If you’ve ever had, or currently have, a mental illness, you understand how easy it is to lose your identity within that illness. It’s not surprising; after all, when you’re trying to stay alive, you don’t exactly have time for jokes or hobbies.

But what happens once you make it through the darkness? What happens when you’re on the mend and you have the energy to focus on things outside of making it through to the next day? How do you rediscover and reclaim the person you used to be?

You Are Not the Same Person

The first thing to realize is that you are not the same person, and it’s unreasonable to expect yourself to be unchanged. If you just went through a 6-month period of depression, it’s unrealistic to expect to be the same as you were before you had to focus every ounce of energy on getting through to the next hour. If you’ve dealt with panic attacks for the last year, you’re not going to be the same as you were before you feared the racing of your heart. If you’ve made it through the worst of PTSD symptoms, you are not going to go back to being exactly who you were before you experienced trauma.

Do not fear! Being different to who you used to be does not mean that your identity is lost. It means that you have evolved and grown. It doesn’t mean that you will never enjoy the same things that you used to or have the same friendships. It simply means that you have gone through an experience that has affected you. The choice is up to you as to how you are going to let it affect you.

As someone who went through a two-year period of mental health issues during her teenage years, I understand how difficult it is to move on from the episode. To this day, I still sometimes wish that it had never happened, and ask God why he allowed it to happen to me. But, I also recognize that spending my life angry at the experience will not help me to achieve my goals and become the person I want to be.

Steps to Recovery

For me, the first step towards moving on from mental illness was recognizing that I am not the same person as I was, and that my relationships are not the same. I lost many friends because of the mental health issues I was going through. I lost interest in hobbies and things that I had previously enjoyed. I lost some of the naivety, innocence, and sense of humor that I previously had. But, I also gained a few close friends, a new hobby, a purpose for my life, and healthy coping skills because I went through a period of mental illness.

But how did I rediscover/regain the identity that I had lost? I am going to lay out a few practical steps below that may aid you in your journey towards recovery.

1) Acknowledge your experience and allow yourself to feel however you feel about it.

Your feelings are valid. Don’t try to guilt yourself into feeling differently about your experience than you do. You don’t have to pretend that it was easy, or that you are grateful for it if you aren’t. Feel your feelings. Allow the emotions to happen. They are neither good nor bad. They just are. Feel however you feel about the period of mental illness, and don’t feel guilty for feeling the way that you do.

2) Recognize that you are different than you were.

You don’t have to be the same person you were before. Being exactly how you were before mental illness is not the mark of recovery. Don’t try to force yourself into the box of who you were before the struggle. You have undergone something new and difficult, and we grow and change and evolve from our experiences.

3) Be gentle with yourself.

It is not easy to realize that you have changed. It will be tempting to get angry with yourself, to say “I shouldn’t have let it affect me this much” or “I should be better by now.” Realize that your journey is unique to you alone, and however you feel about it and react to it is okay. Be patient with yourself.

4) Try some old hobbies/activities and some new ones too!

Maybe you used to love running, but during your mental illness you couldn’t force yourself to do it. Maybe give it a shot again! But, don’t punish yourself if it is not enjoyable anymore. Try something new and keep trying until you find something you like.

5) Spend time thinking/journaling/praying/meditating on the experience and the recovery process.

Be honest with yourself about how you’re doing currently compared to how you were, acknowledge how the experience affected you, and try to see both the good and the bad that came from it.

The most important thing to remember is that recovery is not a linear process, and neither is rediscovering your identity. Some days will be better than others.  They say that time is the healer of all wounds, and I truly believe this. Be patient with yourself, and slowly but surely, you will be okay again. Take the time to heal. Don’t rush the healing process. Be gentle with yourself. Slowly, you will rediscover who you are, and you will fall in love with that new you.