Three Things I Learned by Fighting Mental Illness


Emily is a member of the Active Minds Student Advisory Committee and a chapter leader at the University of Pittsburgh. Learn more about the Student Advisory Committee

emilyThree and a half years ago, I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder and a not-otherwise-specified mood disorder. While that sounds scary, it was actually great – my diagnosis helped me to realize that the ruminating thoughts I experienced daily and lack of short-term memory were caused by a disease, when before, I didn’t understand where they were coming from. And as I learned what it meant to live with this diagnosis on a daily basis, I learned a lot of really valuable lessons on the way.

However, I want to be very clear in stating that I am in no way trying to glorify mental illness. If a fairy came to me and told me they could take away my mental illnesses with a swish of their wand, I would jump almost immediately. But, to the best of my knowledge, fairies don’t exist. Mental illnesses still do, and the people that experience these diseases have to learn how to cope with them. This is a big challenge, but it can be overcome and one can learn a lot from it. As I said earlier, I did.

So, here are three things I learned by fighting against mental illness. This is not an exhaustive list, and it could be different for each person and their experience with mental illness. My goal in sharing this list is to show anyone who reads this that an experience with mental illness doesn’t have to be limiting and that people can and do get better and stronger.

1. A. A. Milne was right: “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”

While you might not know who A.A. Milne is right off the top of your head, you most likely do know one of his most beloved characters – Winnie the Pooh. Milne gave this quote to Pooh’s very best friend, Christopher Robin, and Christopher Robin said it to inspire Pooh and tell him that he would be okay even without Christopher Robin. By doing this, Christopher Robin inspired Pooh to be resilient – to adapt to and overcome adverse life situations.

As I think back to my darkest days with my illnesses, when recovery seemed to be an impossible task and everything was hopeless, I realize that in that time, I learned how to be resilient. I didn’t know what was going to happen next, but I endured it and learned that good and bad times will come and go but that each can be overcome. Now, I apply this skill to all sorts of unpleasant situations – like approaching deadlines for difficult projects or being really busy at work. It helps me remain mindful and know that I can and will make it through whatever difficulty I might meet.

2. Hugs are AwesomeHUGS

Without getting too much into science, because I don’t study that, hugs are capable of boosting serotonin levels in the brain, which is great for helping people cope with things like depression. On a personal note, I remember many a night sitting up, wishing that someone could give me a bear hug – for a while, that was one of my biggest wishes. Just a bear hug (by the way, I still really like bear hugs a lot).

Now, I’ve learned from the experience I had that whether people verbalize it or not, we all like bear hugs. So when I’m listening to a friend, or someone I know is struggling with something, I ask them if they would like a hug. To date, I don’t remember anyone ever telling me no, and that’s because hugs are awesome. (Side note: You should always ask someone if they want a hug and if they say no, respect their space. It doesn’t mean they don’t like you or your hugs. They just don’t want one right now). Little serotonin boosts don’t solve mental illnesses, but they help make living with them easier.

3. Success is relative

One of my favorite authors is G.K. Chesterton. He’s got a great essay titled “The Fallacy of Success” in a collection of essays called All Things Considered, and a great quote from the great essay is as follows (emphasis added):

“On every bookstall, in every magazine, you may find works telling people how to succeed. They are books showing men how to succeed in everything; they are written by men who cannot even succeed in writing books. To begin with, of course, there is no such thing as Success. Or, if you like to put it so, there is nothing that is not successful. That a thing is successful merely means that it is; a millionaire is successful in being a millionaire and a donkey in being a donkey…It is perfectly obvious that in any decent occupation (such as bricklaying or writing books) there are only two ways (in any special sense) of succeeding. One is by doing very good work, the other is by cheating. Both are much too simple to require any literary explanation. If you are in for the high jump, either jump higher than anyone else, or manage somehow to pretend that you have done so.”

Chesterton, in the above quote, is saying that success comes from simply doing what you are meant to do – “success” doesn’t have to mean that you accomplished something lofty and grandiose. While it can, we can also take pride in the little things we accomplish each day. So, if you struggle getting to class on time, and you make it to class on time one day, you were successful – you did what you were meant to do. That’s something to be celebrated! You don’t have to win a Nobel Prize or be elected President of the United States. You just have to be yourself.

That I am successful by being myself is a really difficult lesson I’m still working on learning, but I’ve definitely gotten better at recognizing my own personal successes and their value in that they are what I was meant to achieve. Like the time I got a B in Calculus in high school – I worked really hard for that B and earned it, and I was (and should’ve been) proud of myself even though my friends got A’s. We all achieved what we were supposed to, and we were all successful.


Overall, while I would’ve much rather learned these lessons without having to contend with a mental illness, I’m glad that I was able to learn them and can use them in my life now. They really have helped me grow as a person and cope during the trials of daily life, as well as with the daily consequences of having mental illness.