How I learned to prioritize my mental health from an early age

Alyssa Silva avatar

by Alyssa Silva |

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When I was a little girl, I had many life-threatening hospitalizations, the first at 16 months of age. Ten months after I was diagnosed with SMA, I experienced my first bout with respiratory syncytial virus and was intubated for weeks.

Though I was too young to be aware of what was happening, I vividly recall a memory my mother once shared with me about that hospitalization. A nurse had come into my room one day and gently suggested administering medication to let me go peacefully. The reality was that even while intubated, my oxygen levels were very low, and death seemed imminent. But my mother was horrified by the audacity this nurse had to suggest this and immediately shut down her idea. She believed I would get better, and her faith remained unwavering.

Fast forward a few years later, and I was hospitalized again with pneumonia. During this stay, my health got worse for quite some time before it got better. And every morning, the doctors did their rounds discussing the reality of a grim situation.

After they’d leave, I’d grow weary. I’d become scared. I wanted to be at home playing with my brother and not hooked up to so many machines I didn’t like. Finally, one day, my mother asked the doctors to no longer discuss the status of my illness in the room. Instead, they were to step outside to chat. From that point forward, only positive thinking was allowed inside those four walls, and only then did I start to get better.

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Half the battle

As I got a little older and gained a broad understanding of what it meant to be sick in the hospital, my parents practiced positive thinking with me. My mother was more realistic in her approach in the way she taught me how to stay strong in tough situations. My father, however, promised me I’d never have more hospitalizations than trips to Disney. It was a great motivator for a 6-year-old, but I carried that promise into adulthood. Now, his wallet suffers. At least my father is a man of his word, though.

Of course, overcoming those illnesses required more than just positive thinking. Each hospital stay has also shown me the power of medicine, a team of great doctors and nurses, family support, and faith. But those early years of being hospitalized taught me a lesson about fighting the good fight: My mental health is half the battle.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and over the years, I’ve learned that taking care of my mental health is as important as my physical health. In taking care of my mental health, I’ve also learned that having positive thoughts isn’t enough. Though that worked for me as a child, I now know that life is more complex than that. Living with SMA brings daily challenges, nuances, and the like that often affect my mental health. There are many external factors at play as well, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and ableism.

For me, focusing on my mental health means often checking in with myself and how I’m feeling mentally. It means making time for things that fill me with joy. It means being gentle with myself and asking for help whether from a friend or a therapist. It means knowing there are days when my mental health will suffer but that doesn’t mean I’m failing.

Learning to strike a healthy balance between my physical and mental health is not easy. In fact, it’s something I still haven’t figured out yet. In spite of this, I work hard at nurturing both every day because I know it’s worth it. When my mental health feels stable, I feel more equipped to tackle my physical health. I feel more energetic, hopeful, and confident to face SMA and not let it have the upper hand. And somewhere inside of me, I know that little girl lives on.

Note: SMA News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of SMA News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to spinal muscular atrophy.

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