Nothing Comes Before My Mental Health: 5 Lessons I Learned After Treatment

In May of 2018, Amelia spoke with MR’s own Crystal Anderson about her personal mental health journey. In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, we’re re-sharing it today as a reminder that none of us are alone or unworthy of connection and healing.

MR’s Operations Manager Crystal Anderson recently posted a photo on her Instagram from April 2015, a few days after she graduated from an outpatient program, which she completed after spending a month at an inpatient mental health facility.

This picture was taken in April of 2015, a few days after I graduated from an out patient program that I had to complete after being in an inpatient mental health facility for a month. I’ve amassed quite a few new Instagram cousins over the last few months and as important as it is for me to share my style and jokey jokes, it’s as important to be clear that I am a flawed but wonderfully made human. I live with OCD and anxiety every single day, but there is no room for shame. I’v learned that my fight was not mine alone, so know that if you haven’t found the courage to tell your truth, I stand in the gap for you. Life isn’t easy, being a black gay woman isn’t easy, being a human isn’t easy, but it gets better. Today, Check on yourself. Make sure that you’re moving in a way that is healthy for you and that you are okay. If you’re not okay, check in tomorrow and everyday after that, until the light peeks in through the darkness. And then once you’ve done that, call somebody that you love and see how you can be in service to their needs. (If you want to read the long ass story of my journey at the facility, link is in bio). .Always here…xo CA

A post shared by Crystal Anderson (@beerbottles_chainsaws) on

She later told me she wanted to share her story for those who may not have seen themselves in the stories so far told. “People are waiting for their stories to come up,” she said when we sat down to talk about hers. Read more about her experience below, followed by five things she wishes she’d known before and after seeking treatment. — Amelia

I was always a pretty nervous kid. It’s just who I’ve always been, who I am. I remember being super young — eight years old maybe — and seeing a police officer at this restaurant. He had a gun. And in that moment, I was convinced he was gonna kill everybody in the restaurant. I started hyperventilating, had to go to the hospital. I still have very vivid memories of those kinds of experiences.

In middle school or high school, I developed small, OCD-type rituals, like counting steps and doing mundane tasks multiples times. I also had these irrational fears of like, squirrels, or my mom dying if I didn’t cough in math class at 2 p.m. I didn’t realize it was a mental health disorder. I just thought it was a part of my day-to-day. I knew that other kids didn’t deal with it, and I can remember being in high school and wanting nothing more than to be like this girl who was on the cheerleading team with me. It seemed like she lived a life of being very present, in the moment, and unaware of the things I was hyper-aware of. I was jealous of all those kids who did normal kid shit, like go to dances without having to think about things like, “Okay, I’m at the dance. What’s gonna happen if the floor collapses?”

Day to day, I coped the best I could. In college, it started to get a little bit more difficult because there was more going out involved, more drinking. The worst thing I could think of was being in a nightclub with only one exit. (Still is.) I’d have to drink copious amounts of alcohol just so I could get drunk enough to have a good time. Or just not think about all that stuff.

I didn’t want to feel any more different than I already felt: you know, biracial kid, coming to terms with my sexuality, all these other things I was dealing with. Last thing I wanted to say is, “Hey guys, I’m scared to go to the club with you.”

It was college; I didn’t want to feel any more different than I already felt: you know, biracial kid, coming to terms with my sexuality, all these other things I was dealing with. Last thing I wanted to say is, “Hey guys, I’m scared to go to the club with you.” You know what I mean? So that was tough. But it still wasn’t a struggle in the way it later became.

I wasn’t on medication yet. It didn’t occur to me that I needed to take medication. After college, after graduation, I moved to New York and went through a long chunk of time where I was okay — as okay as I’ve ever been. I was living in New York, I was modeling, I was traveling, I was doing all these fun things. I was fine for probably five years, until I got fired from a job — a layoff sort of thing, and for the first time since I was 21, I didn’t have anywhere to go every day. I didn’t have anything to do.

Then those thoughts started to come. First it was fine, and then it was like a ground swell. Everything converged. The anxiety and the depression and the OCD met for a party. It took about three months before I sought help. It wasn’t until I started to have really dark, irrational thoughts that scared me in a major way — that I decided to get professional help and check myself into the hospital for inpatient treatment.

I was there for a month. When I left, I went into outpatient, where I spent a quarter of my day. Being able to be in a very controlled environment, to let the prescribed medicine do what it needed to do and talk to professionals about what I was going through, gave me a lot of relief. I had no shame in being there, but I knew that I didn’t want to come back.

It definitely wasn’t like I was suddenly better, but after six weeks, I was in a good place. I was taking my medication, seeing a therapist every week, thinking about going back to work; I was happy, I was having sex again. When our friends would come over, I’d hang out in the living room instead of closing the bedroom door. I felt more like myself than I had in probably a solid year. It’s now been three years since I finished outpatient treatment.

What I want people to take away from my story is that I’m not unique. I’m not unique, I’m not superhuman, I’m not stronger than any other person, or woman specifically, who deals with these things. I’ve just dealt with them enough to know what works for me, specifically. Below are the five things I wish I knew sooner — before, during and even after I sought treatment.

1. Taking medicine is okay if you need it.

For so long I resisted medication as a form of relief because I thought it validated a truth that I couldn’t handle things on my own.

As soon as I checked in to the hospital, I started taking medication, and I started to feel better, but even then, there were certain medications I did not want to take. It wasn’t until my partner at the time, who was a breast cancer survivor, was like, “Dude, I had my boob removed because I was sick. That’s what you do. People who have the flu take medicine. You’re sick and that’s okay.”

That was the first time I realized having a mental health disorder is no different from any other physical sickness. It’s a chemical imbalance. Once I took medicine and felt different, I was like, this just makes sense.

People can heal or cope with their mental health disorders in alternative ways — and I believe in exploring all of your options with a professional. Because of the nature of my mental illnesses, taking medicine to feel better is my reality. (I don’t like using the term “mental illnesses” to describe my personal mental health struggles, by the way, but because it’s used so commonly within this territory, it’s the easiest way to label what I experience.)

I might have to take medicine for the rest of my life, but if that’s going to make me feel better, than that’s going to be my choice.

I might have to take medicine for the rest of my life, but if that’s going to make me feel better, than that’s going to be my choice. No, I can’t go out and have five cocktails with my girlfriends because it may counteract the medicine. And it’s okay that I can’t. Taking medication is not an admission of failure, not an admission that I couldn’t fix something — that doesn’t have to be the narrative. That’s not my narrative anymore because that’s what I need to lead a happy and healthy life.

2. It’s okay to cut off people who are a threat to my mental stability.

This might be one of the hardest things that I do. It is a constant effort. It’s not easy to say, “Hey, I can’t talk to you. I can’t have you in my life because you are a threat to my mental health.” It can feel selfish, but that is a part of the road to recovery for me: saying no. I have to be resolute and steadfast and not let someone project their guilt onto me to change my mind.

I said yes for a long time to things that put me in anxiety-provoking situations, or yes to things on days when I was depressed, or yes to people who I know aren’t healthy for me to be around, and I always left feeling shitty. And I finally realized, this is unfair. I don’t have to say yes because it makes other people feel comfortable when I know, for me, that it’s not the smartest decision to make.

If someone can’t go out because they have strep throat, no one’s gonna be like, “Just come to the bar anyway! You’ll be fine.” But if you say “Hey, I’m feeling really depressed today,” people will be like, “You just need to get out and go dancing!” No. I am sick. It’s a chronic illness, and I now know what I need to do to mitigate things that will make it worse. That’s the uniqueness of this disease: it can feel like you’re powerless, but there are things you can do proactively to make yourself feel better or stronger, and that is where saying no comes in for me.

People think that being selfish makes you an asshole, or a bitch — especially with women. But the best thing I do for myself on a daily basis is tell someone no, or say no to something. I said yes for so long — and that’s to everyone: mom, family, partner, colleague. Now, if I have to say no, I find a lovely, nuanced way to say it so it doesn’t feel like I’m being a jerk. But I’m past the point of feeling like I need to be careful about people’s feelings when it comes to things like that because it’s for my mental health.

There is nothing and no one that comes before me being my best self now. Absolutely nothing, not family, relationships, money, friends. Nothing. I have become my own advocate. I have to advocate for all things that make sense for me, and all things that are healthy for me.

3. Asking for help doesn’t make you weak.

You do not have to suffer in silence. That’s what I did for so long — I suffered in silence, and in rooms full of people, like my parents and my partner and my friends. There were people around me but I didn’t want to burden them with my issues. My partner had breast cancer, and when she had a mastectomy, I had to fix her pump for her, drain the fluid, really hard stuff, and even still, I was like, “Hmm, don’t want to burden her with this.”

But eventually she was like, “Cut it out, okay?” She was a really big reason that I came to the conclusion that asking for help does not make you weak. It just means you need help. Maybe that means you tell one person, maybe that means you go to a cognitive behavior therapist, or a psychiatrist, or maybe that means you need to check yourself into a mental facility. It means different things for different people. [Ed note: please consult a professional.]

Personal help wasn’t enough. I had to be naked in the moment and say, “I can’t do that by myself.”

That day in February when I went to the hospital, I needed help. Personal help wasn’t enough. I had to be naked in the moment and say, “I can’t do that by myself.” It was a tough realization, but once I got there, it was freeing. Help is a good thing.

4. It’s okay to talk about your mental health struggles, even if it makes your friends/family uncomfortable.

I’ve had to have some really tough conversations with people about my mental health struggles. It’s not easy. But having these conversations has been as important as taking medication to me.

My family and friends aren’t mind-readers. I need the people in my life to know about my mental health struggles so that they know what can be triggering for me, so that they understand why I may have to say no to something, or step away from something, or why I may not be able to support them through something traumatic that they’re dealing with. And this is very different from telling my truth, which is how I feel about my mental illness. This is telling someone about my mental illness.

For example: I have OCD. With OCD, these are the things that happen. When someone uses “OCD” in a casual manner (i.e. “I’m so OCD because I clean out my junk drawer every Tuesday”), it’s triggering, because that’s not what it is. I’m telling you so that if this comes up in the future, and I call you out on it, you can’t say, ‘“I didn’t know.” I’ve equipped you with everything, and you’ve just chosen not to do the work. That’s not on me. When I have to resort back to my other rule — “I need to cut you out of my life,” this is why.

I had to learn to be comfortable having these tough conversations not just with supportive friends and family members, but with those people who don’t get it, too. That is the real path to visibility for these completely invisible diseases. Having a mental illness is not like having your arm in a sling — where everyone gets it immediately. And for me, it was very simple: They had to know. It was just like coming out. They had to know.

Sometimes people don’t want to know. How they internalize and unpack the information I give is none of my business, but it’s less about making them comfortable or making the information go down easy; what’s most important is that I equip the people in my life with the necessary tools, and tell them everything they need to know so that if they choose not to deal with the the hard truths, that’s on them.

5. I wish I knew that even after being in an inpatient facility, seeing a therapist regularly and taking my medication daily, I was still going to have some really shitty days from time to time.

I assumed I’d done all the work. For two or three months after I left the hospital, I was super high because I was still in it. Then I got my period and all these emotions came back — I thought it was happening again, that I was going to have to check myself back in. I was devastated. I remember thinking, “How did this happen?”

I spoke with my therapist, and she was like, “Yeah, you gotta know this is a lifelong thing. You’re going to have great moments and shitty moments, and that’s life. That’s not mental illness, that’s life.”

I had to take a step back. I spoke with my therapist, and she was like, “Yeah, you gotta know this is a lifelong thing. You’re going to have great moments and shitty moments, and that’s life. That’s not mental illness, that’s life.” I’ve since learned that even if you do all these things: take your medicine and go to therapy and do everything you’re supposed to, you will still have shitty days. Your boss is gonna be an asshole or you’re gonna get your period. Even the most even-keeled human on the planet has off days. And so when that happens for me, I remind myself: It’s a shitty day, not a shitty life. That’s what gets me through the not-so-great days. I know it’s all very hokey, but sometimes you gotta put one foot in front of the other.

Medication and all those things, it’s not a gate that keeps out the dark thoughts and the sadness or the irrationality of OCD for me. There is no gate. I use the tools I have — for me, that’s medication, therapy, speaking my truth, cutting out toxic people, saying no, asking for help — to mitigate my OCD, depression and anxiety/panic as much as possible, and I remind myself that it’s gonna be okay. I’ll be okay.

For more information on mental health, NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, provides support (click here to find help and resources in your area), education and raises awareness around the topic of mental health. Crystal also recommends following Jessica Clemons, MD, a psychiatry resident in NYC who hosts weekly Instagram Lives about the different facets of mental health.  

Photo via Getty Images. 

More from Archive