Today I have the privilege of sharing Stef’s mental illness journey. What I find interesting about her story is the melting pot of diagnoses she has received through the years.
Although Stef has never received a definitive diagnosis, she has managed to piece together a treatment plan that helps her maintain a good quality of life.
I think it is important to share Stef’s story because I believe there are many people struggling with mental illness who never receive a definitive diagnosis because the symptoms overlap in so many disorders.
I thought it would be helpful for others to see that there is hope even when your diagnosis is fragmented. It is still possible to find a treatment plan tailored to your needs, so you can live a full life.
So, without further ado, here is Stef’s story.
Hi, my name is Stef, and I am an author and educator from Edmonton, Alberta Canada. I have written two books. One is poetry and the other is a self-awareness reflection journey about reaching a year of sobriety.
I work for a post-secondary institution in the department of counseling and mental health. Working in this department and making friends with psychologists has helped me understand mental health and mental illness so much better. Part of my role is to decrease the stigma and encourage others to seek help.
When I am not working, you will find me writing on my blog and sharing my life with my pets.
My story really starts when I was a child and experienced bullying and childhood trauma. I was bullied in elementary school. Friends were hard, school was hard, and life at home was no better. My parents argued all the time.
A few years ago, I took a course on abuse and bullying through my job. People who experience bullying and trauma, like me, might put them out of their mind thinking, “Oh, that was then,” but it really changes you fundamentally. It changes who you are, how you cope and your relationship with your body.
When I was 14, I started feeling different. My doctor told my dad I had mononucleosis, and that I needed more physical activity. My family thought I needed structure and discipline. I dealt with depression and anxiety for years, not knowing I had a legitimate mental illness.
For me, everything in my life is tied to sleep. If I miss three days of sleep, it throws off my routine, my anxiety shoots up, and I feel so stressed that I can’t think of simple strategies to complete tasks.
Depression starts with sleeping too much and sleeping in. I’ll miss the morning bus to work. I’ll get home from work and sleep until 8 p.m., take care of the pets and then go back to bed. I’ll even start sleeping during my breaks at work.
I become forgetful, and I’ll stop taking my medication or I’ll lose track of the days of the week. Then I begin insulting myself mentally, using what I call my depression voice. That voice tells me: “You’re such an idiot. You can’t do anything right. Why aren’t you happy with your life?”
I can’t even get the most basic tasks done because I can’t start. Decisions such as what chores to do or what to eat become impossible. I can’t focus on reading, and even routine to-do list items like making appointments require all my energy.
Seeking Professional Help
Five years ago, I was unmedicated and fell into a depressive state. I was sleeping too much, and my sleep was filled with nightmares. I sought help through my employer’s Employee Assistance Plan through e-counseling.
I wrote to a counselor, and she would write back. This really helped me put a lot of issues into perspective and gain the language I needed to feel in control. The counselor coaxed me to get a family doctor.
I found a new family doctor and right away she discerned I was having mental health issues. She asked if I had been having suicidal thoughts, and because I said yes, she quickly got me an emergency appointment with a psychiatrist. It was then that I was diagnosed with depression and borderline personality disorder.
Years later, when I consulted with another psychiatrist, I was also diagnosed with ADHD.
A Melting Pot of Diagnoses
In addition to depression, borderline personality disorder and ADHD, through the years, I have also been diagnosed with a mild reading learning disability, Other Specified Anxiety Disorder, PTSD and bipolar disorder.
I can understand their difficulty in finding a definitive diagnosis for me because I always “got by.” I was never fully manic, I was never a bother in the classroom and I was never hospitalized for mental health reasons. Without a map, they tried to fit the pieces of my past together, and I told a different part of my story to each person, depending on who they were, how well I knew them or whether I was actively depressed.
Stef’s Treatment Protocol
Because I have received a handful of diagnoses through the years, I have taken upon myself to research treatments. My psychiatrist explained to me that ADHD, bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder all have similar symptoms, and they also have similar treatments: medication, a sleep routine, a morning routine, healthy food and regular exercise and meditation. When I tried all these things at once, I failed spectacularly, but when I add them in a little at a time, I can keep my symptoms at bay. Although I am not on medication at the moment, using Omega-3, Vitamin D, B12 and Magnesium supplements help me manage the symptoms of ADHD and depression.
I was referred to some outpatient groups for borderline personality disorder that helped me tremendously. I learned about emotional hygiene, self-care, calming techniques and dialectical behavior therapy.
Stef’s Life Today
I have been depression free for two years and alcohol free for a year and a half. Most days I feel like a 7 out of 10. I am happy and optimistic, and I recognize my own thoughts more and live more in the present.
I still experience stress and anxiety, but long walks with my dog and taking photographs help me get through those difficult moments.
I understand that it’s nothing to be afraid of or sad about or stressed over. Those moments will come and go like clouds. It’s less about me trying to figure out where these mental states originate and more about living through them using my distress tolerance skills.
Mental wellness is about building yourself a toolbox to help cope when things get tough.
Stef’s story is a reminder that mental illness is not one size fits all, and often there are no simple answers. She reminds us that even when our list of diagnoses is high and the answers are low, there is still hope.
Even if you never receive a definitive diagnosis, you can still take ownership of your mental illness. You are an expert on yourself, so be your own advocate, and—with the help of trained professionals—formulate a treatment plan that fits your needs.
The book Mind Over Mood by Dennis Greenberger is a valuable resource about cognitive behavioral therapy.
Mindful15 has a free how-to meditate course and short guided sessions.
The WoeBot app “helps people cope with life’s challenges by using brief conversations to ask people how they’re feeling and what is going on in their lives, then delivers useful tools that are right for the mood and the moment.”
Psychology Today’s website can help you find local registered psychologists, many who operate on a sliding scale, and you can also learn more about different kinds of therapies.
Stef also has a Facebook Group called Positive Power where she collects and shares articles on the pillars of resilience: self-care, mindfulness, awareness, relationships, and targeted purpose.
Click here to get your copy of Stef’s book, Forest Talks.