About seven or eight months ago, if someone had asked me what the first things that popped into my mind when I heard “mental health” were, I would’ve provided a laundry list of disorders I’d heard about, said something about suicide, and, honestly, I’d probably say a blanket statement like “craziness” or something along those lines. At that point in my life, I knew so little about mental health and its possible positive and negative impacts. To me, all there was were the incredibly naturally happy and bright people, and the people who had mental illnesses, a topic I’d avoid association with like the plague.

Back then, I had an erroneous thought pattern that if everything was going well, and there was nothing wrong with you, that you’d automatically be one of those naturally happy people. This idea was deeply ingrained in my mind. If you weren’t super happy most, if not all of the time, it meant one of two things; there was something wrong with you, or you let something happen, and now there’s something wrong with you. To me, mental health was just something that got in the way of people’s success, not something that could propel you to new heights if you understood it better.

I now know how ridiculous that thought pattern was, but back then, it was the only thing I knew. As a result, I developed a strong identity as someone who had to be super happy all the time. Holding on to this identity was a huge mistake. It caused me to avoid any situation that would question my identity, and if a condition I couldn’t avoid came up, I’d feel so trapped since whatever was happening, or whatever I was feeling, didn’t correspond with who I thought I was. My negative emotions would then take control.

When I began university, I suffered a concussion. I was miserable then. However, in hindsight, that concussion was the first step on the path that eventually allowed me to begin thriving and feeling genuinely happy. The most damaging effects of the concussion weren’t the symptoms, although they weren’t fun by any means. The bad habits I developed and the good practices I dropped over the months of recovery made the most significant impact on my life today. Despite doctor’s warnings about mental health issues while recovering, I continued to hang on to my unrealistic identity as an always happy person, and I figured no matter what I did, I’d recover “normal” since it’s who I was. As you may have guessed, considering you’re reading this article, that was not the case. When I healed, I was an absolute mess. However, to avoid clashing with my ego, I never took action. The most substantial post and pre-concussion habit changes had been those allowing me to combat my mental health flaws. While recovering; I struggled to cook for myself, so I consistently ate out. I couldn’t really work out, so I didn’t exercise at all. I’d sleep for almost 14 hours a day with nothing even resembling a sleep schedule whatsoever. I suffered a lot, but that suffering enabled me to see past the defenses my ego had put up, and I finally observed real problems with myself that needed solving.

With this realization, I started making some small positive adjustments including meditating daily, making my bed, waking up early and at similar times, daily exercise, and eating better. However, I didn’t have the motivation to keep up these positive changes. Whenever I was trying to make better decisions, my pride would seemingly attack me, questioning why I was expending so much effort as an already happy person; meanwhile, I still struggled with panic attacks, anxiety, and depression. That was a frustrating time for me. I lacked the mental clarity to see which emotions and feelings were guiding me towards a happier, healthier life and which ones were causing me to subconsciously self-destruct and either stop dead in my tracks or worse, scrap my recent improvements.

What allowed me to finally break through was the most painful experience I’ve had so far. I received a call informing me that my closest friend from school had passed away unexpectedly. He was someone I always looked up to, and he seemingly had everything going for him. When this happened to him, everything became so pointless. It was only after weeks of nothing but depression, anxiety, and moping around that I finally noticed where I was heading as a person. I felt that the situation was not my fault; therefore, I wasn’t responsible for anything. As soon as I started taking some actions to get myself back on track, I quickly realized that I could still be happy and I began to understand the power in taking responsibility for everything in my life, even things that weren’t my fault. Only I was responsible for revamping my decision making, improving my physical health, my grades, my relationships, and my mental health. I finally truly recognized and accepted that I had struggled with mental health, and I now could work around my ego. I chose habits specifically to combat depression and anxiety, and I cut out the patterns that aggravated them. I can’t say it’s been an easy couple of months, but I have seen my baseline genuine happiness increase exponentially. While my anxiety and depression symptoms haven’t disappeared, I now welcome those controversial feelings and use them to push me toward action; to be a better student, friend, and son.

If I could go back and give myself any advice, and I hope this can help others as well, I would give myself a quote from Mark Manson: “the more something threatens your identity, the more you will avoid it.” This advice is so important to me since I know how much life I’ve missed out on because I wanted to preserve unrealistic identities I invented myself. After dealing with so much over the last two years between a brain injury and the death of an extremely close friend, I realize how many people are going through much more painful experiences and I recognize that I’m not special, nor a victim, and identifying as such only made matters worse. While it certainly made me feel better to throw pity parties for myself, the good feelings were short-lived and superficial. When I embraced the suffering from those events as well as my anxiety and depression, and I took responsibility for everything going wrong, I could surpass my ego and achieve the clarity to make decisions and the strength to take actions that brought me genuine happiness and productivity.