Finding Comfort in The Gray Area of Mental Health Diagnosis

When I entered recovery and sobered up, many of the suggestions I received were to avoid getting ‘diagnosed’ until I had a little recovery under my belt. The general recommendation was one year. That varies from person to person. During this time I discovered drugs were not my problem; they were my solution and I desperately needed a new solution to my problems.

After the first year, I decided it was time to speak to my family Dr. about my mental health. He referred me to a psychiatrist and the first thing that came up was signs of ADD/ADHD which I was likely self-medicating my whole life. We also spoke a lot about the cross-section of symptoms common for people like me. Threads of anxiety, depression, and OCD were a big part of my daily life. For me, it’s complicated to know what issues were present as I was growing up because I was a chronic marijuana addict from around 12/13 to the day I stopped. The psychiatrist helped me understand that my jumbled mind made many things in my life a challenge.

Here is ONE of MANY typical moments of distress for me throughout my life and in the early stages of my recovery.

One of my symptom cycles

Trigger – I can’t find my keys, my wallet, the piece of paper I had in my hands two minutes ago, whatever the object is.

1. Anxiety builds. I spent the past 17 years misplacing things, looking for things, losing things, etc. So there’s all this baggage ingrained in me that brings my anxiety level up.

2. Obsessive thinking begins. ‘This is such bullshit, grrr, why do I have to live this way, I will be late, I will get nowhere in life, I’m such a pathetic loser, I can’t do anything right.

3. Adult tantrum ensues. I throw things around, swearing, banging things, falling onto the couch clenching my hands, kicking my feet. My head is swirling so much that I can’t think straight and I’m forced into surrender.

4. A state of momentary depression sets in, and I’m immobilized.

5. I lie there as long as it takes for my body to regain a sense of balance. Then I can try to limit the consequences of missing or being late for whatever I’m supposed to be doing.

Depending on various factors; how much I’ve slept, whether I’m hungry, the seriousness of the situation, I recover enough to continue my day with or without the keys.

If I end up finding the keys, I’m still in a state of dysregulation that I leave the house without my wallet! The mild relief I got from finding my keys is replaced with irritation of forgetting my wallet. My anxiety rises again, and well you get the picture.

I’m not exaggerating, this was an issue for me every single day from hour to hour. Most people can relate to moments like this. For mental health problems, it’s important to note that when these things become a barrier to the way you want to live your life or if they’re a serious problem for you on a daily basis, then you should ask for help.

The other side 

Through years of determination, I created a well-being tool belt for daily life. Included in this are a strong base of friends who share my experience, a psychotherapist, a disciplined mindfulness practice, a psychiatrist, medication for ADHD, and a library of books and role models. The skills I cultivate help me regulate my anxiety, build resilience to the onset and duration of depressive episodes, mitigate the discomfort of intrusive thoughts and the uncomfortable feelings that follow.

I worked through many possible diagnoses discussed with my doctors. I figured one was enough for me, keeping in mind the symptoms I experience exist in the gray area across different diagnoses. When I focus on addressing issues as they arise, I build my mental fitness and increase my ability to navigate the ebbs and flows of life.

Me with two teachers presenters at the Inaugural State Of Mind Festival

In psychiatry, there is too much focus on ‘disorders’ and not on people, and little focus on creating solutions or supporting the complexity of people’s life challenges.

I wonder what the mental health system would look like if we focused on solutions, not diagnosis?

I wonder what would have to change in academia and in government for a new perspective to emerge on how we approach mental health?

If we valued creativity, patience, understanding, and compassion I think we’d open the door for new possibilities to emerge in how we deliver mental health care services.

We can walk the yellow brick road of another diagnosis of what’s wrong with us, or we can focus on addressing problems as they arise and move towards emotional well-being.

With help, a commitment to caring for yourself, and a sincere acceptance of responsibility for your actions, you can transform yourself and do things you never thought possible.

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