August 09, 2023

By Sarah Merritt Ryan

Illustration of a woman's face
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.

Learning Empathy

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.

Finding My Purpose

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.

 Discovering the Power of Gratitude

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.

 
 

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