On September 4, 2014 I was lost. I had just been released from hospital the day before into the care of my parents. I was living in a new community, and knew that things had to change, but I had no idea how to do this. What I did have was a beginning.
You see, I had an appointment to meet with the hospital counselor that morning.
But that beginning was filled with uncertainty. My new home was a couple of hours from the hospital, so I hoped to find supports nearer to it. I honestly didn’t know if any nearer supports existed, although I assumed that they must, so I knew I was going to ask the counselor about that. To my good fortune, the counselor gave me the name of the Canadian Mental Health Association (Durham), the concept of mindfulness and my initial introduction to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Not bad for a meeting that barely lasted thirty minutes!
The CMHA (Durham) could possibly provide me with community support, while mindfulness and CBT could help me work through my depressive episode. Yet, there was still uncertainty because I didn’t know that the CMHA would help me, and I certainly knew nothing about how mindfulness and CBT worked. But at least I had a starting point, something to work from.
Immediately upon arriving home, I called the CMHA, and through that simple act of making a phone call, started a relationship with that agency that continues to this day. My involvement with the CMHA has had a profound effect on my recovery and life. It acts as a guide, directing me to mental health resources in my area. It has encouraged me on low days, praised me on good days and has kept me grounded and balanced throughout my recovery.
By this point, you’re no doubt wondering where I’m going with all this. I wanted to show how seemingly small acts can have significant effect. Meeting a counselor for a brief time gave me information I needed and still use today. A phone call led to a long-lasting community support, and that community support directed me to other supports. All it took was asking a question, making a phone call, listening to the information and applying it in small increments over time. It was not easy. Recovery never is. But each act was the best I could do at that time, a “baby step” forward to improved health.
This is no different than the advice we give to each other within mental health communities. We all advise each other to go slowly, to breathe, to do your best. We all use the words “baby steps”. We all sense, innately, that despite our desire for immediate relief, true recovery is a slow and painstaking process. It takes time; it is rocky and it is difficult. But it is also doable.
This brings to my mind the fourth agreement of Toltec wisdom found in Don Miguel Ruiz’s book, The Four Agreements, to Always Do Your Best. It is important to recognize that your best will change from moment to moment, hour to hour, day to day. Moreover, for everyone, but particularly those of us struggling with our mental wellness, our best will be different when we are sick versus when we are healthy. Doing our best is not perfection. It is doing what we are capable of at that moment in time to the best of our abilities. No more, and no less.
If we are in the midst of a depressive episode, our best might be no more than getting dressed, or staying in bed, or going out, or tidying our home. All we can ask of ourselves, all anyone can ask of us, is that we do our best. If we do this, we have been successful, no matter how small the success. Let me reframe that. While in a depressive episode, getting out of bed can require Herculean strength, so what might seem like a small success to the wider world, is massive to the depressive. It is an act of doing his or her best within the limits of his or her illness. That is praiseworthy!
In writing this post, I was struck by a memory. I was considering the words “baby steps”, and recalled an image of my son when he began to walk. His first steps were very tentative, very cautious. He would hold onto whatever support was available and oh so gently move one quivery leg at a time. There were many falls, but each one only seemed to fuel his determination. He would set his face in concentration, pull himself up and try again. The joy I saw on his face, and his laughter accompanying that joy, when one step became two, two became three then became steps without holding on to something, is a memory I treasure.
I realized that when I see the words “baby steps”, I return to this memory. Consequently, I see more than just an orderly progression of small increments. I see the tentative beginning, the quivering movement filled with uncertainty. I see the holding onto all support available. I see the trial and error, the temporary failures and the determined effort to try again. I see the growth in confidence, the straightening of a leg, the reduction in the leg’s quiver, the development of balance. I see the joy at each small success and hear the laughter that accompanies that joy.
When I use the words “baby steps” in the context of mental health, all of these elements are present.
I see the depressive, struggling to make the most basic decision. I see the doubt and the effects of negative self-talk upon you. I see the determination it takes to actually do something, accomplish something. I see the success that you may not. When I see this, I will remind you of it and encourage you, as I have often done on Twitter, to celebrate it for I know that the illness tries to belittle your effort.
When considering recovery I see its tentative beginnings, the idea fraught with doubt and uncertainty. I see the reaching out for support, holding onto it steadfastly. I see the many paths taken to recover, the tools explored, some that work and some that do not. I see the brief relapses that foster renewed doubt and the determination that allows you to move on despite the setbacks. I see the growth in confidence, the development of your self-esteem, the comfort you have in the tools that work. I see you smile at your successes and laugh at how far your recovery has taken you.
I see you doing your best, whatever your best may be at that moment. I see you take the baby steps, whether to cope with your day, or further your recovery. I see that each small success, each baby step, moves you along a path. In time, I see your joy at your successes and hear the music of your laughter. What more can be asked of you?