Mental Health: Accepting Healing Over Time

 

Valarie Ward has written a good breakdown of how pop mental health writing is often not only unhelpful, but perpetuates stigma and judgment. Treatment–whether chemical, cognitive, or situational–can support and help to heal mental health, but it’s not a magical instant “cure.”

It’s useful to find the type of treatment or intervention that is most helpful and supportive to YOU. It doesn’t mean you’re “doing it wrong” if you still have symptoms or flare-ups. It means that humans are biological, not mechanical objects that can have new parts swapped in for an instant fix. [See: PTSD as chronic illness]

There is nothing wrong with trying to find things that help you feel better and function better. We encourage you to explore treatment modalities!

But the danger in chasing a “cure” can be the idea that if it’s not “cured,” then we just aren’t trying hard enough. Plenty of people with mental illness and injury hear this message from well-meaning friends, family, and loved ones, though sometimes in different words.

“You’ve been in therapy for weeks/months/years, why isn’t it helping?”: If it’s truly not helping, then of course try something else, or something additional!

But often this really means “I’m upset that you’re not ‘cured’ yet.” Unfortunately, we may also internalize these messages ourselves, which just means that we have found another “should” with which to beat ourselves up; another way to use perfectionistic standards against ourselves.

Instead, notice how far you’ve come since you started working on your healing. Even if it has only been a few days, I bet you already learned some things that help you to comfort yourself or to reframe your thoughts in a healthy way that hurts less!

And if you’ve been working on healing for a while, I bet you are experiencing more days during which you can get out of bed. Or get out of the house. Or days you can do some meaningful work or play. Or days you can spend time with your children. Or fewer days spent in the hospital. Or a better ability to see yourself having a future. Or a few more relationships that are going a little better than they used to. I bet you’ve already done a lot more healing than you think!

So instead of beating up on yourself for not suddenly being “cured” or “fixed,” take stock of how your healing really is progressing, and be proud of yourself. ❤

 

Healing, Not Fixing, PTSD

 

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is often best approached as a chronic condition that may have “flare-ups.” This is true of many other mental illnesses and mental injuries as well.

It can certainly be the case that someone experiences some symptoms of PTSD one time and never again in their life, but for most of us, what it means is that we are vulnerable to experiencing symptoms again during periods of stress (or in the case of activating events).

We are experiencing healing, which means we are able to improve certain things with support and as we learn to attend to ourselves, but we don’t know how much everything will heal nor how long it may take. This is different than “fixing,” which is when we remove a “broken” part and replace it, and then everything is as though nothing ever happened. You are an organism, not a bicycle.

This does not mean “I have PTSD, so now everything is hopeless forever,” it means that we need to learn how to manage our environments, life situations, and our selves in order to reduce the severity of symptoms and the likelihood of recurrence, rather than to assume “I haven’t had any symptoms in a year, this must mean it’s okay to stop attending to myself!”

It means not subjecting ourselves to unreasonable stressors and life-sucking situations, personally and in our work. It means taking our physical and emotional discomfort seriously instead of blowing it off until it blows up. It means not listening to internalized minimizing messages that say “suck it up” when distressed. It means learning to re-parent ourselves where necessary.

It means treating ourselves with support, care, and dignity, and developing boundaries to ensure that others do, too. It means practicing self-care as a habit, not only when unduly stressed. It means recognizing symptoms as symptoms, rather than as some kind of weakness that deserves self-punishment.

It means learning what events, people, and circumstances make your symptoms worse, and modifying those as best you can. It means learning what activities, people, and circumstances help you feel better, and including those more. It means taking yourself to the doctor or the therapist when you need to go. Sounds simple, but it’s not always easy!

Basically, it means learning to take care of ourselves “as though” our well-being actually mattered instead of as an afterthought. Let me repeat: treat yourself like your well-being matters, because it does. ❤

 

“Treating yourself with kindness is a life skill. It doesn’t matter whether you are ”good at” this skill It only matters that you keep going💛” — Jeffrey Marsh

 

 

It’s Very Good; It’s Not Okay

It’s very good to support women and be anti-sexist; it’s not okay to use racism in critiquing sexism.

It’s very good to support BIPOC and be anti-racist: it’s not okay to use anti-gay prejudice in critiquing racism.

It’s very good to support LGBTQ folks and be anti-heterosexism/transphobia: it’s not okay to use classism in critiquing heterosexism/transphobia.

It’s very good to support financially marginalized people and be anti-poverty: it’s not okay to use ableism in critiquing classism.

It’s very good to support the disability community and be anti-ableist; it’s not okay to use ageism in critiquing ableism.

It’s very good to support the agency of children and elders and be anti-ageism; it’s not okay to use fatphobia in critiquing ageism.

It’s very good to support body positivity and be anti-fatmisia; it’s not okay to use sexism in critiquing fatphobia.


 

You can mix these up all you want and they still apply!

If we are pointing out someone’s problematic behavior or words, we must remember not to use problematic words of our own to characterize them.

If we do, we’re not just criticizing that person, we are playing into stereotypes and making life harder for vulnerable others who are not that person. We are engaging in bigotry ourselves!

For useful, practical ways to call out problematic behaviors and words, check out this helpful guide from Southern Poverty Law Center.

 

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Mindfully Running a Half-Marathon

Having PTSD and asthma means that there are many times I can’t run or my training is derailed for short or long periods.

I began running because it was an activity I remembered enjoying in childhood, and I really wanted to reclaim it. I also wanted to improve my cardiopulmonary health. I never thought I would make it up to even a single mile! But that wasn’t the important part. I wanted to develop a habit and create new, positive mental associations.

My training method was this: I would run only as far as it felt good and enjoyable, and then stop or walk. If I felt like it, I could start again. When I felt done, I was done!

Because I took the performance pressure (“shoulds”) off myself and made the activity 100% about enjoyment and health, it ended up being something I have stuck with, and I progressed far more than I imagined possible.

Not only do I only run as much as feels okay, I likewise never pressure myself to run when I’m not feeling well, or I’m too tired from missing sleep, or something hurts.

In this way I am mindful of not being a punitive taskmaster towards myself, which would activate PTSD symptoms and also put me at increased risk for injury or illness. Exercising punitively is a form of perfectionism that can be injurious very quickly.

I accept my current level of ability as it is, knowing it does not make me superior or inferior to anyone else. I also know my ability is temporary, fluctuates, and includes a large component of sheer luck.

I pay caring attention to my body’s needs, which sometimes (often!) means I have to re-start my training all over again from mile 1. But it also means I am more likely to be able to continue running further into my lifespan.

I hope that whatever kind of exercise you prefer, you remember that the point of exercise is to improve your physical and mental health, rather than to punish your body (for eating, for example!) If you are exercising in a self-punitive way, it will not be healthy for you for very long.

And I want you to experience as much physical and mental health as you can, for as long as you can!

Instead of “Privilege,” Think of Game Settings

The classic John Scalzi discussion of how the emotionally difficult term “privilege” can be explained with a gaming metaphor. All models may be wrong, as they say, but some models are useful. And this model has held up as very, very useful:

You Are Not “Lazy”

“I’m not getting enough done, I’m so lazy.” “I ended up hardly doing anything Sunday and I felt so lazy.” “I need to get this one task done, but I keep being lazy about it.” “After work I’m just too lazy to work out.” “I’m too lazy to keep track of things.”

In fact, I have never met a lazy person.

I’ve met people who are: overworked, exhausted, sleep-deprived, in chronic pain, ill, mired in depressive episodes, struggling with anxiety, stuck in intolerable situations, and having attention difficulties, but I’ve never met a lazy person.

“Lazy” doesn’t really mean anything clinically. It’s a “folk” term, and it is primarily used as a pejorative towards self or others. One patient summed it up as “not doing what you think you ‘should‘,” and I think that’s a good all-around summation.

Calling yourself “lazy” is usually an internalized message from caregivers in your formative years. It could have been directed towards you or towards others. The message is “You are unacceptable unless you do what I want, regardless of your ability, wishes, or how you are feeling.”

If you are injured, walk it off! If you are tired, too bad! If you are sick, it can’t be that bad since you’re not actually in an ambulance on the way to the hospital! Just because you don’t want to do something is no reason not to do it! You’re just “lazy”! In other words, how you feel and what you want do not matter. Ignore your own feelings and your wishes.

“Lazy” has also been used (and still is) as a way to demean racial minorities, those with disabilities, the poor, and women. Please be especially careful not to re-enact racism, ableism, classism, and sexism on yourself by calling yourself lazy!

The implication is that if you would just “will” yourself to do whatever it is, then you would be acceptable and worthy. If not, then you must just be a bad, unworthy person and you must deserve bad treatment.

The fact is, you are already acceptable and worthy, without doing anything to “earn” that worth. Now, you might feel better or happier if you were doing certain things, and they are certainly worth trying, to see if that is the case. But telling yourself you are “lazy” is not helpful.

Feeling awful about yourself is not a good motivator for anyone. And it is in no way helpful in mitigating situational factors, such as poverty or prejudice. In fact, it is likely to worsen your exhaustion, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and concentration, which will make it even harder to do whatever it is you would like to be doing.

Instead of calling yourself lazy when you did not do something you intended to, try paying attention to your feelings. Are you tired? Has it been weeks since you had a good night’s sleep? Have you been working 60 hours at three different jobs? Do you have an infant or a toddler? Are you taking care of others’ needs? Are you sick? Are you getting sick? Are you going through an exhausting life transition? Are you grieving? Are you experiencing chronic pain or illness? Are you in a depressive episode? Are you experiencing anxiety/phobia about certain tasks? Do you have PTSD? Are there systemic barriers to your tasks that make them much harder than they are for others? Have you been paying attention to self-care?

It may be that you have internalized some unrealistic expectations for what you “should” be able to do. It may be that some others can do the thing you want to do. It may be that on “good” days you have been able to do twenty times as much as you are doing today. But where are you, just you, today, right here, right now? Maybe you’re doing the best you can with what you have at your disposal right now. Maybe that is enough.

Another day, you may be able to do something more or something different. But accepting yourself right now is even more important than doing the thing. And that does not make anyone “lazy.”