Back From the Brink: How I Finally Overcame Mental Illness

Whoa…overcame? That’s a pretty bold statement in the title, even for me. Mental illness (anxiety, depression, PTSD) has dogged me most of my life, and handicapped me for a good portion of it. But not today. Not for a whole year. And now, I’m going to do my very best to back up this outrageous and seemingly over-confident claim.

(Let me also make it clear that I am not, in any way, a mental health expert or professional. If you’re struggling, please read, but also seek help and discuss these things with your therapist.)

As I sit here writing, I’ve got Lauren Daigle on in the background. Her album, How Can it Be, was the soundtrack behind the bravest thing I’ve ever done.

Exactly one year ago, I checked myself into a mental health clinic for a 30-day stay.

And as Daigle’s album plays, it stirs up curiously fond memories of my time there, and reminds me of all God has done in my life since then.

The Back Story

Going to the clinic was not the first line of defense in my battle. I had been in counseling on and off since my twenties, had countless ministry appointments, inner healing sessions, alter calls — even deliverance — but still, mental illness had its grip on me. Don’t get me wrong, I had made a LOT of progress over the years. I worked hard on my part of the healing process, and consistently chose to address whatever I was aware of at the given time.

As the years went by, my nuclear meltdowns got fewer and farther between. But when they did happen, they were bigger and more frightening to me than they ever had been.

I lived with the constant fear that one of these days, I wasn’t going to be able to rebound.

And then I would be stuck, permanently crippled by insanity.

Just after the New Year, I had an episode that became my line in the sand. I was deeply troubled by some news I had just received, and without meaning to, I picked a fight with one of my kids over something stupid. I ended up swearing at her — something I had never done before — and, wracked with guilt, I retreated to my bedroom, where there happened to be a hefty stack of acrylic plates and cups leftover from New Year’s Eve, waiting to go up in the attic. Overwhelmed by a flood of frightening emotions, I began hurling the cups and plates against the wall. As each one exploded into shards of broken plastic, I felt more and more out of control.

By the time my husband made it upstairs, I had decided that it all must end, right here and now.

I was done being held hostage by the fear, anxiety, and swirling thoughts.

And less than a week later, on January 20, 2018, I was on a plane to Tallahassee, to spend a month in rehab.

A New Kind of Freedom

I’ve already shared (in a 3-part blog post) what I learned from my time there, and those lessons are just as relevant and valuable today as they were then. Still, I wouldn’t say that I charged out of the gate running and it’s been a smooth ride ever since. How life would be once I was at home was one of my biggest worries. There is a sort of safe “bubble” around you in rehab — even though you’re facing all your stuff, it’s in a controlled environment. And it’s not, well…real life. Because the world around you is not suddenly going to adjust to your new-found healing. It isn’t going to stop throwing those curveballs and triggers. And people are still going to be people. Some will hurt you, some will disappoint.

What had to change and adjust was me, how I processed what came at me, and what choices I would make in response to them.

Just as you might expect, I had plenty of opportunities to practice all this. And it’s been a learning curve, like everything else. I’ve handled some things really well, and I’ve messed up on occasion, too. But in the entire calendar year, I’ve only had one “episode” (basically a panic attack) when one of those curveballs was thrown in an area I didn’t expect. I was caught off guard by it, and reacted before I even chose a response. But unlike every other time I experienced a panic attack, I was able to pull myself out of it very quickly and rebounded strong.

And, aside from that one episode, I have been living in total peace and freedom this whole year.

Obsessive thoughts and worries have disappeared.

No bouts of uncontrollable crying.

No outbursts of anger.

If this is what “normal” feels like, it’s the best feeling I’ve ever experienced!

And Now, the Hows:

So, the question is, what were the keys to this all working, that I can now claim to have ‘overcome’ mental illness? Well, here they are. They’re not fool-proof, obviously, and maybe they won’t free you from every kind of affliction. But I’m sharing them because they worked for me, and what if it works for you, too? You do want to be free, don’t you? Well, here’s how:

1. You Must Have the Will to Change.

This is Step Numero Uno, and it is a crucial one to take at every juncture along the way. Notice the wording. You must, by your own free will and sheer will, want to change and choose to change. And, you have to want it bad enough to push through what will inevitably be a difficult, painful, and sometimes, scary process. You need to want your own healing and want to change even more than anyone else wants it for you.

2. You Must Learn the Value of Submission and Humility.

This goes hand-in-hand with the will to change. When you operate in humility, you recognize and own your shortcomings, your issues, and the fact that you are definitely not ‘fine’ as you are. If you are focused on others being the cause of the state you’re in, you will unlikely ever receive the deep healing you need. There’s a place for recognizing what’s yours to own and what belongs to others, but if it’s your healing you want, that can’t be contingent upon someone else’s actions or consequences. And secondly, you must be willing (and choose) to submit to the healing process. All of it. Whatever it takes. You must find skilled, trustworthy professionals to help you, and you must follow through with your therapy and assignments. If you truly knew what was best for you, you wouldn’t need the kind of help you do. Sometimes other people do know better, because they have the benefit of years of expertise, objectivity, and perspective.

3. Do Your Homework. Every Single Time.

Homework is given to accomplish stuff that can’t be fully dealt with in a counseling session. It takes you further and deeper through the healing process than you can get to without it. And in my experience, it’s where some of the deepest learning and understanding happens. Quiet time working on your assignments gives you the space to reflect, and more importantly, opportunity for you to hear God’s voice in what you’re doing. Then, when you go to your next appointment, you and your therapist can process it together. Finally, doing your homework demonstrates your commitment to doing what you need to do to get better.

4. Train Your Brain to Think Differently.

One of the most fascinating and miraculous things about the brain is that there are areas that can be regenerated, renewed, and awakened. I am far from a brain expert, but I do know that our experiences, particularly if they involve trauma, physically affect the brain. They lay down neural pathways that function like well-traveled superhighways, so that certain thoughts and behaviors are inextricably connected to those past events. These pathways actually fire faster than the ones we use to reason or use logic. That’s why so many of us react before we even think it through. But we can retrain our brains by rehearsing new thought patterns, especially if we can connect them to new (good) experiences. If we can commit ourselves to rehearse new, healthy, positive truths and beliefs, we can actually change how we automatically think. I can personally attest to the fact that it works!

5. Seek to Eliminate Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms.

If you’re honest with yourself (and you ask others,) you will know what those specific things are for you. Realistically, you can’t get rid of all of them at once, but you’ll know where to start. I went without social media and television for a year, so I could truly focus on the Lord and my healing. At another point, I gave up drinking for an extended period of time, until I knew that I would not use alcohol to manage my anxiety. I can’t say I don’t sometimes cope in other unhealthy ways, but I’m trying to just tic them off my list, one by one. When you do take away a coping avenue, you will have to face head-on what it is you’re coping from. And that’s a good thing.

6. Have a Real Plan in Place for When Mental illness Symptoms Surface.

I call this my Disaster Recovery Plan, and I keep it in a bright blue notebook in my office closet. It is created from a template that helps me identify what is going on, where it’s coming from, and what I can do next. This has absolutely saved me from spiraling into irrational thoughts and behaviors, and just knowing I have it if needed helps so much. If you’d like a copy, you can sign up to download it here.

7. Rebuild and Embrace Your True Identity.

(hint: mental illness isn’t part of it!) My firm belief is that the only way to do this accurately is to get to really understand who the Father is, and who you are because of Him. How He’s made you. How much He loves you. Spend time in the Word. Read some good, solid books by wise people who’ve walked where you have walked. There are many I can recommend if you want to reach out. One of them I wrote myself and highly recommend!

8. Make Peace with Your Diagnosis.

Whatever your diagnosis is — you have IT, IT does not HAVE YOU. Don’t own it as who you are, any more than you would say diabetes or psoriasis is part of your identity. It’s a condition that many, many other people have. You are not alone. There is no shame in it. If you are like the vast majority of people with mental illness, you are not helpless, and you have choices in how to manage it.

9. Take Medication if You Need It.

Again, no shame here. There are a multitude of options available, so don’t get discouraged if it takes a while to find the right thing for you. For me, medication was the final step in my process. Not because I wasn’t doing well, but because I recognized I was still experiencing anxiety despite addressing everything else. I can’t find the right words to describe how I feel, except to say there’s a ‘lightness’ I feel that I’ve never felt before now. It’s wonderful.

10. Have a Support Network Around You.

This is last, but certainly not least important. You need good professionals helping you and they are out there. You need good friends. Family. People that will love you even if you’re difficult sometimes, and people who love you enough to a) be completely honest with you, and b) celebrate BIG when you make significant gains. Find your tribe.

That’s a lot of stuff, I know. I think it’s the longest post I’ve written so far, but it’s so important to get this out there, that there is hope for those with mental illness. I’m sure you can see by that list that none of this is easy or quick. I’ve been at this stuff a long time.

In fact, I turned 50 this year, and you know what? It’s the best freaking year of my life so far.

Am I cured? Probably not.

Triggers will still be there. Tendencies towards anxiety and PTSD will most likely remain with me the rest of my life. I’m not cured, but I am FREE.

Free from a lifetime of bondage. Free from worry that I’ll lose myself to my broken brain.

I have been empowered. Healed.

I have overcome.

Friends, I’m back from the brink.

And I’m here to stay.

(this song, right here, was my ANTHEM at the clinic. They even played it when I graduated from the program! Now, it’s a beautiful reminder of all God has done.)

Don’t leave me hanging here, all vulnerable and alone — comment below. This is a safe place.

Written by

Beach-loving, coffee-seeking author who passionately pursues emotional & spiritual freedom. Adoptive mom, Jesus follower. Find me on michellewuesthoff.com

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