Lately I’ve found myself reframing stressful experiences by highlighting the positive aspects, seeing them as learning experiences, or considering the new opportunities they provide. A prime example of this occurred while I was walking to class last Wednesday, feeling absolutely horrible about myself for being late. I thought about how I felt (almost suicidal), what had triggered it (fear that I would never belong in a group), how I would have responded in the past (stayed home, possibly hurt myself), and how I was behaving at the time (going to class!).
I wasn’t exactly in the best frame of mind to think positive thoughts about myself, but I imagined the instructor saying, “Wow, you were feeling that insecure and you still came to class? That shows a lot of dedication! This must be very important to you.” In other words, I imagined someone else saying something positive about me – the thoughts were my own and they contained positive self-talk, even though I couldn’t express and experience it directly as such. That’s… actually quite healthy.
Since then I’ve taken some time to put the whole incident in perspective. There were a lot of factors that made doing my schoolwork and showing up on time for class on Wednesday very difficult for me. I’d spent most of the weekend decluttering, a task that – while necessary and healing – I found very stressful. Fox had offered to join me in continuing that task on Monday, but instead we ended up shoveling snow. I stayed up all night in preparation for a daytime sleep study on Tuesday… during which I did not sleep. Lack of sleep alone probably would have been enough to undermine my ability to function on Wednesday, and I was already painfully aware of the 17th anniversary of my father‘s death on Thursday. I believe it may have predisposed me to cognitive distortions like only viewing the negative aspects of things, generalizing, and catastrophizing.
As much as I’d like to be functional at this time of year, it seems most adaptive to accept that I will need to take “mental health” days on and around February 5th – and to plan accordingly. At the very least, I need to do my best to avoid making extra appointments around this time, especially since I never know how the weather might impact my plans. It’s not a weakness, it’s making an informed decision and engaging in self-care.
Considering everything that was going on, I handled myself quite well on Wednesday. I actually got up, got dressed, and tried to go to class. I traveled all the way to the classroom door before my anxiety got the best of me. The class has a strict attendance policy, so I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned about the consequences. But all I did was miss one class. That’s a very minor mess up in the grander scheme of things.
More importantly, when I got home I wrote a blog post about my thoughts and feelings. I expressed what was going on instead of allowing it to consume me; this kept me safe until Fox came home, hugged, and comforted me. Even though I couldn’t reach out to anyone directly, the public post let Banji know what was going on. She reached out to me and we had an awesome, healing conversation. The written record has also made it easier for me to talk about and reflect upon what happened. This blog is an awesome resource that I’ve created for myself and that you, my readers, have helped maintain as a safe space. Thank you.
The imagined conversation in my most recent post is a reframing of my Wednesday class as an opportunity for growth and healing. This is a big deal for me. Yalom (the author of our primary textbook) recommends understanding mental illnesses in terms of how they affect our relationships – both with other individuals and our ability to function within groups. He instructs (group) therapists to treat these difficulties, for they are the true pathologies clients face. In this class, not only do I have to function in a group where the expectation is that we’re all “normal” (to be honest, I have a hunch that at least 20% of us have mental illnesses – probably more considering we’re all studying to be therapists)… but I’m also studying myself as the “other” as I read and listen to class discussions about people with mental illnesses, “their” problems, and how to treat “them.” It’s all about what I need and often feel I can’t have, what I simultaneously strive for and run away from.
This class is the embodiment of my psychopathology, including (especially!) the internalized stigma. I’ve already had to drop it once; on Wednesday I thought that history would repeat itself. But in reality I have a choice, and that choice is mine alone. I can decide I’m not ready to face it so directly; far from “another failure,” this option opens all sorts of opportunities to me. I could focus more on activism, composing, write a book, find a job, volunteer, hang out at Fox’s workplace all day, read every book in the library … there are too many possibilities. I spend my life playing Skyrim because I’m overwhelmed by all the possibilities. But they’re there! And each one comes with its own challenges. Each one will probably cause me similar problems, all linked back to some aspect of my psychopathology. Each one holds some potential for personal growth.
Or I can keep going to class on Wednesdays and be in that group, whatever that means. I’m increasingly convinced that it needs to include coming out as having mental illness, even if the conditions are not ideal. I could be so vague as to say “I have a mood disorder” or explain that “I live with depression, anxiety, and occasional hypomanic symptoms.” I’m leaning toward the latter because it paints a more interesting, complex, and accurate picture.
I really hope that whatever I say will encourage the other students in that class who have mental health issues to speak up, because there’s no way I’m the only one. One of the readings for this week (by Yalom) was all about how the therapist needs the courage and confidence to be human in the therapy group – fallible, affected by group members, and in the process of learning about zirself through zir experiences in the group. Part of being human is having mental health issues – by Yalom’s definition, difficulty relating with others and functioning in groups, and even doing things that aren’t necessarily healthy in an attempt to be accepted by a group. Group therapy is therapeutic because it provides a safe place to stop doing those unhealthy things and try out new ways of being with individuals and groups – a space that is created and maintained first and foremost by the therapist. How can we create such a space for our clients, if we can’t do it for ourselves?
Before I can do it for my (future) clients, I need to do it for myself. I’m already a member of a group of student therapists who are learning to do group therapy and (probably) feel just as uncomfortable as I do. As much as I want to claim that I’m coming out to help and/or teach the other students in my class, what it ultimately comes down to is that I can’t struggle to pass as “sane” anymore. It hurts too much and requires too much energy. I need to be in the world and I need to be fully myself, including my mad self. Why not here and now?