People with mental health conditions are often assailed with a whole array of ideas and suggestions for aiding their recovery. But Erin Stewart says ignore them, do your own thing and take control.
Desperation in the context of ill-health is barely unique to those living with mental illness. An array of websites and expensive products posit that they have the cure for cancer, diabetes, auto-immune disease and so on. All people feeling unwell with chronic conditions are vulnerable to such scam artistry. The difference is that they are kept afloat by the tenets and treatments of established medical science.
Mental illness is a peculiar health issue as it implicates not only genetic and lifestyle factors, but the entirety of an individual’s experiences. While treatment includes some combination of medication and therapy, many people seem to require something extra to hold their symptoms at bay.
Sometimes depression is like carrying around a heavy sack with you everywhere you go. You can do all the things you’ve always done but it’s difficult and painful and very hard to enjoy. After a while of living like this, depression begins to feel more like being encased in cold, grey concrete. You are so depleted of energy from carrying around this burden with you that you no longer see the point of going anywhere.
In times where I’ve felt the undeniable sinking feeling, where everything I’ve ever cared about has drifted upwards and away, I would have done anything to feel good again.
This is not such a bad place to be. Despite feeling dreadful, I retained some hope that there were things I could throw at the growing bog – like an ancient sacrifice – which would lead to my fantastic return to wellness.
This is also a very vulnerable place to be. No treatment, no exercise plan, no dietary fad is off-limits, as long as some person, somewhere, said it could help me.
And so it went that alongside my therapy referrals and medication prescriptions, many alternative suggestions were also offered by GPs and psychiatrists alike. I should take up a sport: salsa dancing was the first suggestion, then jogging, then yoga and boxing. I should join a conversation group, a book club or a French club, but contrarily it shouldn’t involve work or study, it should only be fun. I should always be around other people all the time, despite my introverted nature and professional writing commitments. I should become less solitary and laborious in my passions. I should go see an acupuncturist, a chiropractor. I should ignore my claustrophobia and get an MRI on my brain. I should use an essential oil burner At All Times.
Don’t ever sleep more than eight hours, I was told, even if it’s the weekend. No caffeine. No gluten. No sugar. Apparently good things have been heard about the Paleo diet. Life is better if you schedule in every minute on a Google calendar and follow it strictly. But in a fun way, of course.
An alphabet of therapy was offered to me: CBT, ACT, DBT, both in group and individual settings. Everyone was keen on mindfulness. I was put on medication which made my cholesterol skyrocket and, when combined with the three other drugs I was taking, rendered me somehow both sleepy and edgy – but apparently I was ‘not overmedicated’.
At the height of the mad flurry of activities, I was seeing on a fortnightly basis a GP, a psychodynamic therapist, a psychiatrist and a mental health nurse. I went to group therapy. I was doing yoga designed for mental health issues and attending an art therapy class.
If I wasn’t mad before, all this ‘support’ was making me mad. And broke. And I wasn’t feeling any better.
After heavily paring back my ‘team’ of mental health workers (and changing my psychiatrist), I took the extra room to build my life on my own terms. I stuck with a far smaller amount of medication and one form of therapy. I found a greater deal of autonomy and passion in my work once I stopped neglecting it for mental health appointments. I stay active in a mix of ways so I never get bored of anything. I’ve deepened a small number of relationships which matter to me but I’ve largely remained out of the social spotlight. I eat what I feel like alongside good old fruits and vegetables. I’ve never been more stable.
This is not to say that I’ve found the cure for depression or that none of the suggestions I’ve been given will never work for anyone. Rather, my story demonstrates that the road to recovery is an idiosyncratic one. It also demonstrates the financial and temporal burden of blindly following every piece of advice you’re given about recovery despite your better judgement.
I feel like some of the suggestions, however well-meaning, have actually derailed my recovery effort. My vulnerable status could never truly be ameliorated by a suggestion, even if it was a good one. It is finding my voice inside a sea of theory and opinion that has helped me find a semblance of vitality and meaning in my life.
This is a message to those experiencing depression’s depths to try and tune into themselves and design their own recovery. Even though it is never straightforward or without false starts and relapses, you are the most trustworthy person for the job. This is also a message to those well-meaning people who offer unsolicited advice to those with mental illness: tread lightly.