What will I be without my illness?
This question terrified me. And it terrified me to admit that I was terrified because that meant something was wrong with me. And there is. There is a pretty massive thing wrong with me: I have a broken brain.
Along with that broken brain came a personality developed from the results of mental illness. There is a lot I have not been that I want to be. I have rough spots and ugly edges. Now I know that I can make those edges any way I’d like them to be. I have the power to do all of the things I want to do. They are all completely possible. I can step out of the cage and grow into whatever I want to be.
I had a seizure, and it changed me. I woke up in a slightly different world. It’s beautiful. I have the power to make all of the things I want into reality. That is an incredible gift. My life is going to be meaningful.
Now that I have all this power, I have to start looking at what it is I want. If I could pick anything… and I can pick anything… then I need to think hard about what I want my life to be.
Of course, any joy this high comes under scrutiny. Mania is always possible, and it can give one delusions of grandeur. That is what this looks like from the outside, and I know my family will be worried. But having a seizure made me wake up different, and now I’ve got everything figured out. Or, rather, I know how to figure anything out. I will have to work hard, but I know that I can. I just have to keep putting small thing on top of small thing until I make something big.
The paragraphs above were written during mania. I rarely have “happy” mania, but I definitely did when I wrote this. I remembered today that I started writing an article a few nights ago and I wanted to sit down and finish it. I remembered that the article had a positive perspective, and I was excited to see what I had written. Then I read it and immediately went “Oh. Delusions of grandeur.” It made me smile.
It made me smile because I can appreciate the more ridiculous things about my disorder. For years, when I had to come face to face with a shortcoming, weakness, or disability, I would cry and feel deep hopelessness. It felt like I was worthless and broken. Now, I have gotten better at accepting that I am disabled, and I don’t need to be ashamed of any part of it. Of course, I said “need”. I know I don’t need to be ashamed, but this is something I’m still working on internalizing. It’s just another part of the journey.
The sentiments I expressed in that piece of writing were partially valid. I was going above and beyond in the scope of my capabilities, but some of what I wrote was true.
I had a seizure two weeks ago. During a seizure, there is a tremendous amount of electricity moving around the brain. Electricity and chemicals make up most of our brain functions and are found in every part of the brain. After I got over the fear of having another seizure at any moment, I noticed that I felt differently. I have a stronger sense of capability, and I feel like my life is opening up because of it. I clearly am still bipolar, and I’ve had an episode since my seizure. I still have anxiety, depression, mania, episodes, tremors, sleeping problems, and eating problems. But something is different. I know that I can handle whatever my brain throws at me now. Anything that doesn’t kill me, I will suffer through and I will eventually find a way to live again. Suicide, for the first time, is not an inevitability.
There was a lot of work I had already done before I had the seizure. I think the seizure just cemented my ability to use the coping skills I have learned. I want to share some of those tools with you.
The first and biggest, and also the one I am most excited about right now, is called cognitive de-fusion. It’s the idea that you have thoughts, but you are not your thoughts. If you take a step back and put a little distance between yourself and your thoughts, they become easier to handle. If you are having a repetitive troubling thought, like “I want to kill myself. I want to kill myself. I want to kill myself”, you can replace that with “I am having the thought that I want to kill myself. I am having the thought that I want to kill myself. I am having the thought that I want to kill myself.” This replacement puts a little distance between you and the idea that you want to commit suicide. You can see that the idea in itself is not objective reality but instead is a troubling repetitive thought. You can realize that you have lots of thoughts. You can appreciate that you are not made of your thoughts, you are just a being capable of having them. They come and go. Being able to let them come and go is one of the most powerful things I’ve learned this year. This is cognitive de-fusion.
There is a meditation exercise that I made up to use cognitive de-fusion on very painful thoughts. I do it while I’m walking. I’ve used it for “I’m going to kill myself”, “I wonder if my friend is busy?”, “I’m so fat and ugly”, “I’m worthless”, “I think I’ve walked three miles today.”, “I’m a loser”, and so on. With every thought I have, I hold my hand out in front of me with my pointer finger and thumb touching, like I’m holding the string of a helium balloon. I put the thought in the balloon and open my fingers, letting the balloon quickly float away, taking the thought with it. It is important, doing these de-fusion exercises, that you let go of the good and neutral thoughts as well as the bad ones because you are training yourself to put distance between your view of the world and your thoughts. So if you think “I love my kids so much” or “I need to buy milk”, put those thoughts in balloons and let them go just the same. There is a similar popular “leaves on a stream” exercise promoted in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, but I’m not sure I have the legal rights to publish the exercise on this site, so if you want to do it, Google “leaves on a stream meditation”. It’s a similar idea to the helium balloons, but it moves at a slower, calmer pace.
Even though I will probably never be cured, I am happy to be in recovery today. What recovery looks like to me is being able to do things that are important to me, like loving my family, petting my cat, learning new things, writing, and teaching people about mental illness. Recovery also includes episodes, anxiety, and depression. In fact, it includes most of the symptoms I had before. These symptoms are just much easier to handle now, and I’ve learned my limits in order to minimize pain. Sometimes I am severely limited in what I can accomplish, and I am learning not to measure myself by healthy standards. It’s okay if I can only do one or two important actions a day. Now, I can have a completely shitty day and feel awful, but if I do some of those actions that are in line with the things that matter to me, I can still believe that I have had a worthwhile day. Having good moments is a bonus.
Using skills like meditation and cognitive de-fusion are not guaranteed cures, but they give you a higher probability of having a good day, or at least of minimizing your suffering. Remember always that any tool you use makes you stronger and more capable, and each use of a tool adds up to the total picture of your mental health and your ability to cope. Keep doing the (healthy) things that make you feel a little better because eventually, those things will make you feel a lot better. Your strength will increase over the years. If you’re never going to be cured, start putting the pieces together, and by this time next year, you will be in a better place than you are right now.
There is hope for everyone.
Emily Harrington, The Goldfish Painter
I am not any sort of professional. I am only sharing the information that I have gathered through my experience of illness and my journey of recovery.