“Abandon the idea that you will forever be the victim of the things that have happened to you. Choose to be the victor.” ~Seth Adam Smith
I come from a history of abuse and mental illness on both sides of my family. I felt the effects of both growing up. By my twenties, I was a mess.
I suffered from wild mood swings and severe depression, either lashing out or completely numb and disinterested. I was using alcohol to numb myself from reality, and it was only a matter of time before I’d end up in jail or dead.
I saw doctors, counselors, and therapists. I was diagnosed with two mental illnesses and tried medicine after medicine. Eventually, I was taking over ten pills a day, nothing was helping, and my doctor said he couldn’t do anything more for me.
That was when I hit rock bottom. I was shocked. My genes and terrible experiences had wrecked my entire life before I ever had the chance to really live it. It seemed that misery was all I would ever have.
Deep in a downward spiral of hopelessness, something in me cried out that this couldn’t be it. There had to be something more. I had to be able to change this.
I clung to that hope, and for ten years I searched for answers. I read everything I could get my hands on and took courses on anything that might help me. I tried things. I made mistakes. I worked hard to cope and to heal.
Today, my life isn’t perfect, but I’m stable and happy. I’m in a healthy relationship. I have purpose and direction in my life. I’m finally healthy. Here’s what helped me move forward on my healing journey.
1. Give up the victim mentality.
I realized that you can’t make changes when you’re stuck in blame or self-pity. And letting others give you answers will only limit you to their perspective and understanding.
Instead of looking for external guidance, I began listening to my own. I acknowledged my pains rather than avoiding them. I listened to what they were trying to tell me with the clear purpose of understanding myself better and learning what I needed to address and change.
I had to choose not to let others or my circumstances dictate my life, but to take control and choose for myself. I had to let go of denial and accept responsibility for my actions, thoughts, and beliefs. I could blame the doctor for not being able to “fix” me, or I could take control of my healing.
I had to learn that the only way to move forward is to recognize that I have the power to do it and then focus on the steps I need to take.
2. Accept that change is possible.
In my studies, I learned that neuroscience has proved something called brain plasticity—the brain’s ability to create new neuropaths, or ways of processing and responding to our experiences. We can literally alter our brain to form good habits and responses rather than be stuck with behaviors that are destructive.
I accepted that I can change and overcome whatever is holding me back, and I started trying to do it.
I created good memories and started new activities that nurtured my mind and soul. Then, I practiced holding onto those good feelings and memories, even when things were difficult and I was hurting.
I learned to be patient with myself as I made changes and sometimes failed to react or do as I should, because it takes time to build healthy patterns and behaviors and replace old, negative ones.
I explored my beliefs and my behaviors to determine what my issues were and what untrue ideals I was holding.
I explored my family history and stories to understand that the dysfunction was a cycle passed from one family to the next, and I determined to end it.
While my family chose to avoid talking about the past and ignore the damage done, I chose not to be afraid. I talked about and explored those things, not to rehash old pain but to validate those experiences, learn from them, and then let them go so I did not repeat them.
3. Practice self-care.
Healing starts with taking good care of ourselves.
I had to give up alcohol, coffee, late nights, places, people—anything I found that exacerbated my issues or was not helpful to maintaining the healthy habits I needed.
I got off of the meds gradually and started living healthy.*
I set healthy boundaries in my relationships.
I started using positive self-talk rather than allowing harsh, critical thoughts to dominate my mind. I started talking to myself like a best friend, giving encouragement and praise.
I listened to my emotions and I honored them. I practiced acceptance and self-validation.
I was starting a new life with new choices, and I had to commit myself.
I couldn’t only love myself when I was happy; I had to love myself when I made a mistake or felt pain. I couldn’t stop nurturing my body with healthy foods. I couldn’t stop cultivating personal development and practicing what I learned. I realized that stopping those things would bring back the depression and instability I was fighting to overcome.
4. Live with intention.
I realized that I couldn’t allow myself to go through life simply reacting to everything that happened to me. I needed to think and plan ahead, and learn coping skills so that when something went wrong, I could work through it rather than be debilitated by it.
I researched and learned cognitive therapies, one of them Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, to help me remain calm in difficult situations and react responsibly, every success strengthening my resilience.
I became organized, scheduling and planning my priorities so that my needs weren’t an afterthought. I set healthy, realistic goals for work and personal development and strove for them knowing that consistency is the key.
When we react to life, we’re victims of circumstance. When we set intentions and then strive to meet them, we’re consciously choosing how we want to experience the world.
I now ask myself questions like, “Who do I want to be? What do I want to achieve? What is working? What do I need?” My healing began with an intention to change the broken cycle of my life, and I live every day determined to fulfill that.
5. Let go of labels.
Depressed, a criminal, a rape victim, broken, suicidal, loose, an alcoholic, mentally ill—whatever the label, that is not who you or I am. I realized that I am not defined by my issues, my mistakes, or anything else someone wants to call me or use to describe me. I am more than those things, and they do not define who I am and who I will be.
If I let them dominate my thoughts, then I will make my decisions based on those things, and it will become my reality.
When I look in the mirror, I choose to see someone worthy of love and happiness. I accept that she may have been denied that in the past, and I make it my mission to make sure she gets it.
The more I practiced these things, the more stable I became. I was able to accept and let go of the bad experiences I’d had and the mistakes I had made. I made myself a new person— someone I like, someone who is happy.
Ten years have passed since I started my healing journey, and I sometimes think that if I had waited longer, I wouldn’t have the new life I have now. I wouldn’t have healing. I wouldn’t be learning new things. I could be in a bad place or a bad relationship, or maybe I would have given up on myself entirely.
Maybe you are struggling with illness like I was. Maybe you’ve experienced trauma or heartache and feel damaged, that your life will never be normal or happy the way it should be.
I wanted to overcome a long cycle of illness and tragedy in my family. I chose life and healing, and I have that future for myself and my own someday family. You can too. Start today to change the story of your life.
*Editor’s note: If you are currently on medication, it may or may not be wise for you to consider going off them. Everyone is different. Please consult your doctor before making any decisions about your treatment plan.
Vanessa shares everything that helped her reach emotional balance and teaches Dialectical Behavior Therapy, EFT, Mindfulness, and more at bossofmyfeelings.com. Grab a sample chapter of her book, Boss of My Feelings, and check out her program, Emotional Resilience Road Map, which teaches life skills for those suffering depression, bi-polar, and borderline disorders.