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The 5 stages of getting diagnosed with mental illness

Jun. 8, 2017
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I have always liked the stages of grief. Well, I don’t like going through them, but I like the idea of having a map for my feelings. I like knowing what to expect, especially in uncertain situations. As someone with bipolar disorder, I typically never know what to expect from myself, so having even a loosely defined guide is comforting to say the least.        

Now, that’s not to say that the five stages of grief are required for healing or even experienced by everyone. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross outlined the stages after noticing they were common experiences for numerous people to have when they were grieving. The stages are not universal or even necessarily linear, but they can act as a template, which can be extraordinarily helpful when the grief is too much to make sense of. 

This idea got me thinking about other major life events and how they should all have similar stages or guides for people to be able to look to when they feel lost or alone. There should be the five stages of marriage, or the five stages of getting a divorce, or the five stages after you come out, or the five stages of moving into your first home. Of course, as a woman who has never experienced marriage, divorce, coming out, or moving into my first home, it’s difficult for me to say what stages, if any, even exist for those events. However, I have been diagnosed with a mental illness, and that experience might have gone over a whole hell of a lot smoother if I had had a guide to look to for why I was feeling what I was feeling and what I could potentially feel next.  

With that in mind I have taken it upon myself to develop the five stages of getting diagnosed with a mental illness. I would like to point out that obviously I’m no expert (although I did get my BA in psychology--just saying!) and that these stages have been outlined based off of my own personal experience and the experiences I have heard from other people who have gone through a diagnosis. These are in no way universal or guaranteed to happen, or guaranteed to happen in this order, but they might offer some insight as to why you are feeling what you are feeling. And if nothing else, let them be a reminder that you are not alone in your diagnosis or whatever you feel because of it: there is a whole community of people out there to help and offer support. For those people who have a loved one who has just been diagnosed, maybe this will help you to understand what they are going through and how to be supportive.

All that being said, let’s dive in!

1. Fear.

Fear is a pretty natural emotion to experience after any major life change--and definitely after a diagnosis of any kind. The unknown is scary as shit, especially when it applies to your health and wellbeing. On top of all of that, mental illnesses have a pretty nasty stigma around them, and it can be scary to realize you now have one of them. 

You don’t know how people will respond to you; you don’t know how this will affect your life; you don’t even know what to expect from yourself. Those uncertainties can cause some mind-numbing fear about your future. And that’s okay. It’s okay to be scared--it helps to clarify our thoughts. Figure out what about this diagnosis scares you the most and go from there. Fear can help you if you don’t let it take over. 

2. Relief.

I have found relief to be the most common emotion for people to experience at some point after being diagnosed with a mental illness. I definitely felt a huge wave of relief knowing that there was a reason for why I was the way that I was. I spent a big chunk of my life hating myself because I couldn’t control my moods, couldn’t stop taking risks that erred on downright stupid, couldn’t help but try to kill myself, etc., etc. 

So imagine my relief when someone told me I wasn’t a huge fuck-up but, rather, someone who had an illness. It wasn’t my ideal life, but at least now I knew how to treat it, how to find some peace. A diagnosis can be a second chance. Bask in the relief of knowing that you now have a new chance to be happy. 

3. Confusion.

Unfortunately, feelings of relief typically give way to feelings of confusion or uncertainty. Great, now you know you have a mental illness--but what does that mean about your personality, your identity? What parts of you can be attributed to your illness and what parts of you are just you? Where does one end and the other begin? 

I was plagued by these questions for quite some time, and it caused a major identity crisis: for a time, I came to believe that the only interesting and unique things about myself could be traced back to my bipolar. That turned out to be totally untrue, of course, because I am not just a personification of my illness. I am me--a complex individual who is made up of many experiences and traits that are more than just my illness. But it took me some time to figure that out, and there’s no shame in that. 

4. Acceptance.

Once I realized I was not just my bipolar disorder, I accepted the fact that I was just a person with an illness. It would require management and consciousness and medication, but it wasn’t the end of the world. Illness does not have to be something that is feared or revered. It’s a natural part of the human experience for some people, and even though it can seriously suck sometimes, well, it’s part of life. Which brings me to the last stage...

5. Adaptation.

Having an illness of any kind means adapting your life in some way, whether it’s in a big way or in a small way. I won’t lie, it’s not going to be easy. There will be times where you think there’s no way you can adapt to this new symptom or feeling, but trust me: you can. I have adapted to depressive episodes, manic episodes, drug addiction, chronic pain, trauma, even hearing voices, and I’m still here. I am more resilient than my illness, and so are you.