When Mental Illness is Mental Wellness
[As I’m writing this, I’ve decided to add a content warning for themes of suicide and death. Not wanting to plotspoil or anything but yeah, content warning].
Yesterday was class no. 2 of the mandatory CBT educational workshop I need to attend if I want to get onto a list for counselling. There are 4 sessions, each of four hours long. I am an extremely frustrated student: CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) is the ‘counselling’ version of what I am trained to train others in, NLP (neuro-linguistic programming). In fact, to my mind, CBT is the poor cousin of NLP because NLP is so much more than just addressing how we think about things.
And this isn’t CBT sessions, I am not under the care of a counsellor where I can bring my issues and we can address them using the CBT toolset. This is an educational class to teach beginners in this thinking how they can apply some of the tools to their daily lives and so feel better. I am sceptical of learning anything new; especially as we are spending a lot of the time on what they are calling the Cognitive Cycle, and which I, through my NLP training would call the Communication Model, and through my One of Many coach training would call the Cycle of Creation. And it’s quite a scrappy version of those things, as it doesn’t acknowledge how we filter information, or the stories we attach to that filtered information through our past experiences, beliefs, values, or even hormonal fluctuations. (I couldn’t help myself, last night I had to introduce the concept of cycle tracking to the group; there are a lot of women in the group and it’s useful information).
So, I am a frustrated client in that room, and I would be feeling like I was taking the space of someone who was waiting to go, except for the fact that both weeks have had a lot of empty chairs in the room. But I am struggling. I’m doing all the things that CBT practices, I’m doing the things that I teach my clients to do to build and practice mental resilience. I know I’m eating more (gluten free) pasta than I should be, and drinking a little bit more wine than is helpful (and I do know the links between alcohol and low mood) but otherwise, I’m doing the things. I’m even exercising more with MS now than I was doing before the MS verdict was given.
There’s a form to fill in every week, the kind I’ve filled in countless times before when I was in CBT counselling (for the divorce), person-centred counselling (for the rape), group therapy (for the rape), repeat the last two again, and 18 months’ psychiatric care (for the PTSD from the rape). I’ve experienced a variety of modalities of help, and I know that one size does not fit all, which our NHS is determined to try, because CBT is cheap, and there are short term studies which show that CBT can have some impact (the trainers like to repeat that CBT is just as effective as an anti depressant a lot, and they also started last night to repeat that exercise is also just as effective as an anti depressant. This will take me down a whole other rabbit hole of writing, so I’ll just comment ‘sigh’ for now and maybe return to it another time). Even in what I do with my clients, I don’t prescribe a one size fits all approach; what we do, and how we do it, is different for everyone, and that’s why I have a broad toolset to which I’m always adding.
Anyway, I digress. I do that a lot at the moment, focus is not my thing these days. Although it is early(ish) morning, and I am writing this with my first coffee instead of going to the gym. But this was gnawing at me to write, and I’ll be getting to the point soon.
I had to fill out one of those forms which asks you to rate your mental wellness, or maybe it’s your mental illness. One of the questions asks ‘how often have you been bothered by… thoughts that you would be better off dead or of hurting yourself in some way’. And if you answer more than half the days, you have to fill out the form that asks you about whether you actually have any plans to end your life.
And yesterday I ticked more than half the days.
And so, in the break, they pulled me aside to reassure themselves that I wasn’t actually going to do anything to myself. Which I’m not. Not in the near future anyway. Because whilst there is an awful lot of ‘what’s the pointness?’ going on in my head, and when my friends have visited I have shared that OK, I’ll stay around until xyz happens , and this isn’t entirely in jest, I also know that this a normal and reasonable response to being told that you’ve got a chronic and degenerative health condition. I mean, show me the person who would be told, at an age which isn’t old age, that they can expect to be in a wheelchair within ten years, and that person would whoop and be happy and joyful with the wonder of life!
It’s mental health awareness week. This week, and all the time, we should be able to have a conversation about thinking about death, or suicide, as being perfectly natural responses to some of the shit life throws at us. Sometimes, what people define as mental illness (thoughts about death) is actually a mentally sane response to the circumstances causing the suicidal ideation. This is not something that we talk about, it’s probably one of the last taboos, and generally it makes other people incredibly worried and unable to know how to respond except with a fear of what you might do. This has always struck me as odd, because the one thing we all know is that we will die one day.
In my case, my ‘what’s the pointness?’ relates to the fact I worked damn hard to overcome all my mental ill-health problems, I beat PTSD, and then instead of just going about a small, quiet life, finding someone to settle down with and doing the 9-5, I decided to use what I had learned in putting my life back together to help others put theirs back together. I feel that I am allowed to think that it’s not at all fair, that this is making itself into a hurdle for me, making it harder for me to help others. I don’t have children, I have mountains of debt, I feel like I’ve already built more legacy than most people do in their whole lifetimes, and so, why should I have to live with pain everyday. If I were not feeling the ‘what’s the pointness’ of life, then actually I would question my sanity. I think that ‘what’s the pointness’ is the SANE response to the events currently current in my life.
And that’s what I explained to the trainer. And she did agree. And we had a conversation about her understanding I was there because it was a hoop I had to jump through to get onto the counselling wait-list, and she understood that I did know this stuff backwards, and that coming to terms with MS and chronic pain, and the unpredictable progression, was something that could do with being talked about in a therapeutic context. She’s going to see if she can fast-track me out of there, or at least when the four weeks are over. (And I know that then I will still have the issue of whether it’s the right modality of counselling for me, whether the counsellor is limited to only knowing their specialist subject of modality or can switch things around like my psychiatrist did, whether they will be trauma-informed, and chronic-illness informed. Or even if we can even establish a rapport, which to my mind is far more important than the modality of treatment. But I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it).
I have been struggling a lot with the fact that I run a business to help rape survivors live their ReConnected Life, and here I am, struggling with the idea of living my life. It’s one of the reasons (the MS fatigue, and GDPR are others) that I haven’t been active in my community group, in creating assets to help them, in selling my services. I do not like hypocrites, and I don’t want to be one. So, me coming to terms with how I can be struggling with ‘what’s the pointness’, when I know that’s what they’re often struggling with too, when it feels like most of the last ten years since the rape that’s what I’ve been struggling with, and then there was a small window when it was ok, and now that window has gone… Yeah, I need to work through this some more. But, it’s NORMAL. I get so cross with the term ‘disorder’ in (for example) post traumatic stress disorder – the symptoms of PTSD are entirely NORMAL and NATURAL responses to an incredibly traumatic and not-normal event. And so it is with this diagnosis. Anyone who goes whoopidydoo, the universe just has a plan, roll with it, from the off, is the very model of a not-sane individual. In my opinion.
This is a process. I’m in the eye of the storm. There are five stages to grief, and this is a grief, I need to mourn the loss of the idea of the life I was going to live, and then do the work to create again a new life that I will be living. I’ve done denial (mostly, I’m sure there’s more to come), and I’m yo-yo’ing between anger, bargaining and depression right now. I don’t even want to contemplate acceptance, that idea makes me angry. It’s a process.
And so in mental health awareness week (which is just coincidental really) I want to say, I’m not OK. And it’s OK that I’m not OK. Being OK would be very odd right now. I’m doing all my mental resilience things, and I’m still not OK, and that’s OK too. That doesn’t mean that they’re not the right things, just that right now, I need the time to process, and I need some support to do that. It’s OK that I am struggling, it’s natural to struggle sometimes.
Struggling doesn’t mean I’m not living a ReConnected Life, acknowledging I’m struggling means that I am very connected to what’s happening in my head, in my body, in my relationship to life. The person who puts on the brave face, who doesn’t acknowledge the pain they’re feeling inside, who keeps it all bottled up and doesn’t even dare face it by themselves, that’s the person who is disconnected and disassociated from the reality of life. To live ReConnected, we have to learn to bend and yield with all that life throws at us; and life can throw us more and more and more, because that’s what life is. I hope that when I’m out of this phase of the processing, perhaps I’ll be even better at what I do. I hope.
Sending love and solidarity to anyone struggling. To sit with the pain and acknowledge it’s existence, that’s the very definition of courage. To keep going, through the tears and despite the struggling, that’s the very definition of resilience. Ignore the people who say that resilience means the struggle disappears; we can over time build our resilience muscles to not notice some of the struggles we would have struggled with in the past, but just as a weight lifter won’t struggle with the 5lb weight that I currently think is really rather heavy and swear at my personal trainer for making me lift, that same weight lifter might struggle with lifting me.
It’s OK to not be OK.
Thank you for reading xx
(Still messed up musings, but I think I got there in the end..).