Content Warning: This article contains references to mental illness symptoms, side effects, and treatments.
I want to share a story with everybody today. It happened a few weeks ago, and it involves a good friend helping me out when I was struggling with a mental health ‘bad spell’, as I like to call them. All of my friend’s help and advice was invaluable to me, but one thing they said that struck a chord with me in particular was a very simple “I’m so proud of you.” That humble affirmation was so poignant, because it reminded me that what I was going through was not easy, and that I was doing better than I thought I was. And if you, dear reader, are living with a mental illness, you are probably doing better than you think as well.
I am currently undergoing exposure therapy for my anxiety disorder. For those not in the know, exposure therapy is where a patient is exposed to stimuli that have been known to cause them some sort of mental discomfort (I am being deliberately vague in an attempt to cover as much of the exposure therapy spectrum as possible). Exposure therapy is used to treat a variety of mental illnesses, the most prominent of which being phobias and anxiety disorders (two types of mental illness that are often interrelated), and like all treatments it is very effective for some people and not at all effective for others. The most important thing with exposure therapy is that it must be done slowly and sequentially. Baby steps, as they say.
If a patient is overexposed (that is, shown something too stimulating too soon), there is a good chance that psychological harm will be caused. I have been doing exposure therapy for about three months now, and it is mostly going very well. Last month, I went on holiday with limited internet access. Since the stimuli I use come from the internet, I had to postpone treatment for a few weeks.
When I arrived back home, I was impatient to resume treatment. To cut a long story short, I overexposed myself. I would estimate that I am about 40 percent through my exposure therapy. The stimuli I exposed myself to were the sort of material I should have been experiencing at the 95 percent mark. I did not react well. Outwardly, I became quiet (I’m normally a pretty loud person) and fidgety, and could not focus properly on anything anybody nearby was saying. Inwardly, I panicked. The stimulus kept playing around and around in my head like the world’s fastest carousel, keeping me at this heightened state of panic. I was suddenly frightened of going home alone, being at home alone, being anywhere alone. And because the stimulus that was causing me to panic was now in my head, I could not escape it.
It is like being superstitious and having a black cat following you everywhere. I would not wish that state of mind on anyone.
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Fortunately, this was not the first time that my brain had been severely tipped off balance. I sent out a message to my friends, asking if any of them could help me. One such friend messaged me directly and asked me to explain what was going on. So I told them everything. I explained that I was going through exposure therapy, I experienced something that was too much for me, and now I was panicked and did not know how to calm down. I told them I did not know how to get myself out of this mental mind-set.
My friend, it turns out, had done exposure therapy before. They knew where I was coming from.
- They started by telling me that the first thing I needed to do was accept that I had overexposed myself. Regardless of how much effort is put into avoiding overexposure, sometimes accidents happen. Exposure therapy is not always an exact science. That was no fault of mine, my friend explained. I needed to accept that and move forward, towards repairing what harm had been done to my mental state.
- I was then advised to write a list of things that I needed to get done that day. I was told to write down everything, from simple jobs like brushing my teeth to complex jobs like getting to work. Write them all down, my friend said, and then look back on the list.
So I wrote a list, and there were about 15-20 tasks on there, including ‘buy lunch,’ ‘take bus home,’ and ‘have a shower.’
- My friend told me to go through the list, cross off tasks as I did them, reward myself when needed.
She also advised to take a minute to refocus on the list if the panicky thoughts started getting the better of me, and to be gentle with myself and not be self-judgmental if some tasks did not manage to get done. My friend then said to me that it was going to be a rough day, but that I would make it.
They said I was showing amazing awareness and good direction. And then that perfectly poignant sentence, “I’m so proud of you.”
It was at that point that I felt myself get a little choked up. Not through sadness, or as a result of the panic I was suffering, or anything like that. No, this was a good kind of choked up, and I am going to explain why.
The thing about people with mental illnesses or mental health problems is that we are not oblivious to the world around us. We know that, for most people, things like buying lunch or having a shower are so easy that they hardly merit thinking about. Indeed, a lot of people with mental illness have ‘good spells’ as well as ‘bad spells,’ and during the good spells these tasks are perfectly easy as well. So when we are struggling to do these jobs, we often feel pathetic. A lot of us know that our mental illnesses are to blame for the troubles we might face in doing the simplest of tasks. We also know that having a mental illness is nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about.
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I, for one, never see somebody else struggling with anxiety or other mental health troubles, and the consequences thereof, and think them pathetic or shameful. But that logic often does not matter, particularly when we are in the middle of a bad spell. The last thing our brains are inclined to do is think logically.
So we feel pathetic, and we feel ashamed, at our not always being able to function as well as what might be expected of us. When my friend said that they were proud of me, they showed me a different way of looking at all of this. They inadvertently reminded me that dealing with a mental illness is an enormous task – one that is not only bigger than most other tasks we might have, but also one that cannot be set aside for later.
Instead of looking at my difficulty in doing everyday tasks as pathetic and shameful, my friend was seeing my ability to do what practical tasks I could do as not only adequate, but admirable. My friend’s admiration took me by surprise, and I found myself getting emotional because their belief in me was so unquestioning that I had no choice but to believe it myself.
I was admirable. I was somebody to be proud of. And I could make it through this bad spell.
Just like my friend was proud of me, so too am I proud of any of you, dear readers, who struggle with mental illness yourselves. If you have ever had your illness filling up your mind with fear or panic or sadness, and you have seen that bad spell through, you are somebody to be admired. It takes exceptional amounts of strength and fortitude to live with a mental illness, and that strength and fortitude needs to be recognized for all the levels of praiseworthy that it is.
Hard as it can be to believe sometimes, you are doing better than you think.