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Finding Direction When You Have A Mental Illness

It’s hard, isn’t it?

We all want to feel like our life has meaning. Like through our hobbies and personal relationships. Those things make you happy. But they don’t quite make you feel like you’re getting somewhere.

It’s an innate human drive to become better than we were yesterday. Otherwise, how would society have evolved at all?

Us crazy peeps are no exception. Except that people with depression and anxiety have a hard time doing stuff. Anxiety stultifies you. It makes you think of the worst case scenario that comes with every course of action, leaving you terrified to do anything at all. And depression makes you feel like there’s no reason to even try.

Which isn’t true.

I don’t just have autism you guys. I’ve always struggled with pervasive low-to-mid-grade depression. And OCD. My OCD attacks are bad enough to leave me in weeklong nine-hour spirals in front of my computer reading horror stories about women aging. It definitely makes it hard for me to move forward. Add my executive functioning and social problems and I’m probably set back about five years developmentally.

I know a lot of people like me though. Some are autistic, some are bipolar, some have/had addictions, and some just had a lot of bad shit happen in their childhoods that they’re still working through. The one common denominator is that almost all of us are behind both career-wise and socially.

It’s hard to be like that in your late twenties/early thirties. You’re expected to be career-track and in some kind of long-term relationship. Or at least looking for one. But we aren’t ready. Despite being there for each other (give or take: depressed people aren’t always the most reliable!) I think most of us still feel a bit empty. Or it might not even be emptiness. It could be guilt. Like society’s saying “hey, you ain’t 20 anymore. You’re supposed to have your shit figured out!”

But everyone’s on a different timeline. We need to follow our internal clocks. Not get trapped by external pressure. Walking around feeling guilty for not doing something we’re not mentally able to do right now anyway serves no purpose at all.

My mom tells me to volunteer or get a job working with sick people. I always blew her off. But it’s probably some pretty good advice. If you have any degree of neuroticism that’s holding you back it might be a good idea to work with people who have it worse than you do. You’ll appreciate your life a lot more.

I have an autistic friend who spent a year as a night guard in a group home for elderly schizophrenics. One guy, an 80-year-old man who’d been there for decades, just keeled over and died right in front of him. He’d been friendly with that guy too. They’d hang out in the hallway during the wee hours of the morning and talk about life.¬†Paradoxically, the more depressing things my friend saw, the more wisdom he gained and the happier he learned how to be.

Picking up a skill is another suggestion. I’m learning to cook. It’s such a primal satisfaction to be able to subsist on what you make. It also requires your full attention, leaving me less time to dwell on all the random crap that’s making me miserable. It gives you a sense of control. They even teach cooking classes to patients in mental health clinics. There’s a good personal essay up about cooking and depression at VICE.

Some people erode this depressive ennui through faith. Churches are known for having a sense of community. I come from just about the least churchgoing family ever, but I used to hear all the time about people who fell on hard times and their congregations would set up funds to help them. Churches give you somewhere to be every week and a group of people who look forward to seeing you. Going to the same book club or bar or meetup group can give you a similar sense of continuity. There’s something very human about seeing the same people over time and watching them grow.

I know these things don’t all directly relate to finding direction. But I guarantee they’ll make you happier. They’ll allow you to look outside yourself and see what you like and the kinds of people you want to be around. They’ll allow you to clear your head so you can focus more on your strengths than your problems. At some point, you’ll feel stable enough and comfortable enough in the world that you’ll start making more substantial steps into it.


*Image from

Finding Direction When You Have A Mental Illness

Gwendolyn Kansen

Gwen Kansen is a mental health writer in New York. She likes food, karaoke, and smart-but-campy books & TV. She's hoping to capture a little sliver of life on here that might not be the first thing you'd see.

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APA Reference
Kansen, G. (2016). Finding Direction When You Have A Mental Illness. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 10, 2020, from


Last updated: 17 May 2016
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