Having dealt with mental illness since a young age, I have lapsed and relapsed more times than I can count. Each time I ended up in the hospital I felt like an enormous failure. I felt hopeless; it seemed like no matter how hard I tried – and I did try — I couldn’t seem to stay better. It made me begin to ask what the point of even trying was. During my most recent and most intense relapse, I discovered three things that had prevented me from making a true recovery, and hopefully won’t again.
1) The fear of feeling uncomfortable.
As is part of human nature, we are most comfortable with the familiar, even if it is unpleasant. Unfortunately, for those who are mentally ill, what we know is a world of depression, anxiety and unhappiness – living in a state of constant emergency. In a way, the illness becomes an addiction. It became my identity. Living without it, although amazing, is scary. When things start to look up and calm down, it is far too easy to self-sabotage and go back to the comfort of the rubble because at first, happiness is uncomfortable.
Time and time again, I found myself holding onto the past, unable to accept things for what they are. Even though it was torture, I didn’t know what to think if I was overanalyzing. Finding the courage to be my best friend instead of my own worst enemy is harder than one might think. I like being my own worst enemy because it’s what I know. Staying strong even when the unknown becomes overwhelming, or the temptation to self-sabotage builds up, is one of the most important conscious decisions I’ve made. In time, the new becomes the old and the unfamiliar the familiar; the hardest part is waiting that out, but with patience, it does happen.
“You think you look strong because you can hold on, but strength lies in letting go.” — Alan Mandell
2) The want to be right.
When we are given a new fact that is conflicting to one we already have, it leads to a feeling of mental discomfort called cognitive dissonance. To remove this feeling, we have one of two options; either change our belief to match the new fact, or alter the fact so it no longer proves our belief system wrong.
For as long as I can remember I’ve had a core belief I’m worthless, unlovable and a burden to those around me. When those around me did something to prove me wrong, I dismissed it or twisted it until it proved my self-hatred right. Selective attention meant I dismissed kindness and grasped on to the smallest amount of doubt or exasperation. It was a constant test with no right answer. Despite it keeping me miserable, I wanted to continue believing my core beliefs, so refused to accept evidence to the contrary.
It also meant I had a tendency to create self-fulfilling prophecies. The pressure it might come crashing down meant I made it.
I believed I was a burden and everyone would leave me, so I created situations where I was a burden and in the end, most people couldn’t cope and had to leave. I took these as signs I was uncared for or unloved, when in reality they simply felt they helped all they could and were looking out for their own well-being.
To truly maintain recovery, I’ve realized the importance in changing my core beliefs, allowing myself to be proved wrong, especially by myself. Only when I am able and willing to see the worth in myself will I be able to see I am worth something to others. Only when I begin to like myself will I actually want to help myself – and the first step towards doing that is to let myself be proven wrong.
3) Giving the control to others and avoiding responsibility.
One of the lines that stuck with me from the hospital was, “You suffer because you’re not prepared to go through the pain.” I knew all there was to know about how to improve — I can recite the unhealthy thinking patterns, the strategies to deal with distress and how to problem solve, without blinking an eye — but I never properly tried to use them. It was painful, it was uncomfortable and it was hard. Despite saying I wanted to help myself, I truly didn’t. I talked the talk, but I didn’t walk the walk, which is the only part that matters.
I was in the habit of passing on the responsibility of my actions to whoever was “in charge” of my emotions. When someone hurt me, I blamed them for the consequences. I didn’t realize I was the one in control of myself; that behavior and emotions were two different constructs. No one was in charge of what happened to me, no one could dictate what I did or how I felt – except for me. Realizing that was the hardest and most freeing thing I’ve ever discovered. To take the responsibility of myself on board for the first time in 20 years was intimidating, but it meant I could fix myself. It was no longer in the power of others. It’s clichéd but it’s true that happiness and contentment come from within. Nothing external can affect them – they’re just excuses.
There’s a saying: “Life will keep giving you the same test over and over again until you pass it.” I feel guilty for the mistakes I’ve made but I’ve learned the more guilt you hold onto, the more likely you are to repeat the mistakes. I did what I could with what I knew, and now I know better, hopefully I can do better. Taking responsibility for myself whilst being open to the help of others, and the idea I may be wrong, means I’m more perceptible to moving forward, no matter how uncomfortable it may feel at first.
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Thinkstock photo via Alexandr Ivanov