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The Pain of Accepting Your Brain Is Lying to You

I watched in agony as my friend flipped between holding onto her delusions of psychosis and dipping her toe into the pool of insight that they are a result of with her mental
illness.

The emotion associated with her impending decision was all too familiar. I held back tears. She felt angry at the clinician who told her the thoughts aren’t real. She felt panicked in attempting to prove the delusions were true. She felt heartbroken that her mind may actually be sick. She felt defeated that her mind could have deceived her.

She looked at me desperate for answers. But I had none.

I knew accepting insight into her psychosis would be too painful right now.

I knew because I remember exactly what it felt like to face this dilemma. For me, it took grieving, a plethora of emotion, and willful self-exploration to embrace insight. And it was extraordinarily painful.

It seems insight would be relieving for individuals with mental illness. But it is often the opposite.

At onset symptoms of mental illness, individuals may unknowingly adapt behavior to their skewed perception. How would someone know their perception isn’t accurate if they are accustomed to trusting their brains messages? Adaptation is a necessity to managing mental illness. And it often creates a storyline custom tailored to navigate and survive symptoms.

When I experienced sexual intrusive obsessions from my obsessive-compulsive disorder, I could not intelligently deduct them as a byproduct of a sick brain. I adapted and survived the symptoms by creating a story about God punishing me for committing sins. Rationally it made no sense, but mental illness does not follow rules of logic.

I built a life around this irrational storyline for 12 years. It was necessary to adapt and survive the symptoms of OCD.

When faced with a diagnosis of OCD instead of the grandiose storyline that kept me alive, I didn’t want to face the truth. I couldn’t write it off as simply as a diagnosis. It had been very real to me. In turn, it began a breakdown in my individuality.

The moment of perceived insight into my mental illness was the moment the pendulum froze, time stood still, and I pivoted between living a perceived fantasy or was forced to look at a scary and daunting reality. It was a moment of personal deception. It was a moment of fear, pain, relief, and terror wrapped in a state of shock.

While I felt a brief sense of relief that the symptoms of my illness weren’t my fault, I was forced to face the idea that my entire world was a lie. I questioned my identity. I questioned my intelligence. I questioned my ability to trust my brain and thoughts. I had to face the idea that my beliefs and perceptions were fake. I had to face that the person I had become was not a result of free-will, but the result of an illness I didn’t ask for or even know I had.

I had to face the stigma attached to the diagnosis. Who was I now? Was I “crazy?”

My only comfort was denial. I wanted nothing to do with this diagnosis. I wanted no one to know. I wanted to go back to who I was before the diagnosis because even in the worst of my symptoms at least my world made sense. At least I wasn’t labeled “mentally ill.” I would rather live in the misery of symptoms than face the world with this new identity.

It took me many years to be able to embrace insight into my illness. It took strength to break down the layers of shame and guilt I experienced as a result of that insight. It took courage to let go of the person I wouldn’t become and accept the person with a mental illness who was left. It was a grieving process. It took struggle, anger, and sadness to believe the Chrissie with a mental illness deserved a good life and was worthy of happiness.

The pain of insight is an individual journey. I took me 14 years to walk through that journey. The key was to see myself as not defined by my illness, but as someone who survived mental illness by being strong and resilient. I had to see myself as someone who deserves of love, acceptance, and joy despite my mental illness.

I recalled my journey as I watched my friend’s emotional exhaustion while she faced the battle of insight into her mental illness. I knew exactly where she was. I knew her identity had completely shattered into against rock bottom. I knew she had no energy to start picking up the pieces.

I wanted to help put her back together. I wanted to make it better. I wanted her to know it would be OK. But the journey to insight into mental illness is a personal journey. It is an individual journey. And it is inevitable to walk this path of insight to achieve recovery with mental illness. I had to let her make the choice on her own.

The following day my friend looked at me and said, “I can’t make the decision to believe this illness is real or not right now, but I can make the decision to believe I am a person who matters, not just a mental illness. I can believe I am a person worthy of a good life. I can believe I am a person who deserves happiness.”

And with that, I knew she’d begun the painful and enlightening journey toward insight.

Image via Thinkstock.

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