By Sarah Merritt Ryan
I have been living in recovery from schizophrenia for 11 years. While I haven’t experienced any symptoms for over a decade, I do not feel like I am the same person I was before my mental illness. This has often bothered me; sometimes, it feels like the only way I can become who I am “meant to be” is if I look backward and compare who I am now to who I was before my diagnosis.
I have put so much pressure on myself over the years to become “who I was” again — like that person, the 20-year-old version of myself, was better. For a long time, I went on a relentless quest to reclaim that person and simply “forget” the part in the middle, my 14 years of mental illness. However, with time and reflection, I am forming a new outlook on who I am. I have come to realize that the essential elements of my nature and character never left me, even while experiencing psychosis, and what truly makes me who I am is still present today.
Moreover, I’m realizing that I have come out for the better. Surviving schizophrenia, and making it to the other side, has given me a new and improved identity that I embrace.
The pain I’ve experienced in life has not only challenged me to care of myself; it has developed my empathy toward others. I believe that the more you experience in life, the more sensitive you are to others’ experiences — and you can speak to people in a way that truly resonates. I’ve realized that now that I have been through schizophrenia, I’m not afraid to go to painful, dark places with others who need compassion and reassurance that they are not alone. Ultimately, this has been a critical transition in my life: I opened my eyes to others’ suffering instead of my own.
Had I not been through something so painful, feeling other’s pain and truly connecting might feel uncomfortable because I wouldn’t understand it and couldn’t relate. I can identify with pain, and it means so much to me to be able to be there for others. I think I am a more authentic and compassionate person with others because of the pain I endured, and these experiences have taught me a new level of humility that keeps me grounded.
In the throes of my illness, when I struggled with wanting to give up, I had to find reasons to persist. I had to have purpose. When you search your heart like this — when your survival depends on it — you learn to filter out the things the things that truly don’t matter. With this kind of reflection, I realized that my purpose is to love and to receive love from others. Even when I was in the process of healing, I realized that if I acted in love, I couldn’t lose. Acting passionately for the benefit of others is what makes sense to me.
If I hadn’t had schizophrenia and hadn’t been stripped of everything, maybe I would have taken another path — maybe one that was only about self-improvement and traditional measures of success, rather than caring for others and forging my own path. I believe that life could have been more superficial if I hadn’t had to dig deep, live in survival mode and discover what truly matters in life. My pain and suffering have given me a direction and trajectory for how I want my life to matter.
One way I survived schizophrenia was learning what gratitude truly means and how to use this power in daily life. Early on in my illness, I found power in being negative and figured I was the only person in the world who wasn’t “normal.” I thought feeling sorry for myself was loving myself, but I was wrong. With time, I realized that the ultimate way to overcome the challenges of mental illness was to find gratitude in those challenges.
Finding gratitude in everyday life and the little things led to a deeper gratitude for my existence and positivity about my future. I am proud of what I have overcome, thankful for what some might take for granted and happy to have a life I can authentically call my own.
Ultimately, I am a more grateful, positive person than I was before my illness. I’m more content with my life now than I was when I was 20. Every step I take is something I’m grateful for — and I am content to move forward as the person I am now. I can still be true to myself and know who I am, even if I am no longer completely the person I once was. Nothing that truly matters is lost for good; and in fact, I am better due to my experiences.
“Sometimes you have to get knocked down lower than you’ve ever been, to stand up taller than you ever were.” – Unknown
Sarah Merritt Ryan is a writer covering mental illness topics like stigma, recovery and hope. She is a survivor of schizophrenia and is now a wife, mother and small business owner. She is a frequent NAMI Blog contributor, as well as a NAMI Connection Support Group (CSG) facilitator and an In Our Own Voice (IOOV) speaker in North Carolina.
We’re always accepting submissions to the NAMI Blog! We feature the latest research, stories of recovery, ways to end stigma and strategies for living well with mental illness. Most importantly: We feature your voices.
Check out our Submission Guidelines for more information.
Find Your Local NAMI