On Mental Illness and Gratitude

One of my friends in the OCD advocacy world, Ethan Smith, wrote a Thanksgiving blog post a few weeks back on the IOCDF blog site. In his post he discusses the topic of gratitude in relations to OCD and healing.

He wrote: “when your mental illness has a tight hold on you, it’s so hard to see what you should be grateful for. But when your mental illness has brought you to the darkest depths, and you claw your way back…everyday is Thanksgiving. Every day you’re grateful for so many things.”

This is exactly how I feel, everyday I am so filled with gratitude and love for life. In a way I am thankful for my mental health struggles, because through them I found gratefulness, which has given me a completely new outlook on life and filled it with meaning and purpose.

I am not saying I don’t frequently hold a good ol’ pity party for myself where the entertainment includes a great playlist of questions like: “why me?”, “why on earth did I have to have an illness that is so friggin weird and terrifying?”, “why do things that seem so easy for other feel like climbing Mount Everest to me?”.

Of course there is nothing wrong with experiencing feelings of grief and sorrow. Mourning the loss of opportunities lost to the sickness, and the long-term damage to oneself and one’s identity is something that I find to be quite a normal response when dealing with a serious chronic illness.

However, the party can go on forever if I keep the playlist going strong, so I make sure than when the pity festivities have gone on for too long that I switch over to my gratitude playlist.

I cannot stress enough how much practicing gratitude has changed my life for the better. In my journey with my mental illness, it was when I started practicing gratitude that my outlook truly changed and true healing could begin.

When I ended up at Timberline Knolls, which became my final treatment center before returning to the real world, I was exhausted and feeling ever so hopeless. For months I had been bounced around from treatment provider to treatment provider with no one able to offer me adequate treatment. I was angry at the universe for the cards I had been dealt, bitter towards the multiple providers that I felt like had fed me false hope only to give up on me and in general unhappy to have even been born. I was miles away from feeling grateful for anything at all.

At TK, from the moment you woke up to the time you fell asleep, they would ask you multiple times a day to name something you were grateful for. During groups as well as at mealtimes they would force you to name something you were grateful for, never taking “nothing” for an answer. Some days the only thing I could be grateful for was sleep, the few hours in which I could take a break from the terror that was my life at the time. Other days I was grateful for the amazing women that were on this journey with me, the staff that was there to look out for me at every turn, and the campus so filled with natural beauty.

At first stating what I was grateful for seemed so forced, I would utter the words not completely believing what I was saying. All day long I had to desperately search for new and new things to say as everyone, all day long, at every mealtime and in almost every group, would tell you to “say one thing you are grateful for.” You know what they say though, “fake it til you make it.” In a few weeks time my brain had become so conditioned to look for gratitude in even the smallest things, and I was no longer just saying I was grateful for this and that, but actually feeling it too.

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t just through being grateful that I found healing. It took blood, sweat and tears to get to a place of just functioning again. It was the hardest work I have ever had to do, and continue to have to do. However, gratitude helped me see my blessings, and the beauty surrounding me even on my worst days. It gave me the fuel to keep going, as it helped me see all the wonderful things that are worth fighting for.

After I came back to my normal live a little over two years ago, I have tried to make sure I always practice gratitude. I have come to learn that gratitude is not just something that you are born with, but rather a skill you have to hone every single day. Today even on my absolute worst days I am filled with gratitude. I am grateful that even when times are rough, I am still here and able to continue to grow and learn from the challenges that I am faced with.

When I am having a truly difficult time, when I am feeling sad or empty, I always sit down and make a gratitude list. It helps me to put the words down on paper, so I can read it over and bask in my blessings. My goal for next year is to be even more active in practicing gratitude.

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