“Much of our time is spent battling our MH demons, recovering from the damage our illnesses inflict on us. However, recovery can mean much more than that. Recovery can give us an opportunity to learn new skills, and through this learning, acquire resiliency, ‘the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties’. This leads to improved self-esteem and increasing hope for a life apart from illness.
I firmly believe that my morning ritual, of drinking my coffee mindfully, has helped me develop some resilience. It has given me a moment, at the beginning of my day, to gather myself and prepare for whatever lies ahead. Similarly, my end of night gratitude journalling reminds me that my day has both good and bad and I can choose to highlight the good points. I still have a distance to travel on that journey, but the journey has begun.”
I posted the foregoing paragraphs on Facebook as a precursor to preparing this post. My thinking was that mental illness often reduces our capacity for resilience whereas recovery, if used as an opportunity, can allow us to cultivate resiliency. Let me explain.
I’ve battled Major Depressive Disorder since my teenage years. Each episode involved me slowly withdrawing from the world, retreating into an ever darkening void within my own mind. Each episode saw me ruminate on past misdeeds, revisiting them with scenario after scenario as I tried to correct every past misdeed. It didn’t matter that the deed was over and done with. Somehow, it or they had caused my current melancholy and arriving at a logically better outcome would lift the sadness. This meant that each episode immersed me in trying to solve why I was feeling such a deep and enveloping despair and then castigating myself mercilessly for failing to escape. Each episode saw me slowly whittle down my friendships and chip away at my self-esteem. In time, and of its own accord, each episode also came to an end.
However, certain facts remained. Each episode was longer and darker than its predecessor. The time between episodes was becoming shorter. My self-esteem was increasingly fractured and my friendships non-existent.
The pattern was set: live life normally, experience increasing darkness, fight it silently while wearing a mask of normality, fail in my fight and mentally abuse myself thereby increasing the depth of despair, somehow climb into the light and return to normality – repeat.
It seems clear that there is little evidence of resiliency evident in this activity. Yes, the darkness lifted, but it was akin to the eye of the storm because the darkness always came back as well, stronger and blacker and more threatening. In fact, I feel no shame in admitting to you that the last such episode almost ended by me taking my own life. It was happenstance that saved me, not resilience.
With this happenstance came recognition that a new approach was needed. What I was doing, had always done, wasn’t working. My near-death was proof of this.
So I reached out and made the first of many requests for help. I listened to the advice I received and I followed it. I actively researched my illness, reading articles and blog posts and books, listening to audio books and watching videos. If a book came with audio tools, I applied them. I played with my parents’ dog, rolling on the floor with him and laughing with the sheer joy of the experience. I took him for walks, cultivating mindfulness in my walks with him.
And I began to heal. And with that healing I realized that what I was now doing was showing true resilience. It wasn’t immediate but it was real.
What has changed is my approach to the time between storms. Now, rather than simply wait for the inevitable next onslaught of melancholia, I engage in activities that promote resiliency:
- I reach out to others for support;
- I give back for the help I’ve received by writing posts like this, through my time on SickNotWeak chat, by my tweets and blog posts and DMs;
- I no longer view every crisis as the harbinger of a depressive episode;
- I’m learning to accept my past, refusing to engage in endless rumination and learning to accept my limitations and live within them;
- I’ve a more balanced view of the world, not seeing only gloom, but also the light in each day;
- I maintain a gratitude journal that cultivates finding the joys in each day;
- I do my best each day, accepting that my best will change as each day itself changes;
- I walk more, adding a dose of exercise into my day;
- I meditate, and colour, and paint, and write;
- I take my medications regularly;
- I follow the advice of my doctors, and therapists and counselors.
Is it working? Yes. I’m in a better place than I’ve been in many years. I’m experiencing the longest period of calm that I’ve felt in years. Yes, there have been hiccups, my previous post touched on the most recent hiccup, but they’re temporary and, more importantly, they’re not portents of doom. They are merely hiccups, twists in the road.
There’s nothing profound in any of this. Nonetheless, for me it’s been life altering. After decades of engaging in the same futile pattern of behaviour, I found a way to take a new path, one that cultivates resiliency.
How do you cultivate resilience in your life?