On Edge

This Is What ‘Self-Care’ Looks Like When You Have a Mental Illness

Singer Shamir Bailey, who has bipolar disorder, breaks down the difference between indulgence and self-preservation.

Shamir Bailey

Emma McIntyre / Getty 

On Edge is a series about stress in 2017.

In April of this year I had my first manic episode. I hadn’t slept for three days, was trying to self-medicate with marijuana, and ended up having a psychotic breakdown. I was hallucinating and seeing things for a week until I ended up in the hospital. My friends were with me, and my mom flew out as soon as she heard. After years of struggling, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

I’m open about my mental health because these issues are normal. I’m sometimes in the public eye for my career, but I want to be an open book—my work will never come before my health. If anything, sharing my experience on social media has made people reach out to me. It’s sometime seen as embarrassing to have a psychotic episode, but a lot of people have them—nearly 100,000 young people have them every year.

With everything going on in the world right now, taking care of your mental health is more important than ever. But reading articles about expensive and unattainable “self-care” practices feel pointless. When I think about this idea of self-care, as it appears in magazines and articles, I think of yoga, getting massages, or running. But as the cost of living and education goes up, plenty of working class people work more than 40 hours a week, and mental health becomes an afterthought.

It takes a tremendous amount of drive and energy for an overworked person with depression and anxiety to do things like go for a run, despite it being beneficial for your mental and physical health. Then there’s a feeling of dread you get because you know that there are healthier habits you want to incorporate into your life, but it’s never as easy as it sounds.

I decided to share the ways that I take care of myself, since they feel a little more realistic than those discouraging self-care pieces. I understand how mustering up the mental strength to motivate yourself can be difficult. These tips, honed from my personal experience, are for those of you who also suffer from depression, mania, stress, and anxiety.

Don’t Guilt Yourself
One major thing that comes with depression and anxiety is an overwhelming feeling of guilt. It’s easy to be overcome with guilt for staying in bed a little too long or emotional eating—both things I’m very familiar with. Before I started going to therapy I used to feel overwhelming guilt about unhealthy vices I struggle with, but when you guilt yourself it makes you want to continue those same vices, and it becomes a vicious cycle.

A lot of times guilt is seen as motivation and I’m here to tell you: It is not. Try to give yourself a bit of perspective and start off small with your goals. Forgive yourself if you fall off the wagon instead of going straight to guilt. You can always start over because there’s no one keeping time when it comes to bettering yourself.


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Know When to Slow Down
It’s easy to mistake a bout of mania—which can include symptoms of racing thoughts and an elevated mood—with a burst of energy, but if you don’t know when to slow down the crash can be debilitating. When I’m manic I’ve found that reading, listening to podcast, meditation, and even knitting has helped me channel my energy. And as my therapist recommended, journaling and making lists are also another great thing to do.

Encourage your friends to participate
Taking care of yourself doesn’t have to be an isolating thing. Although this process is all about bettering yourself, having a friend join can be great motivation, even fun. Working out and cooking healthy meals can be fun activities to do with a friend or significant other. But sometimes your friends can enable bad habits so it’s important to be open with your friends about your path to wellness, and mindful of those who hinder your progress.

Which brings me to my next point:

Don’t let friends distract you
We all have that friend that we love like family, but wouldn’t bring them to a family function. You know that one friend who thrives on living on the edge. For those of us with mental illness, living that way can be harmful or even fatal.

Managing mental health is a lifestyle. But working these methods into your everyday life can mean alienating some of those around you, especially that friend who likes to party anytime they have free time. The best way to deal with friends who feel alienated is to be open and vocal. It might feel selfish, but true friends only want the best for you.

Not every tip and activity will work for you
It’s important to know as you try certain activities and rituals prescribed for mental health care, that not all of them are going to work for you. Everyone is different and and it’s important to acknowledge that. That being said, you still have to do a bit of shifting in your life to get the best results.

When starting new rituals pay attention to the benefits, if there are any at all. Try talking to your doctor or therapist and get their opinions to see if they have their own list of tips and options for you. As you start your journey and figure out what rituals work for you, remember to approach them in a realistic way. It’s easy to psyche yourself out, especially if you’re dealing with anxiety and mental illness.

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