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MHAW: Surviving or Thriving?

Featured Image: Mental Health Foundation

I was existing but not living. I was not experiencing life in the way that others were. Survival was the focus of each day, just fighting to stay alive for the next few hours. Years of my life passed by like this.

It’s often said that humans have a survival instinct. We will avoid danger, fight to protect and preserve ourselves. I have not always felt like that instinct was inside me. In fact, it was often the opposite. I was working against survival; I did not want to keep living. This resulted in attempting suicide several times, the ultimate act of anti-survival. I was seeking out pain rather than avoiding it. My mind was telling me that I needed to hurt myself to cope with the misery. My acts of perceived self-preservation were slowly killing me.

Mental illness is painful and difficult, it can make surviving feel impossible, thriving does not even cross our minds as something we might be capable of. We start a battle against ourselves instead of the illness which is consuming us. We exist but we do not live.

For me and many others with mental illnesses, the priority in life must be surviving. We cannot necessarily aim towards a fulfilled and meaningful life if we are struggling to stay alive. But, once we’ve got a grip on sticking things out and going through the motions of each day, we can shift our attention. We can start to live, exist, grow and enjoy what life brings to us.

Maslow’s ‘Heirarchy of Needs’ says that we need to have basic needs fulfilled before we can aim for more. We will struggle to reach a point of thriving if, for example, we do not have food or water. We all have different needs which we might consider necessary for us to develop. For me these were: food, shelter, support, love, financial stability and a desire for change.

Everyone’s journey with mental health is unique, there is no one size fits all advice for how we go from surviving to thriving. For me, having access to appropriate treatment was vital. We may not have a thriving instinct but an important thing to remember is that we can learn how to thrive.

Perhaps you’re at a stage where surviving seems hard enough and that is okay. However, you need to hold onto the fact that (your perception of) success, flourishing and growth are possible for everyone with a mental illness. Our struggles do not strip us of our potential. You’ve been through hell and back and maybe you’ll make another trip there but you will come back again.

Like flowers, we need our basic needs met to stay alive. We can stay alive if we get some water and a bit of sun. To grow, we need more. We need consistent, strong, suitable support so that we can bloom.

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