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To Recover From a Mental Illness, Sometimes You Have to Do What You Least Feel Like Doing

02/06/2014 15:51 BST | Updated 30/07/2014 10:59 BST

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Photo: fady habib/Flickr

Up until I was 15, I used to dream of being a professional basketball player. Those days, I practically lived on the court, shooting jump shot after jump shot, practising my dribbling, doing defensive drills, and working on my strength and conditioning - always training as hard as I could to try and make my dream come true.

One day when I was 14, we were doing a particularly gruelling fitness session, and since I was coming back from injury, I wasn't in the shape I usually was. I did my best to keep up, but halfway through the session, I had to run to the bathroom and throw up my breakfast.

A minute or so later, the coach knocked on the door.

'Danny, what's going on?'

I kept vomiting. He opened the door and stood there, waiting for me to stop.

'You done?' he finally asked.

'I think so,' I groaned.

'Good. Then get back out there.'

My whole body was trembling. Bile was dribbling down my chin. It was 7:30 in the morning, and I was exhausted. All I wanted to do was go back to bed. But at the same time, I wanted to be a professional basketball player. And if you want to be an elite athlete, then pushing yourself to the limits is just something you do.

As I'd learned early on in my career, to achieve your goals, sometimes you have to do what you least feel like doing.

So I took a few deep breaths, got to my feet, wiped the bile from my mouth and kept on training.

How this lesson I learned playing basketball helped me recover from depression and bipolar disorder

When I was 14, I developed tendonosis in my knee, and after numerous failed comeback attempts over the next 12 months, I had to devastatingly accept that any chance I had of going pro was over. I turned to the books and did well in high school, and two years later accepted a scholarship to study Commerce/Law at university. But then a number of things happened that plunged me into a crippling and near-fatal depression, and afterwards a further unlucky break led me to develop bipolar disorder. After several weeks of oscillating between being intensely suicidal and delusionally manic, I wound up in a psych ward.

All I wanted was to be happy. I asked the in-house psychiatrist if, given my condition, that would ever be possible.

'Of course it is, Danny,' she said. 'Mental illnesses are very treatable, but you'll need to work hard to overcome it. You'll need to diligently take your medication; continue to commit yourself to therapy; preferably read self-help books; and also very importantly, commit to living an active, healthy lifestyle by eating well, sleeping well and exercising frequently. If you take a proactive approach in trying to get better, then you'll be able to recover and live the happy, healthy life you want.'

So I did everything she said, and over time, I began to recover. The following year - while there were occasional relapses - I got better and better at managing my illness, and by the time I'd turned 23, I had it thoroughly under control. I'm 25 now, and quite possibly, the happiest and healthiest I've ever been.

Don't just say you want to recover from your mental illness - act like it, too

Being a very active mental health advocate these days, people always ask me how I recovered. Half the time, I think they're looking for some sort of magical, out-of-the-box answer they've never heard before - and they almost seem disappointed when I tell them that all I did was do what you're supposed to do.

'But it's so hard!' they often retort. 'The stigma makes it so difficult to get therapy!'

'Depression makes me feel so exhausted - it's so hard to exercise when I feel that way!'

'I like drinking alcohol - I don't want to stop!'

'Self-help books are a bore!'

I know where they're coming from. Going to therapy isn't my first choice of things to do; I'd much prefer to eat fast food than salads and get drunk on the weekend like all my friends do; and most of the time I don't feel like going to the gym.

But I take optimum care of myself because I want to be happy - just like I kept training two minutes after I'd been puking my guts out because I wanted to be a professional basketball player.

Some people I played basketball with went on to play professionally. They were the ones who did whatever it took to achieve their dream - including many things they didn't necessarily like doing. I also know a lot of players who didn't make it to the pros - sometimes arguably due to injury - but mostly because they just didn't work hard enough.

Similarly, I know people who have recovered from depression and bipolar disorder because they set themselves the goal of doing so and then worked hard to achieve it. Unfortunately however, I know far more people who've never managed to get their illness under control, and have been plagued by it for their entire life. And almost always, it's because they've never done the things they need to do to get better.

I understand such things are difficult, but let me leave you with this question:

What's harder: Doing the things you need to do to get better, or being shackled by your illness for the rest of your life?

I know what my answer is.

~~~

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