The Art of Being an Artist: Thunderstorms at Juno Beach
Mental Illness can be like a storm. One that creeps up on you or can be felt coming on for awhile. Either way it is a storm that smashes you against rocks, buries you in ten feet of snow, dumps torrential rain on your head or sucks you into a tornado.
For ones that do not experience storms of emotions like that are incapable of knowing what it's like to be in the eye of it. They want to know, they even have extreme empathy...
But they cannot know what it is like.
Our loved ones, our supporters - love us and care deeply for us. Unfortunately, and at great disappointment for themselves, they cannot relate.
Allow me to correct myself...
Mental Illness IS a storm.
We as survivors, whether we have survived great trauma or are merely surviving a mental illness brought on by chemical imbalances, we are responsible to do something about our mental illness. That responsibility lies squarely on our shoulders. Obviously it helps a great deal to have a large support system, willing and open minded mates, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and friends. But it does lie with each one of us to do something about our mental illness. If we do not, we are accepting that we will hurt ourselves and hurt others. That is a plain fact. True to dialectical form, we are failing ourselves and our friends and we are not monsters without a heart. Eyes wide open, look at yourself and be honest - we hurt our loved ones. Never intentionally, but they do hurt because of our illness.
It is perfectly caused.
Remember though, that while we are hurting ourselves and our loved ones, the entire mess is perfectly caused. There is a reason we cause ripples in the world around us affecting everyone in our paths. And that reason is in perfect synchronization with the powers that be. We did not make it that way and we are responsible to do something about it. I for one will not accept to simply hurt my loved ones. I will accept that I do, and perhaps I should use the word allow, I will not allow myself to pursue a life that willingly trumps through life knowing that I am hurting my loved ones and do nothing about it. A person that can do that, in my opinion, is a coward of the worse kind.
So what do we do?
We fight long and hard to gain tools and skills to keep fighting. A fight that proves to ourselves and to those around us that we have a spirit that will not allow our failings to fail us. A fighter of a different breed than what the typical world believes is a fighter. We are like a fighter with a cape, a super fighter.
Are you a fighter? It takes courage to stand up in a the bleakness that shrouds us and yell at the top of our lungs that we know we hurt our world around us and we are hell-bent to do something about it. Imagine the relief that our loved ones who have been hurt by our mental illness feel when they see us getting help, going to therapy, following through with our goals, programs, self-help books, or whatever our chosen path to gain tools and insight have been - they see the life inside of us working to not only help ourselves but to ease their pain too.
Do not misunderstand me, we are not the "cause" of their problems and do not allow a single person in your life to convince you that your mental illness is the cause of their problems, because unfortunately there are loved ones in our lives that will take that road. They will grab onto our mental illness and slap us in the face with it and blame us for their problems. In reality what is it that they are doing? They are shrinking back from their own responsibility to educate themselves about mental illness. They are taking the cheap way out, which is also cowardly, and failing to better themselves. They almost hold a heavier responsibility, in that they don't have the mental illness so they are already more equipped to deal with the realities that come along with being a loved one of a mentally ill person. If they choose to neglect that responsibility they are even more off base than we are.
So we fight and I know that there are many out there that are fighting. There are many, many of us out there that have climb mountainous difficulties, against impossible odds and have made incredible successes. We have worked ourselves through pain, blood, sweat and tears.
A lot of us out there can look back at our accomplishments and feel proud. We can see the road behind us, pocked with mud holes as evidence of the trials and experiences that we have been through, proving that we are staring what recovery looks like dead in the face. While we are so very assured of a success of "making it" because of our progress, mental illness means that we will never really stop working. We do not get to take a vacation from the noise in our heads, the effort it takes to get through social interactions, the immense tools it takes to live through triggers that can feel like mine fields in daily life. What we do accomplish however, is a lull in the experience. We have worked hard enough that perhaps we live a symptom free life, or we have made it as far as being able to put ourselves on auto-pilot making assessments of ourselves over the course of months or even years instead of daily. This brings joy, joy that perhaps at one point in our lives was a distant dream if not an improbability.
But there is a dirty little secret that those of us that have made it this far have. A secret that tears at our foundation...one that we dare not even whisper about for fear that our worlds will come crashing down around us.
Some of us that have come a long way in healing may not yet be aware of that secret, but I have. I have and I am terrified of it. I shrink back from admitting it is there for two reasons: A) I would never want to scare someone off from making a life worth living, it already feels impossible to take responsibility and commit to start at the beginning and B) I do not want to lose my accomplishments, I am afraid that I will forget how far I have come if I admit this secret or that it means I have failed.
Last night I have spoken of it as a fact for the first time. Before I have always commented on it as if "it feels like" or "it seems like" which is really allowing for the possibility that I may be making it up or imagining it. The stark reality, the one I didn't want to admit, is that it is real. It is a fact and I honestly, am not sure what to do about it. I am terrified of the ramifications of it...
You are probably at this point about ready to huck your computer or smart phone across the room - because you want to know what "it" is...
This is the best way I can explain it:
Picture the storms you have already weathered.
Perhaps like this:
They hurt. You, at times, feel as though you will not survive it - but you do. As you learn tools, one of them is to remind yourself when you are off baseline of what you have survived before. That is a great tool. It has carried me through many episodes.
But here is the horror that I am struggling with, while those past storms were happening often and the ones after working so hard were happening less and less frequently, the ones that happen after you have reached a reasonable level plain or you are in maintenance mode - those storms (which will happen because mental illness does not go away forever) feel like this:
Failing Well doesn't feel as though it is an option because they are so intense. I sometimes feel like they are all the past storms condensed into one storm. Sure they are so few and far between that one would consider my life to be virtually symptom free of the borderline personality disorder that I am a survivor of, one of which has no "cure" - but I have to be honest here... I am so terrified of those storms. I have found myself extremely frightened of when it may be coming. Which is ineffective living. It flies in the face of every skill I have learned, so I recognize that and I re-group and apply green light skills.
I have found though, that I am having to consciously use these green light skills more and more, where-as typically they tend come naturally, all due to the fear of weathering my next storm. Does this sound like a feelings follow focus conundrum? You bet. Which cues me to use more green light skills. This becomes tiring, so I have to enlist yellow light skills. This action of applying those skills more and more often is alarming because I wonder what is happening to me, I feel like I am looping back around to my starting point - here my mind has made a full circle back to: feelings follow focus and before I know it I am applying red light skills to an impending storm...
The very storm that started this whole mess. How ironic is that? Another frightening aspect to this puzzle is that when one of these mega storms hits it seems to take a little piece of me. This piece that has been obliterated by the storm carries the consequence of how long it takes to return to baseline, increasing the intensity of the next storm.
It feels like a bit of my soul dies each time and I wonder if I can get it back.
Since I am not an expert on mental illness - I cannot say that this experience won't pass or that every person will experience it. I also cannot say that if you do experience it that it means that treatment is failing you.
But it does remind me of something we all need to remember: Make very sure that each one us has accepted, radically if necessary, that our life has been forever changed by mental illness. There will be things that are just out of our limitations that perhaps we once desired. Please, be kind to yourself, grieve for that loss, it's OK. Here comes another dialectical thought, you have lost something and your life will be something that you can be proud of and something that you can be completely happy with. You can have a successful fulfilling life and you will never look back and think, "What if?" You will reach a point that you couldn't imagine your life any differently and you wouldn't change it for the world. That only comes with acceptance, taking responsibility and hard work. Having said that, I remind myself of this fact, I remind myself that just because I am experiencing this does not mean it has all failed and I examine what lies ahead.
Each stage of recovery comes with it's own set of feelings and necessary points to work through and I have to admit, where I sit now, anger has returned. I am angry that I wasn't warned about the intensity of these storms. I am angry that someone along the line through all of my therapy, books, workshops and education didn't warn me about what to expect. Had I been warned I feel as though I could have prepared better for it. Learned specific skills to better handle them, or at least not be so shocked that it is this way. I simply do not believe that someone in peer support didn't know that this happens, that professionals in all of their research hadn't come across this aspect. Maybe it was the choice of who I sought help from or the professional research I chose to educate myself with, although I don't buy into the fact that I would by chance happen to align myself with help for my illness that by happenstance I managed to get not one inkling of this because they didn't know. I have intensely reflected on the stages of DBT* and I have checked and double checked that I have been moving through those stages and yet this intensity is happening. At first I thought that perhaps I wasn't moving through the stages, that maybe I got hung up on a stage and had thought that I moved through it. I worried that maybe I was further behind than I once believed. But that to me, is the secret. I have been working through those stages, I am exactly where I had assessed myself to be and my storms are growing in intensity. Which causes the fear - because this feels more dangerous than my thinking had been at the beginning of all of this. I believe we lose some fellow survivors here...we lose them for good, they become victims at this point. It at times is perceived that, while I have survived many trials in the past, those trials pale in intensity and I can dangerously refuse to want to weather it.
Am I saying that this experience was purposefully withheld from me during my therapy and education process? No. Maybe it was mentioned, if it was, it was the teeny tiny print at the bottom, back cover of the book. OK, so that is a bit dramatic, I admit. I am currently reeling from one of those monster storms so I am sure my expressions are a bit tainted by it. But I do have to wonder, is this a product of the particular type of mental illness I have? Is this one of the ways in which the mental illnesses differ? Is this a BPD thing and that other mental illnesses don't have this aspect? I don't know, I am not a professional, I haven't spent years in school learning those sorts of details about the mental illnesses out there. I do pride myself on education, I feel it is the fuel that keeps us going. Always learning, always striving to better ourselves. I mean honestly that mentality would do us well to have as a society, mental illness or no. So I believe I am not ignorant to the types of mental illnesses and their differences but this one has me stumped and each time this happens and I am returning to baseline I find that I am more and more curious. I seem to thrive on wanting the answer to why it is this way. My tendency is to believe that it is something wrong that I am doing that puts me here, but that is certainly my emotion mind taking the reigns, it isn't balanced thinking and those conclusions are not coming from wise mind. I know that and accept that. To give credit to my accomplishment of therapy, I have to admit that it too must be perfectly caused. But how, right?
So I decided that since I don't have the "why" in this new chapter and I have come to believe that there is definitely a bit of stigma to it, like the sort of stigma that surrounded mental illness to begin with until our society started accepting the reality of mental illness and it's impact.Back then people didn't really talk about mental illness and I believe that this experience is sort of like that, we don't really talk about it for fear it means therapy won't work. So, I think it best to default to what works:
I think we need to be talking about this secret that many of us have, this secret that we are afraid to admit is happening for fear of appearing to be losing ground or reverting back to our old self. I think this is when it is the most crucial time to recall that we are doing the best that we can and we need to do better. That our best now is light-years better than our best yesterday, last week, last year or even years ago and we still need to keep moving. For me, since I don't fully understand why this exists, I believe the best way to keep moving is to talk about it. Discuss it, admit it without shame or guilt and try and figure this out together.
*The short and fast of the 4 stages:
Stage one: Acceptance of responsibility and behavior control. Focusing on gaining control over the dangerous and life threatening behaviors. Recovery plan.
Stage two: Emotional Experience. Addressing PTSD, etc. This is a very difficult stage because you are just getting your recovery legs on and are as at toddler is when he learns to walk, and yet you have to face demons you never before thought you could.
Stage three: Problem solving and learning what happiness and joy is like in daily living. This stage you are actually building that life that is worth living by living it more frequently. You are wearing your life that is worth living, you just haven't fully tailored it to your changing body size.
Stage four: Learning to live beyond the previous experience of ordinary perception. In this stage life is very different than during stage one. You will behave on a daily basis in a way that you did not believe you could during the beginning stages.Your skills and tools come to you with more ease and many experience a virtual symptom free life.
I like to add a stage: Continued growth and maintenance.This one will never end or melt into another stage. This is the one we ride on through to the end of the life that is worth living.