Self-Care and the Art of Blending In

The word recovery has always frightened me when it came to my own mental health. How do I recover from something that is with me for the rest of my life?

When I was first made aware that I had a mental illness at 17 years old, I spent the entire next 365 days in complete denial, continually telling myself that one day I will wake up and the anxiety will vanish, and I will forget that I ever had it. Well, little to my surprise after waking up hundreds of mornings to find that my irrational fears were still with me, the anxiety actually never went away.

This wishful thinking only made my situation worse, especially when it came to my unorthodox methods of self-care as a teenager. In the span of a year, I left scars on my arms from both cigars and razors, I started to drink in the morning before school and I took any prescription pills that I could find in my parents medicine cabinet, only to find myself now becoming physically ill on top of my then current mental illness.

I was trying to heal myself but continued to fail greatly. The expectations that I was setting for myself were utterly unrealistic. I only wish that I could have known then what I know today, and maybe I could have had a better start into adulthood.

Staying hopeful throughout my early twenties, I remained optimistic that there was a cure for this disease called anxiety, but reality wouldn’t set in for me until years later when I received some of greatest advice ever given to me, and it would save my life. At 29 years old, my life I was spiraling out of control. I was drunk every morning before work, my marriage was failing, and I was in my darkest depression to date. So in a final attempt to get help and not lose my life, I sought out and found a cognitive behaviorist in Rochester NY who saved me with one sentence regarding my anxiety. The doctor sat forward in his chair and said, “Ricky, your anxiety is real, and it’s with you for life, you will never wake up one morning, and it had magically disappeared. Now, when you feel yourself having an attack, just repeat this to yourself, ‘This sucks! But I am not losing my mind; this attack is not real and will only last ten minutes’.”

I was taken back by the doctor’s words at first because my illness of twelve years suddenly made so much sense to me in a matter of five seconds. And to my surprise and with much practice, the mantra the doctor gave me actually worked, but like he also told me, it didn’t matter how many positive daily affirmations I repeated to myself and it didn’t matter what medicine I was taking; if I wasn’t willing to put the work in and help myself, then I would never truly get better.

Having a mental health disorder, to me, is the equivalent of having a full-time job, and after being diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, depression, PTSD and depersonalization disorder, I sometimes feel like I’m only living to find new ways to keep my current state of mind healthy. Searching for answers doesn’t always come easy with the hundreds of different types of medications that are offered to us; it can be an agonizing chore to find what works for you. For me, it was an antidepressant/anti-anxiety called Lexapro, and before I was comfortable settling on that drug, I trialed a few others first; Prozac, Effexor, Zoloft, Xanax, and Clozapine; none of which suited me.

So today, after many years of therapy and attempts with different medications, these are the self-care steps that I take every day to maintain my current state of mental health.

1. ACKNOWLEDGMENT: Every morning as soon as I wake up, I am instantly reminded that I have a mental illness, but I do not run from it. I welcome it with open arms, because for today and for the rest of my life, I will live with this, but it is okay. I’ll be just fine as long as I follow the next four steps below.

2. DEPRESSION: For the empty feeling of depression, I make sure I find something that I love and take advantage of it. It could be anything from, my wife and I walking the dog or even binge watching The Office on Netflix. Whatever it may be, I embrace the vice that allows me to escape from my mind. (A little bit of Vitamin D and laughter goes a long way)

3. ANXIETY: Whenever I feel anxious, which for the most part is all day and every day, I use the mantra that I learned from the cognitive behaviorist in Rochester NY. If that’s not working and I need a quicker approach, I can take in three deep breaths and focus my attention on the negative energy that’s plaguing my thoughts and rid them from my mind. (Sometimes I just have to remain calm and do my best to remember that I am stronger than my anxiety)

4. SLEEPING: Trying to fall asleep, let alone staying asleep might the hardest and most concerning of all my problems. Each night immediately after I lay my head on my pillow, my mind starts to race with horrible, irrational thoughts that no one without anxiety would ever think of while trying to fall asleep. Years before I got sober I would easily take four Clozapine anti-anxieties and wash it down with a tall glass of Merlot just to aide me in falling asleep, but now that I’m sober, I sought out alternative methods to assist me. I found that essential oils, such as lemon, mint and eucalyptus oil work wonders and if I’m really struggling, I can play soothing music to get me where I need to be; thunderstorms or seagulls usually do the trick.

5. DIET: I used to binge eat to make myself feel better when I was feeling low. I would often grab whatever was the quickest and easiest meal to consume, and nine out of ten times it was greasy fast food and stops at my local 7-11 splurging on KitKat bars. At the end of all my binge episodes, I felt sorry for myself as I was growing unhappy with my self-image and self-worth, which ultimately led to my already present depression taking a turn for the worse. About a year ago I switched to a complete plant-based vegan diet, and I can’t even begin to explain the benefits that resulted from the switch. I feel healthier than I ever have before, I’m less tired, and my mind is clearer, just to name a few perks. Overall and most importantly, my self-esteem and confidence are at an all-time high.

There are many different forms of self-care and what works for one person might not work for someone else, but having something that works for you is all that matters. I’ve tried the stubborn way to ease my anxiety, and I tried the logical way and there is no comparison between the two, and honestly when it comes to your mental health, even your physical health, no shortcuts should be taken, and no expense should be spared. I can’t encourage people enough to take care of themselves and make your health the number one priority in your life, because without our health, we will truly lose ourselves.

Be kind to yourself, love yourself and never give up. Life might seem impossible some days, but as long as you’re willing to put in the work, it will get better, I promise.

Photo Credit: Henry Hemming Flickr via Compfight cc

Richard DeFino

Ricky De Fino grew up in New York City and currently resides in Buffalo NY. When he isn’t writing about his anxiety and his crazy Bronx upbringing, he enjoys watching countless hours of television with his wife Andrea, cat Bebe and dog Zeke. Two years sober, good coffee and veganism keeps him sane. His work can be found in Two Cities Review, tNY Press, Purple Pig Lit, Dialougal and Cycatrix Press.

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