered me quite some release from the internalised self-hatred this condition initially invoked in me. My brain is in no way perfect, but I love my brain, it's trying so, so hard.

Everything I have shared here constitutes the toolbox which makes up how I have survived the last few years and continue to survive today. Today, I am doing my Master's degree back in the Netherlands where it all started. Here, I enjoy the routines of my daily, the friends around me, and the long future ahead of me. I have to admit, it is not always easy, and sometimes I daydream of a life free of the miseries of my illness. For sometimes I do feel, just so exhausted from living this way. Nevertheless, it feels to me like in the last five years, I learned to walk again. It took a long fucking time, and my journey is far from over, but today, I take a moment to reflect and celebrate everything I have learned and accomplished so far, and what I believe I will continue learning and accomplishing in the following years. It is also a moment to pass on what I have learned to the people reading this post, for I hope it can serve as a glimmer of hope to everyone who is struggling with this, or any related mental illness.

If I could say anything to my 19-year-old self today, or maybe someone reading this post, it would be: do not underestimate yourself. You will discover how to survive all of this according to your means. You are so much more capable in the face of adversity than you think, all you need is a little time and trust in yourself.

So here is to my Lustrum, five years, a day where I celebrate myself, and celebrate the continuation of living a life worth living.

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