Yesterday was the one year anniversary of my admission to an inpatient facility. Admission is a great word for what happened to me one year ago because I was not only technically registered into a behavioral health facility, but I was admitting that my mental health was at a point that I no longer knew how to deal with it.
Notice that I did not say that I couldn’t deal with it. Though I would have used that word one year ago, I know better now. I know that we are capable of handling everything in our lives, good and bad. I know that contrast (bad things) exist to teach us about what we desire and who we are, and to remind us to savor the good because no experience, either good or bad, is permanent. I walked into that facility thinking that I needed help because I “couldn’t” deal with my OCD, but a weekend in the hospital taught me that I could at least cope. Then, roughly eight weeks later when I graduated from the partial hospitalization program, I understood that I was not only capable of coping, but I was capable of dealing with OCD, I just needed the right tools. When I discharged from the program, I had those tools, but I was still very unpracticed at using them. One year later, I am hardly an expert, but I can tell you with certainty that my skills with my toolset are drastically improved. My mental health is a pendulum, I have good days and bad days. However, when the days are bad I no longer feel like OCD is a steamroller, slowly flattening my life. Instead, OCD is an unruly child, which requires some attention (“what is it that you need? why are you acting out?”) and occasionally, a good old fashioned time out.
There’s so much I want to relate to you guys about what I am learning, and I’m sorry that I haven’t been the best steward of this blog. The truth is that my life has been really busy, in mostly positive ways, and I’m still trying to fit writing back into my life. But I wanted to acknowledge the anniversary of my admission and share a little bit with you about what has made a difference in this past year.
You already know my love affair with value-driven behavior, and I can’t stress enough the impact that devoting myself to my values has had on my life in the last year. Mental illness creates footholds in your mind if you allow it to, and those footholds make it easier and easier for it to work its way into your life and climb to the highest peaks of you, to the parts that matter most. Value-driven behavior helped me to smash the footholds that my OCD was trying to create. Focusing on my values and behaving the way I would without OCD meant that OCD couldn’t find the footholds it needed. It isn’t easy at first. It requires constant vigilance and pushing through difficult emotions to stay focused on values while mental illness desperately tries to distract you and gain footing. But the more you practice it, the easier it gets. I promise you that. If you haven’t already, head over to my post on Value-Driven Behavior and spend some time with the worksheets there. If you get stuck, or if you just want to chat about this concept, feel free to drop me a line! I’d love to hear what your values are and the kinds of behaviors you’re choosing in order to live into them!
The second concept that I want to share with you is that emotions are just data. Our brains are continually funneling data our way. As you go about your day, your brain is processing everything that you come into contact with, and many of those things will elicit an emotion. If you wake up and the sun is shining, you might smile and feel hopeful about the day to come. If someone gives you a dirty look on the street, you might feel defensive or vulnerable. We don’t have much control over these types of involuntary emotions, but what we do have control over is how we react to them. For example, let’s say you woke up and it was rainy and gloomy outside, you might feel down or disappointed. You might not feel so excited about the day to come. As a result, you’d trudge through your day and you’d probably get the crummy, dismal day you were expecting. You’d be responding to your emotions as though they were directions that you had to follow, and that’s what a lot of us do. BUT, if you’ve practiced treating your emotions like data instead of directions, your process might look something like this: “Hm, the weather is gloomy today, and I’m feeling disappointed about that. But that’s okay. I know that I don’t need the sun to be out to have a great day.” You could choose instead to be grateful for what rainy days bring (a couple of days of not having to water my vegetable garden, if you’re me!), or if gratitude is too hard (because if you’re way low down, gratitude is just too far a reach sometimes, I get that), you can at least choose to recognize your bummed emotion as a gut check reaction to the weather, and not a firmly paved path that you must follow. I’ll expand more on this concept, as I did with Value-Driven Behavior, in a future post, but I wanted to introduce it to you now because I have found it to be helpful in the last year.
In therapy last week, I hit on something which I think sums up very well the way that my mindset has changed over the past year. Lots of things are still happening in my life which are difficult or would typically be very triggering for OCD. At the end of 2017, we discovered that my oldest son had a rare, aggressive cyst in his jaw which required two surgeries to remove (he is now recovered, and there is only a 5% chance the cyst will return). We started 2018 with my youngest son having a bout of the stomach virus so bad that we ended up in the hospital for fluids, then that same child broke two bones in his right arm just a week later. I have had some chest pain and breathing trouble that has resulted in the discovery of nodules in my lungs (so far they aren’t worried about them though), a lesion on my spleen which is still unexplained, and a Holter monitor which revealed that my heart throws two different kinds of extra beats (I am having a stress test and an echo-cardiogram next week). I have been in near constant pain from this mystery auto-immune illness (I am due for another round of blood work in April which will hopefully bring some answers). We are renovating our house, which has been exciting but stressful.
It’s a lot, right?
A year ago, I would have been drowning. I would have been dreading the next thing. I would have been saying things like “Why does stuff like this always happen to me?” I would have been living under the weight of the “Other Shoe” sensation, believing that my life is a series of stressful, negative events. And since that’s what I would be believing, that’s exactly what I would get. Or at least, that’s what I would see.
Instead, my life is still a never boring series of adventure and experiences. Some of those experiences are good, and some of them are bad, but I see the negative stuff as contrast. I don’t enjoy it, but I know that contrast experiences are necessary to our lives. You can’t avoid the bad stuff, but you can avoid letting it control you. Contrast teaches me about who I am and what I want. My experiences with my health troubles have taught me that I want to feel vital again, and they’ve taught me that I haven’t been the best steward of my body. My experiences with my health have led me back to fitness, and in the last few months, I have made changes to my diet which have already shown positive results (my cholesterol is almost back in the normal range!). My experiences with my children lately have taught me that my instincts as a mother are pretty damn good. OCD tried to convince me that I couldn’t be trusted to react correctly in the face of health issues, but that’s not true. I’m in tune with my children, and I’m good at knowing how to care for them. My experience with my son breaking his arm showed me, yet again, that my husband is an amazingly empathetic and emotionally courageous person. We handled a situation, which was exceedingly hard and traumatic for our son, like a well-oiled machine. Our teamwork made the experience as easy as it could have been.
Do you see what I am doing? I am not saying the bad stuff was “good.” But I know that the bad stuff was just stuff, and I get to choose what I get out of it. When you start to practice seeing contrast (bad stuff) this way, you inadvertently train your brain to stop expecting bad stuff. I am dealing with things better because I don’t believe that “this sort of stuff always happens to me.” I am dealing with everything life throws at me because I am not waiting for the other shoe to drop. That would require me to live in dread of the future, and I’d much rather live in the joy of the present.
So, one year ago today, I was miserable in an inpatient ward. I was at one of the lowest points of my life. I was deep in the contrast. And yet, without that admission, I wouldn’t be where I am at today. So, I choose to be grateful for that low point. I am so grateful for that past version of me. Admission required bravery. Admission required vulnerability. Admission required me to own that what I was doing wasn’t working, so I needed someone to teach me something new. I hold that moment of contrast in high regard.
The band Birdtalker has a song about depression called Blue Healer which I love, and I want to leave you with some of the lyrics that I think sum up so perfectly everything I have learned in the last year:
And now I stand tall
Used to think my sorrow was a brick wall
Made me want to curl up in a tight ball
But there’s a gate here
You can only find it if you wait here
Now I’m walkin’ through it with my gaze clear
Me and the Blue Healer