Mental Health Glossary and Addendum
The battle against mental illness has been a large part of my life – for about 25 years, to be exact. That’s a quarter of a century…a pretty long time by anyone’s estimation! I can remember counting numbers and trying to make them add up into even digits as early as 8 years old and being extremely compulsive about getting certain things in video games (number of lives, ammunition, life bars etc) into order. Classic OCD, just that no one knew about it back then.
As such, I feel that an accurate account of my life should also include everything I’ve learnt in my journey of overcoming mental illness. I can’t quite believe I am writing this (it’s only been 2 months since it happened!) but yes, I’m living proof that it IS indeed possible to cure any kind of mental dysfunction no matter how long it has been with you. I’m not the only one by any means! I have been greatly inspired by many others who have done the same, as well as benefitted from the care of all my doctors and the continuing research being done by every mental health professional on the planet.
I use the term “cure” very loosely here…all humans being are at some point in time going to experience some form of mental dysfunction, and to be honest, not all dysfunction is well, dysfunctional. A librarian may need to have a slight touch of OCD in order to get all her books in order. A financial analyst is going to be more than a little preoccupied with how the shares he is managing will turn out. I don’t think I’d trust myself to the hands of a paramedic who was all smiles and wasn’t just a little anxious…you get the picture.
Once again like many things it’s a matter of degree and context. Sorting things out so they don’t get messy – normal. Making sure everything goes into color-coded containers of the same size and volume, which are then further sorted in alphabetical order everyday…maybe NOT so normal. Feeling sad after a sad movie is reasonable…feeling suicidal when someone gets angry at you, maybe not. Some people are neat and some are messy, some people are loud and some are soft – it’s when things get extreme that professional help may be required.
I’m going to start off the section by providing a glossary of the common mental disorders in the book. I do urge interested readers to read up on their own – mental health is a fascinating (and dare I say it) extremely essential field for anyone living in the 21th century. Think about it – every action we take involves the mind, from walking on the street to reading a book. Even actions that don’t involve the conscious mind sure involve the subconscious one – and the latter is a lot stronger. Since I’m not in my twenties anymore I don’t think therapy is the Answer to Everything anymore but I do think knowing a bit about mental health goes a long way.
Later on I’ll share what worked for me personally. You probably know by reading the book that I used a combination of video games, anime, books, therapy, self-reflection and prayer, but I’ll go into more detail of all of that and how it may possibly help you or someone else you know.
I also have to mention at this point (as I’ve mentioned at least a hundred times in my life) that none of this is any substitute for professional medical advice and should not be taken as such. Despite having spent more than 10 years studying psychology in a variety of ways (and doing more than my fair share of unofficial therapy) I am NOT a licensed psychotherapist (or mecha pilot…sigh) and none of what I say here (or in the book) should be taken in any official capacity. Think of this as a survivor’s tips and tricks.
I believe wholeheartedly that there is a place for material of this nature in the world, equally as important as traditional psychotherapy. I’ve learned a lot in my time and if it can be of use to anyone at all, I’d gladly write another book (or ten) about it. We’ll start with this first though!
A last note. As the world spins on and times change, the very definition of mental illness itself is changing as well. Some of the latest research on depression classifies it as a full-body condition and not simply something affecting the mind…to which I say – it’s about fucking time!
Things like depression, dysthymia and even anxiety disorders are often symptoms, not diagnoses unto themselves. They’re simply telling you what’s wrong. You wouldn’t say a splitting headache is a physical illness, would you? The headache is often there because there’s something else causing it. That’s what you need to find out – same goes with afflictions of the mind. And since the mind and body are connected, what affects one affects the other as well.
To make things more complicated, often mental illness is necessary for the organism to protect itself from threats that it cannot deal with at the moment. As I may have mentioned, OCD is often a maladaptive security mechanism designed to ensure a false sense of safety. Depression can often keep the subject in a state of lethargy so they cannot do anything – either good or bad. Panic disorders can sometimes result from normal nerve functions going haywire. Things are rarely as simple as they seem, especially in the realm of the mind. That’s why we see doctors.
In the end, though, what with everything I’ve ever read and studied, I would urge each of every one of you to treat yourselves, your fellow Man, and all creatures large and small with as much love and compassion as you can. That may be the single best cure for any illness – mental or otherwise – that has ever been conceived or will ever be.
OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder)
We all know about the washing hands and having to keep everything in order, right? That’s the typical (as if any disorder is “typical!”) form that OCD takes in movies and books. Here’s a more concise and precise definition :
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a common, chronic and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and behaviors (compulsions) that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over.
There are many variations of this, but I’ll only talk about the ones that I’ve experienced in my own life.
Ah, the terrible scourge of my teenage, where for a while I had to fight almost daily to tell myself I wouldn’t tear my eyeballs out. This can come in two varieties – Self-Harm and Harm to Others. I’ve been through both. About 2 years ago I was worried that I would randomly attack people – my therapist, my sister, people on the street. I’m not sure which was worse – the fear of attacking myself or others, but both were bad.
What can I say about Harm OCD? There is no real danger of any harm actually being done. Seriously. One account I read online had a therapist telling a client that in 10 years of practice, he had never seen any patient harm themselves or anyone. Look at the papers, the news, anywhere around you. Serial killers exist and yes, there is the rare person who goes into a berserk rage and kills someone. NONE of these people have Harm OCD.
If anything, the more concerned you are about killing yourself or someone else, the less likely it will happen. True sociopaths feel no remorse or concern about doing anyone in. The fact that you do indicates a level of empathy which paradoxically means that you will not.
It may feel as if you may flip out do it any minute. I assure you that nothing of this sort will happen. At the peak of my Self-Harm OCD in my teenage I actually placed my fingertips onto my naked eyeballs. I didn’t push down or do anything beyond that, even though the fear was overwhelming. If I can get that close to the edge and live to tell the tale, I can also tell you that nothing will happen.
An imaging exercise that I and others have found helpful is to exaggerate the images of the OCD on purpose. Afraid you’ll kill people on the highway? Think about how many dead bodies you’re going to leave behind once you turn the next corner. If you’re worried that you’re going to kill yourself, think about how your organs and viscera would look like arranged on the linoleum. Grisly but it works. If it doesn’t, stop immediately.
Another good method is turning whatever you’re so afraid of into something humorous. Imagine the knives turning into rubber, for instance. Or making a funny face out of your discarded organs. You see what I mean.
“Pure O” OCD
When I use the term OCD in the book, it’s usually this form that I mean.
This is a relatively recent development in the definition of the illness. Basically what happens to the sufferer is that they obsessively think about something. Anything. Everyone worries, but a Pure O sufferer will worry to excess about things which may not even exist. And you Can’t. Stop. Worrying. It is not something you can explain or reason through. In fact, the more you do it, the worse it gets.
I will not go into exactly what I worried about because even after all my healing some of the worries are pretty traumatic for me. I spent years always concerned that they would come back and I think at this point my neurons are still semi-sensitized. One hallmark of healing is self-care and as I such I will not push myself to relate the content of any of my previous neuroses.
I can tell you that it’s possible to be Pure O about anything though – and I mean literally ANYTHING. I’ve read of worries that range from the Earth suddenly completely freezing over the next second to worrying that because you didn’t shut the door, someone would die in the next room. They can be completely irrational – before I even knew that I had OCD (I was never actually diagnosed with the condition) I referred to them as “irrational worries” because that was what they were. If you didn’t eat red apples you would get a stomachache, if you thought (or didn’t think) a certain way you could be sure of what might happen to someone sitting the row over.
It’s a little bit of a God complex. OCD sufferers think that by thinking (or doing, in the other cases) a specific thing, they can control a specific outcome. Obviously there is the practical reality of turning on the faucet leading to water coming out, but OCD isn’t like that.
Once again like with every other OCD fear, nothing will happen. The problem lies in being unable to determine once and for all whether or not the eventuality will or will NOT happen…and of course that’s impossible to do! How do you completely, utterly and with 100% certainty that the world will NOT freeze over the next second? You can’t be sure right? Yes, you can’t.
Hence why I said above that OCD is primarily a certainty-seeking behavior. Things are frightening, and so the sufferer tries to find relief in repetitive behavior. Once the behavior is engaged in, the worry lessens…only to come back. Don’t feed the trolls – easy to say, hard to do.
HOCD (or Homosexual OCD)
This is not to be confused with the normal sexual confusion and experimentation that all people (not just teenagers) have. This is when you’re not gay (or lesbian) but you’re morbidly afraid that you might be. Homosexuals have the reverse situation – they’re worried that they’re actually straight.
This can be a tricky one to deal with because how do you know when it’s OCD and how do you know when it’s a question of sexual orientation? Especially during teenage and early adulthood, when you’re not completely certain of who you are, sexually or otherwise. In my experience, the OCD will have a powerful gripping compulsive quality to it, whereas the sexual orientation won’t – the latter will feel natural and arousing, but will have no element of fear. Fear and anxiety is the hallmark of OCD – its presence usually indicates
I took the bull by the horns with this one – I watched gay pornography and tried to masturbate to it. No dice. Even my precious Shinji and Kaoru doujinshi failed to elicit any reaction (besides squees and giggles…I’m a yaoi fan, so sue me) – so obviously I wasn’t gay, right?
Tell that to the OCD. Once again it wanted to know “for sure” – you didn’t come this time, but what about the next? Fucking OCD. A guy can’t even masturbate in peace without it around.
I think that actually being so open about LGBTness was my hidden savior this time. When I spoke about this to my therapist I called HOCD “the OCD that never was” because I actually didn’t really care that much if I was bi or gay. (and neither did my friends) And when I realized that, it went away. That was the OCD, not me. It can only scare you if you are concerned about the outcome.
My mother was terrified that I was might actually be gay for years (if you haven’t actually guessed she was very traditional) and I remember once getting so fed-up that I told her there was no way I was gay and that I could only be bi (and hetero-leaning bi at that) because I loved women way too much. And yes, I’m straight (my eternal love for Shinji and Kaoru notwithstanding) Sorry guys, that’s just the way I am. (but we can be friends!)
I’ll reiterate what I mentioned above about HOCD – it will feel wrong, and it will feel insatiable. Regardless of your orientation, let’s say that you make love to your partner. Or you masturbate or whatever. You feel satisfied (I hope!) but the fear is still there. Whatever you do, it’s still there, and so you feel the need to “make sure” – that’s OCD again. However it manifests it is the same basic compulsion.
Some final words on OCD :
If you can feel that sting at the back of your mind “but what if “, that niggling itch, the need to be sure “just in case” – that’s the OCD. It manifests differently in each person but if you’ve ever suffered from it you’ll know exactly what I mean. Acknowledge it. Accept it. And move on. Don’t pay it any more heed than you need to. If you feed it, it will grow. I know this can seem like the hardest thing in the world to do, but you need to do it.
Strange as it may seem, all of these are an illusion. You fear that these things may occur, but in fact, they have not occurred or may never will. The sheer thought scares you (which is understandable) but it’s just that – a thought. Thinking it doesn’t make it true. It FEELS that it might but it won’t.
What helps (paradoxically enough) may be to consider just what if what you’re worrying about is true. Maybe you are a serial killer after all. Maybe you ARE gay (or straight) Maybe aliens will attack Earth and wipe out all intelligent life in T-Minus…3, 2, 1…just think about it for a second. Feel the fear that comes up – but don’t react Let it happen. It will get hairy but eventually it will recede. This exercise can be quite intense, so you may want to do it with your therapist at first.
Which brings me to another important point. It’s ok to feel fear, and to feel anxiety, even when those emotions are “unjustified.” They may seem so to the mind, but definitely some part of yourself feels them…if not why are they still coming up? Don’t block it out with reason. Let yourself feel the fear slowly. Don’t jump in. Breathe, stay grounded and go into it gently. There is nothing to fear but fear itself.
Some research and studies (Gabor Mate’s work comes to mind) typify OCD as more of an addiction than an anxiety disorder (though it definitely is the latter) I would have to say I agree. OCD can be seen as an addiction to certainty. You need to know or do certain things in the belief that it will keep you safe. Which you know to be false, but you end up doing it anyway – neurobiology is a powerful thing.
While I was in my mid-twenties I could be extremely disdainful and scathing of drug addicts, alcoholics and the like. They seem to be wasting their lives, hiding from reality by using substances to push it away. Little did I realize that I myself was addicted to something far worse – safety. Maybe they were driven to seek refuge in the bottle and needle the same way I was compelled to think…and think…and think? When I realized that it this way I may not have been that different from the homeless guy on the street that I saw every morning asking for a handout, it was one of the most humbling experiences of my life.
You cannot out-think OCD. I’ve wasted thousands of hours of my life trying to do so without any success, so please don’t waste any of yours. As hard as it may be, try to accept that whatever you’re going through, and once again, let yourself feel it and not use the mind to run away or block the anxiety. Take it slow. It’s very important to not rush here. Breathe slowly and deeply and only go as far as you are comfortable with.
The way beyond is through – which goes the same for most other mental illnesses (and to no small degree, for life as well) Stay with the breath, and stay with yourself.
ERP (Exposure Response and Prevention) has been shown to be quite effective in the treatment of various kinds of OCD. In short, you expose yourself to whatever it is you are so morbidly afraid of. If it’s not washing the dishes, then don’t wash the dishes. Start slow and work your way up. Say you have to sort things into a bag by color if not you feel upset. Experiment with only putting one object in the bag. See how you feel. Try two. Is the anxiety increasing? Do it one step at a time, always remembering to breathe and to keep your mind as steady as possible.
OCD can also be seen as a maladaptive coping mechanism. In the absence of safety a human being will search for it through any means possible. For me, what was possibly the lightbulb moment in my recovery was making the link between abuse, trauma, and OCD. I wrote a bit about this in the chapter on Australia but I’ll make it clearer now.
As you can probably tell by reading the book, most of my life has been spent in an environment of extreme fear and paranoia. The need for security is a very real and important one. Humans (and most living organisms) will go to any lengths to ensure their safety and the safety of others in their care. If you can’t be safe then growth is not possible.
In conditions like the ones in my house – where there was no privacy, no guarantee that someone would not knock on your door or demand help OR shout at you – it was perhaps inevitable that OCD emerged. I was under severe psychological strain similar to being in a warzone (as detailed in An Endless Battle) There was also the fact that I had my sister’s wellbeing to take care of. She once made a good point that I was unable to express or even feel panic or fear while around her, because she might need assistance, and I couldn’t help HER if I was fearful. So I wasn’t – simple as that.
All that fear had to go somewhere! In retrospect (and once again, I can’t quite believe I am saying this) the amount of OCD I experienced was rather mild compared to the strain I was under. With the help of medication I was actually semi-functional. There are horror stories of being completely disabled by OCD – being unable to leave the house before checking all the locks, stuff like that. All true.
I’d like to end this section by saying that in general, compulsivity or excessive rigidity is a sign of dysfunction or mental illness, whether it has an “official” diagnosis or not. Flexibility is part of life. We all need to be able to do some things in a certain way some of the time, and other things in other ways at other times.
There’s no 100% quick-fix solution for everything…that’s not even mental illness, it’s just wishful thinking at best and delusional at worst. Sure we need guidelines, but they are not meant to be hard and fast, just things to steer by.
Above all, no matter how many times you feel you need to wash your hands or check the locks on the door, or think about blue dresses because you thought about red ones, or thought you were going to kill everyone on the freeway – you’re human. You’re in pain.
You didn’t choose to be this way! Who would willingly do that? Have compassion for yourself. You got stuck with some faulty wiring up there, due to a variety of circumstances which you couldn’t do anything about. It’s not your fault. Really it isn’t. Even deep in the worst of compulsions, kindness is possible. However much you are suffering at the moment, please take some time out to spare a thought for someone – namely, yourself.
I myself have never had huge issues with panic attacks (though I have had more than a few of them) but since I’ve spent both my life with my mother and sister (who are both panic attack sufferers) I know a fair about them.
My own personal theory (which has no scientific backing whatsoever, but I’m just going to put out here) is that OCD and panic attacks are actually the same illness, but manifest in different ways in different people. Males are generally more prone to OCD as they also tend to be more rational and attempt to “control” the illness. Females get panic attacks because their emotions can go haywire and hijack their consciousness.
My mother and sister have suffered from panic attacks for a long time, and so I’ve learned to deal with them pretty well. I’ve had more than a few in my time but they were definitely not as much as a bugbear as they were to my nearest and dearest. Once again, I’ll share what I’ve learnt.
Breathe. I’ve said it before and I’ve said it again – breathe. It works for many things but it’s essential during a panic attack or the onset of one. Breathe, slowly and deeply. Keep on doing it. Your body will calm down eventually, though it may not seem like it will at first.
Find someone to be with. A strategy that my sister has used to some success is actually to just look for a random stranger and tell him/her “I am having a panic attack, please can you just sit with me for a while?” Contrary to what I was told when growing up (that to do so causes trouble for the other person and makes you weak) most people are quite accommodating of this request. It’s amazing how comforting the presence of someone else can be.
If you are in a crowded area, find somewhere quiet. The restrooms are generally a good idea. So are waiting lounges and if in an area with a lot of Muslims, prayer spaces. If all else fails, go into a shop and ask them to use the storeroom or something. Explain the above. More and more people know what panic attacks are now, so they may be able to offer assistance.
Try to avoid overstimulation. No coffee, no loud music, no walking too fast. You do not want to overwork your nerves. Your thoughts will most likely start racing at some point. Breathe, breathe, and focus on simple things like one foot in front of another.
Know what your triggers are, and learn to handle them. Note that I did not say to run away forwards or towards them. Handling them means being responsible and knowing what they are. Most sufferers have clear trigger points – somebody scolding them, (my sister’s) loud noises (common in PTSD sufferers) hot weather, cold weather etc. Identify them in advance and you will be more prepared to deal with them. The more you know, the better prepared you are to deal with whatever might happen.
The mind can race quite hard while in the throes of panic. Take your mind away from the mental and into the physical as much as you can. Walk slowly and deliberately to a safe space.
Focus on a single spot and breathe. If thoughts come, let them come, but don’t chase them. Meditation has proven very effective in calming the mind in this regard. Consider a regular meditation routine that will help you get into this mode even when you are stressed.
It will pass. Let me repeat that – it will pass. One of the fears that panic attack sufferers often have is that it feels as though whatever they are experiencing will go on forever – but it won’t. I’ve talked about panic attacks with my sister more than a few times and she has highlighted the fact that the utter certainty in my belief that they will pass helps a lot.
I can’t transfer that belief to you directly, but I can sure write about it. So yes, it WILL pass, no matter how bad it may seem. Stay with yourself, stay centered, and you’ll ride out the storm well enough.
Don’t fight it. It only makes it worse. It may seem paradoxical to walk directly into what is driving you insane, but that’s exactly what you need to do. Once again, breathe slowly and deeply. It will pass.
Above all, do not – do NOT – let the illness rule your life. I understand how scary it can be – it feels like you are going to die, not a pleasant sensation by any means! But think about how bad it would be if you let things in your life slip away because you were afraid. That would be a slower and more complete death than simply feeling you were going to die – you actually would be doing so.
Had she been able to deal with her panic attacks better, I think my mother might have been a far more loving, caring, and well-rounded individual. She lived in constant fear of them, and her agoraphobia just made things worse. Not being able to go out alone puts a serious damper on your social life (remember this was before the Internet) and a huge strain on others. Please don’t be like her.
Be gentle, be resolute. You can beat this. I beat it, and many others have as well. Take heart. There are so many resources out there – many, many more than my mother would ever have had recourse to when she was a frightened teenager in Australia more than 40 years ago. Medication helps. Meditation helps. There is the Internet, and support groups, and more ways than ever to connect with people who are suffering similar and who need you and each other.
We have to face our fears to defeat them. A life more brilliant that you can ever imagine awaits you. Keep going – you’ll get there.
See you on the other side.
I like Peter Levine’s quote from Waking the Tiger so much that I’m going to repeat it here – good therapists work with the body, bad therapists don’t. Trauma is primarily a physical experience, not a mental one – though it has long-term mental repercussions.
Traumatic experiences get stored and encoded in the body. Even if you don’t remember, the body does. Do not underestimate the power of trauma…something that has happened 10, 20, 30 years ago can still have an impact in the here and now. It doesn’t even need to be a Vietnam War, bombs falling thing either. It can be relatively lesser in scale, but you also have to consider how different people are affected differently.
Do you remember how I talked about the relapses? Well, it only occurred to me in my later life that each was a traumatic event. So trauma, no release or recovery from it (remember, my parents were defunct) having to pick myself up all on my own until it happened again. Repeat about a hundred times. That’s a LOT of trauma for an organism to go through. Once again, I’m surprised I’m still alive and writing this!
If you suspect you have been traumatized by any past experiences, please go to see a licensed mental health professional to be treated. Do NOT – I repeat, do NOT – attempt to process trauma unaided. It’s a very risky business which may result in you getting worse, not better. The only thing worse than being traumatized is being re-traumatized…which my sister and I were, repeatedly. Don’t go there. Even therapists go to see other therapists for their own traumas.
It is vitally important that one remain safe while attempting to heal from trauma. Obviously the therapist’s office would be an ideal location to do this, but the world is imperfect and sometimes we can be triggered by outside stimuli in less than ideal ways. In this event, please get to a safe location as soon as possible and most importantly…breathe. Breathe. Breathing has an automatically calming effect on the body, and it is amazing how powerful (and healing) the simple act of inhaling and exhaling can be.
Much like with panic attacks, there is no reason to curtail your life excessively because of past fears and worries. Trauma can be treated much more effectively now that it could ever be. Just make sure not to go it alone!
Due to my extremely good memory I was spared the problem most trauma and abuse survivors have – they can’t remember what happened to them. There were times I wished I had that “problem” but as I moved through my recovery I realized that I would much rather not have repressed the memories, which I didn’t.
But that brings me to my next point. If you are feeling unexplained sensations of any kind, you may have unreleased trauma in the body, which means that you should see a therapist. What do I mean? You could be feeling unnecessarily frightened about relationships. There may be a lot of anger in you at something that you can’t quite explain. Certain things (it could be anything) – late nights, cars across the street, boat rides – could trigger reactions that are far out of proportion.
Listen to your body. It knows better than the mind ever could. If you feel tension, pain, a tightening of any kind…it may be trauma. Then again, it may not be. This is a call for the doctors to make. I’d just like to awaken you to the possibility.
Depression…the so-called “common cold” of psychology. I remember way back when I was diagnosed when I was 18 and I thought that summed up everything. How naïve we all were then – the world and me both!
But enough reminiscing. (there’s a whole book full of that!)
Depression can suck the life out of everything and make you sink down into a pit of despair that you can’t easily get out of. That’s why it’s important to do things when you’re depressed. I picked video games, but mostly anything else will do as well. It’s not necessary that it’s fun to do (though that definitely helps) but whatever helps combat the lethargy and dullness will work well.
The good news is that depression has been around for so long, (and is so well-documented) that psychotropic medication for it is readily available and is relatively cheap. I’ve found that it generally helps. More on that below.
Exercise is always important, but it’s doubly so for anyone suffering from depression. There is a well-known study that compares the action of Zoloft (a common anti-depressant) to exercising 30 minutes a day a few times a week. The exercise beats the medication hands down. The natural release of endorphins goes a long way in counteracting whatever gloom and doom you may feel.
A pet helps a lot, if you have one, as well as the company of friends whom you know and can trust. Don’t expect yourself to be partying or hitting bars while you’re depressed. Keep your activities light but meaningful. Gardening, photography, sorting through the garage…
I found journaling to be helpful with all mental illness, but once again, especially so with depression. It helps to get everything out of your head and down onto paper. Sometimes you may even find yourself laughing at the absurdity at what you’ve written…don’t laugh, (no pun intended) it’s happened!
This is in no way trivializing whatever you may be experiencing at the moment – I would be the last person on Earth to do that, I have at one point been so depressed I’ve wanted to kill myself – but it often happens that the mind paints a much bleaker picture of things than what really is going on. Once it’s all in front of you it becomes a lot more…real, for lack of a better word.
Art helps – making it, watching it, reading it, listening to it. Don’t think about it being good or bad (a mistake I’ve made too many times to count) just do it. Write. Paint. Draw. Sing. Play the piano. Do something to take your mind away from itself.
You’ve probably realized by now a key theme in all this is activity, doing something – and you’d be right. Don’t push yourself too hard, but one of the worst things you can do while depressed is to sit around and do nothing, because then you’ll just get MORE depressed. Try not to castigate yourself into doing anything – an attitude of “let’s try and see how it works” will probably do a lot more good in the long run.
The old hoary chestnut of “getting yourself out of yourself” is especially true for depression, but make sure to do with compassion and gentleness. Once again, don’t force yourself out of, or into anything. I made that mistake many times in my teenage and it’s not one that I would like to see anyone repeat. Depression takes you into the shadow world of the inside, but what you need more is to probably be more interested in the outside – even if it often sucks, it’s real.
Self-reflection can be an important aspect in recovering from depression. After all, if you don’t know why you’re depressed in the first place, how are you going to get better? Allow yourself to ask why you feel so sad, and what your sadness feels like. What is the nature of the wound that troubles you so? Why do you feel like life is no longer worth living?
Don’t go deeper than you have to, and always stay safe and in a centered space. But if I may be so bold as to advise…ask, and keep on asking. The answers may surprise you more than you think.
Don’t give up hope. It may look there is no light at the end of the tunnel – or tunnel in the first place, just an endless abyss – but I assure you there is, though it may take some time to get there. And that time may be a lot shorter than you think. Light whatever lanterns you have, and keep walking.
Advice on General Mental Health and Wellbeing
While I’ve gone into detail on the illnesses themselves above, there are things that work for almost any mental health condition. They may not cure you outright, but in most cases they have been proved to at the very least alleviate the symptoms and make you feel better. There are no shortcuts on the road to wellness, but the payoff is worth it – who doesn’t want to be healthy?
Most of the techniques I’ve described above are also highly synergistic with each other. For instance, self-reflection has worked equally well for me in the treatment of both depression and OCD. Always remember that each person is their own unique organism and what works for you may not work for another. If it doesn’t, just drop it, or perhaps revisit it at another time.
Mental illness is also a physical condition, and what you put into your body determines everything about you. You are what you eat. If you eat healthy you will be healthy…well maybe not automatically but it goes a long way to getting there.
There are quite literally thousands of resources out there on eating healthy so I’m only going to write the bare minimum here, with a focus on mental health of course.
Eat wholegrain bread, unleavened pasta and brown rice instead of their white processed alternatives. Yes, you hear this everywhere but it’s true.
Eat more fruits and vegetables…another thing you hear everywhere which is also true.
Exercise more! More on that below.
If you have anxiety issues (like I used to have) avoid eating too much protein. Absolutely under no circumstances should you go on a paleo or Atkins-style diet if you are prone to anxiety or worry – doesn’t matter if you do not have a diagnosable condition. Just don’t. It will make things so much worse you’ll wish you didn’t.
Eat sugary treats to excess. Now and then is ok. Just not too much.
Daniel Amen’s recommendations on health, diet and fitness are well worth watching and learning from. Try them out.
Fitness and Exercise
This should come as no surprise. Everyone needs to exercise. What most people don’t know though is how much it actually helps with mental illness.
The most important rule about exercise is…no, no, it’s none of that wear the proper gear, warm-up, 15 minute intervals stuff (although all that is essential in its own way) The most important rule is Do Something You Enjoy. I’m going to repeat it.
Do Something You Enjoy.
Exercise is amazingly enough supposed to be fun and enjoyable. Why would you do something you didn’t like doing? Ok, there are actually good answers to that question but in the case of exercise, since there are so many options out there, it makes more sense to be doing something you enjoy – that way you will be more motivated to exercise, which is Good For You.
This goes a ways in overcoming the issue that I always hear when I tell people to exercise more – excuses. It seems people will come up with every reason to exercise instead of doing it. Some of the reasons actually make sense – in a society in which we are increasingly working more from home and less in physically taxing environment which require movement and action.
Remote networking and computers have changed the face of commerce and economy. But the human body was not designed for being a coach potato (or being in one of those floating chairs in Wall-E) It was designed for movement. So! You gotta move it move it.
I’ll go through the most popular excuses one by one.
“Too tired” – This is actually very valid. I’ve worked full-time jobs in which you don’t feel like doing anything except sleep at the end of the day. When I mean exercise I don’t mean to FORCE yourself out of bed on a weekday to go run some laps. Try to do something short and small, maybe a few bench presses or a similar activity. Exercise doesn’t need to be a long-term, drawn-out affair, and you may actually find that exercise energizes and invigorates you. It may seem counterintuitive but it sometimes makes sense to exercise when you’re feeling tired. Try it out for a few minutes and see what happens. If you are still really tired don’t push yourself – schedule a weekend jog or something where you feel more motivated. But try it out. It may help more than you think.
“It’s boring” – No it’s not, you’re just doing something that doesn’t interest you. See the above – Do Something You Enjoy. If you don’t like going to the gym then DON’T GO TO THE GYM. I have no idea where this idea of exercise = gym originates from, but it has to go and it can’t go fast enough!
If you have an overactive mind and imagination (like I do) I would highly recommend walking. It’s a good way to cogitate and to get some exercise at the same time. Plus, the bilateral stimulation from both feet hitting the pavement in turn helps rewire the mind in good ways. Don’t trust me, trust the research.
“I don’t have the time.” – You make the time. I think you’ll find that as you exercise more, you’ll find that your head clears and you’re more productive at work, have more energy etc. The time spent exercising will more be worth than worth it. But once again, don’t take my word for it. Just try it out.
One of the most powerful forces at work in the world…inertia. (Oh, don’t I know all about that – more than a decade of inertia.) If you haven’t started exercising or made a habit of it in the past, it can be hard to start. That’s why it’s so important to start with something you enjoy. And don’t give up! New things take time to get used to. If you falter here and there, don’t worry. Just keep at it.
The most basic and natural of human activities is actually one of the most potent tools that you can harness in mental health. I’ve mentioned it multiple times in the preceding sections because it really is that important.
Even if you are not interested in meditation, mindfulness or anything related to them (which you should be, they are very helpful) just simple deep breathing helps in a variety of circumstances. It is especially useful for people struggling with anxiety issues, since the human body naturally settles into a more relaxed state after a certain amount of deep breathing. It may not happen instantaneously when you first try it (it took me some time) but if you give it time the body WILL calm down – it was designed that way.
It’s that simple, really. Breathe slowly, and breathe deeply. There are several good exercises that you can search for very easily online. I’ll just give one really basic one here.
Close your eyes. Take in a deep breath; hold it for one second, and then exhale. Repeat. After 10 to 20 times, open your eyes.
Wow, was that simple or what? Don’t you feel just a teensy-tiny bit more relaxed? If not, do the whole exercise again. You should feel at least a little bit better, especially if you were tired and worried before.
Breathing – so simple, yet so frequently overlooked! As John Kabat-Zinn writes, it’s only when we are not able to breathe that we realize how important it is. Slow, long, deep breathes – basic, yet a potent tool in recovery indeed. When in doubt, breathe.
Mindfulness and Meditation
Mindfulness seems to be everywhere these days and with good reason – it works! There is a veritable treasure trove of information on the subject available off and online. Google makes it mandatory for its employees, and other companies are following suit.
What is mindfulness? In the most basic of terms, it is best described as “present-moment awareness.” Being cognizant of each and every thing that happens, as it happens, without ascribing a quality or impression to it. Very Zen huh? (Not surprising, as modern-day mindfulness is derived from Buddhism, which Zen is derived from.)
You are not the mind, though it’s easy to think so. It exists separately from you – the person looking out into the world. Your mind may say a variety of things to you, but you don’t have to believe them – something that can initially be quite a shock.
When you slow down your thoughts, you can then be more aware of them. It sometimes helps to label whatever is going through your mind – I’m thinking about this, then I’m thinking about that. Name them, observe them, and let them go. Don’t pursue them. If you do, gently note that and bring your attention back to a calm center, and breathe.
It is as its heart about observation and non-judgment. Whatever happens, happens – you are allowing it to do so. When deliberate and careful attention is brought to bear on anything – not just mental ailments – neurons rewire in the mind and shape it into new configurations.
Mindfulness can be applied to a variety of mental health conditions. You can have mindful obsession, mindful compulsion, and even mindful depression. I don’t recommend jumping into the deep end so fast, but when you are more comfortable in your practice, you may consider using it in various ways. As always, consult with whatever mental health professional you’re seeing.
I used to be very resistant to the idea of medication. I wanted to “go it alone” and take on each and every one of my illnesses with a will of iron and determination of steel. Well…I did manage to do that, but I also acknowledge that I was helped greatly by medication at certain points.
My angry, idealistic teenage self was not entirely wrong, though…you can take too little medication (or not at all) but you can also take too much. Medicine allows relief from certain things, but does not do away with the root causes of the dysfunction. A competent psychiatrist will work with you and not most probably will not recommend medication without at least some other therapeutic component – it may not be traditional therapy but it may be something else. I would be very skeptical of any doctor who pushes medicine and assures you that it is all you need.
What medication definitely DOES do is allow you to bring things down to a level in which you can function. In psychology there is a term known as the “therapeutic level of anxiety (or depression, or whatever)” Which basically means you cannot extinguish the disorder completely – because if you do, no true healing can take place.
No pain no gain is definitely true in this case. The fears and pains need to be faced in order for you to be able to conquer them. But you don’t need to do it guts alone! Medicine is often a much-needed crutch in order for you to be able to function well enough to continue with other forms of healing.
Therein lies one of the main temptations of medicine – take this, it’ll make the pain go away! Psychotropic medication is NOT a painkiller. It doesn’t work that way. It alleviates the symptoms (a not inconsiderable benefit) but does not cure the cause.
All that being said, if you do have a mental health condition, do see a doctor and try to get some medication. It generally helps more than it hurts. Work with him or her. Some medications may work very well in some regards but have undesirable side effects. For example, I had great difficulty getting an erection while on Effexor. (Thank God for catgirls!)
While I was not sexually active at that time (I have a whole chapter on that too!) I did often need to masturbate in order to sleep, so it was a complication I didn’t initially consider. I can imagine this being a bigger problem for anyone with a girlfriend/boyfriend, or planning for a family. By the same token, while I took Seroxat in my teenage years it made my teeth chatter. It wasn’t a problem then but if you were a speech professional (teacher, singer, therapist, voice coach etc) it would have had a real and direct impact.
There’s no cure-all medication for any specific mental condition, so it’s important to be honest with both yourself and your doctor about what is working for you and what isn’t. Tell him or her about what you hope the medication will accomplish.
What are you goals in life that you’re working towards now? What kind of relief would do you anticipate the medicine being able to give? Are there any other medications that you are taking which might interfere or affect things? The more information you are able to give the doctor, the more he can work with you to find what would benefit you and your life the most at this period of time.
So I’ve said that I would be probably dead without therapy and that’s very true.
Since I am no longer 20+ I no longer think that therapy is the solution to the world’s problems and that yes, some people are probably better off WITHOUT therapy (especially my parents, who are and were so resistant I doubt it would have helped any) But to each his own.
If you are considering going for therapy or not, most therapist’s offices (at least in the USA) offer a free consultation of 15 minutes so you can see whether or not you feel comfortable with the idea. It’s only 15 minutes and they won’t ask anything invasive like your three sizes (they can’t, they’re doctors) I do advise giving it a try. You don’t even need to “talk about your problems” – you can just say hi, ask your own questions, and basically do anything that you are comfortable with.
How will you know a therapist fits you? It’s like buying a house – you just know. You will feel as though you can trust this person, and feel comfortable with sharing things with him/her. Though you should definitely check their professional credentials, it’s more a matter of intuition than anything else.
Don’t hesitate to “shop around” for a suitable therapist if you can’t find one. I went to about 7 or so before I found Psycare. Some just may not fit you because of issues relating to field of treatment and study (they specialize in this, you have that) gender (important in the case of rape victims) or marital status (many couple in therapy feel more comfortable speaking to a married/single person) In the end it’s all about who can help you the best and what is the most healing.
Not all therapists are created equal. If you at any time feel that you want to find another, or to see if you might potentially benefit from treatment of a different nature, I don’t see any problem with changing therapists at any time in your course of treatment. Any competent therapist would tell you the same. Sometimes a different perspective can be refreshing and essential. I’ve seen Florence for most of my adult life, but I have learnt greatly from the others that I’ve been with as well. Not to mention that I was initially transferred from Dr Hudson to Florence. Doctors change, so do people. Don’t feel any compunction about leaving or staying.
Once again I’d highly recommend at least trying out a single appointment, or a short course of therapy. You don’t need to be hardcore like me and go almost every week (I still go almost every week!) but once a month is often helpful. You can always stop and then start again. Don’t think of it as such a huge thing…just try it and see. I will be honest and say it’s not exactly like going to the dentist, but it’s not like you’re going for heart surgery either. Your therapist will be able to advise you as to what course of treatment is the best for you and them. Remember, in the end it’s about working WITH the doctors…they are learning too.
Art Therapy – Games, Movies, Music, Books
As I’ve mentioned throughout the book, video games kept me alive all those years, and taught me most of what I know besides. They may not be as important to you as they were to me, but nevertheless they were (and continue to be) a powerful and integral part of my healing process.
Try reading books. Playing games. Listening to music. Watching movies. I’m sure you do all these things, but as an exercise, try selecting ones that have someone to do with whatever is affecting you and how. Allow yourself to feel whatever comes up. It is gets too hairy (and in my experience, it often does – not just with EVA either) stop whatever you are doing and take a break. You can always come back later. Don’t think too much about what you are experiencing – feel it.
If you are seeing a therapist, one of the best things you can do is to discuss whatever has affected you so strongly with them. They may be able to see connections that you initially missed, or clue you in to new perspectives on the situation. Friends (especially if they’ve seen the same work) can be very helpful too, as can that most infinite of resources, the Internet.
There is producing art as well as being healed by it. Art therapy is a true and tried method of releasing suppressed emotions, especially helpful in children – whose rational and linguistic functions are not as developed as adults. It’s great for adults too…have you ever noticed why therapist’s offices are always full of pens and paper?
Don’t focus on being good or doing things properly in art therapy…that will just block the flow. Let yourself go and do whatever you feel is good. If you like to draw, doodle. Actually even if you don’t like to draw, doodle anyway. See what comes out.
I was probably more healed by writing the book that I ever realized. That’s part of the reason I wrote it. Self-expression is a natural part of the human condition. Even if you don’t consider yourself an “artsy” person, everyone has a creative side. When channeled into healing, it can produce incredible results.
Music, poetry, dance…there are many forms of letting out what is inside. Deep within yourself, your mind and spirit always know what they want to say. All you really have to do is get out of the way and let them say it.
The connection with the Spirit is one of the most powerful things any human can harness in whatever form it may take.
Like I mentioned in Of Spirit and Man, I take a very dim view of proselytizing, and so all I’m offering here are suggestions for spiritual growth and healing, and not suggestions for any one religion or belief system over another.
It’s the 21st Century; you don’t need to settle down with one any faith anymore. Try things out and see if they appeal to you. Go sit at the back of the pews. Ask your local imam if you can take a tour. Pop into a nearby synagogue. Read up about things, watch videos and see what appeals to you. Ask your friends of a particular persuasion or faith what it’s like for them.
Spirituality does not equal religion. You can have a relationship with the Divine just fine without being a part of any organized faith. If one appeals to you, by all means explore it (or convert) but if it doesn’t, there is no pressure to be anyone other than who you are. Like so many other things in life, you will be brought to whatever you most believe in if you let yourself be.
If you feel the urge to settle down with a particular faith, then do that. If it heals you, let it. I would be the last person on Earth to judge what people can or cannot believe! If you switch, I think that’s fine too. You can always switch back – there are plenty of people who do that too. Whatever your conception of God is, I doubt he/she/it would mind you learning more about yourself and Creation.
There is an increasing amount of non-sectarian spiritual material available. More and more people identify as spiritual, but not religious. Whatever the case, follow and believe in what calls to you and miracles may really just happen. Even if they don’t, perhaps it’s just a matter of time.
The healing power of prayer has been well-documented in all forms of medical literature and research, and not just those limited to mental illness either. Faith has a way of stimulating recovery that is at yet unexplainable by modern science. While I wouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water – please see a doctor and take medicine, by all means! – I would also ask you to be open to the idea that spirit and flesh are not so far removed as they might seem.
Finally, at the end of the day, just find some time to be with yourself and the Universe around you. There are many forms of prayer – perhaps as many as there are gods and spirits – but I like this one a lot.
Ending Remarks :
I wish for a day where mental illness is treated with the same respect and gravity as physical ones are, where people do not suffer any stigma for seeing a shrink, and where the mind-body connection is acknowledged, respected and utilized to the best of its ability. We may get there faster than I think!
I’ve said it in the closing chapter of the book and I’ll say it again – I wrote this so that others may benefit from it. If it doesn’t resonate with you or you flat out don’t believe anything I say, that’s ok too. But if it sparks something in you, if it opens any doors or brings any new discoveries into your life, then my words will not have been wasted. I hope that my long years of suffering have not been in vain.
Healing – as with life – is a process of inquiry, exploration and discovery. Amazingly enough what may help greatly is a sense of curiosity – why am I feeling this way? What works? Why is this happening to me? Ask with a genuine desire to know. It may seem difficult, but if you keep an open mind, answers may come in from different places that you may think.
In that sense, life itself is the truest and most powerful form of therapy – and it’s available to everyone. Live as well as you can. Love as best as you are able. Trust that the way will open – because when the time is right, it will.
I’ll admit it – most of these recommendations are flat out taken from Psycare’s own post-retreat recommended reading list. I mean, why mess with the best?
Mindsight – Dan Siegel. An invaluable aid to understanding mindfulness and the mind.
Full Catrastrophe Living – John Kabat-Zinn. (Am I the only one who thinks that his name sounds like it comes from Star Wars? I mean, Kabat Zinn would make an awesome Jedi name…but I digress)
Perhaps the modern definitive text on mindfulness and meditation’s effect on mental illness. JKZ has been using meditation-based approaches in pain relief and other forms of healing since 1982…when I was born. Over 600 pages of pure mindful goodness! No, I don’t exaggerate. Well, I found it pretty incredible myself.
Homecoming – John Bradshaw. This came out in 1990 but it still remains as true as was the day it was written. If you have been abused or suspect that you have been abused, please do read this. Other books by Bradshaw (Overcoming Toxic Shame was especially affecting for me to read) are also highly recommended.
Brain Lock : Stop Obsessing and Start Living! – Jeffrey Schwartz. Well worth reading IMHO if you have OCD. Provides a thorough overview of the disease and various eminently actionable (I hate that word BTW) strategies.
Waking the Tiger – Peter Levine. I talk about this book all the damn time, I know. It offers a clean and precise view of trauma, with insights gathered from more than 20 years of practice. The man was a consultant to the NASA space flights, so you can bet he knows what he is talking about. If you have been traumatized, this is a good book to read. (though NOT to put into practice without a trained psychologist assisting you) It even has a Gurren Lagaan reference! (though the anime was not created until after the book of course)
He also has a “sequel” – Somatic Healing (which I admit that I have not read) which addresses much of the same issues in a more concise way.
Just One Thing – Rick Hanson. Not precisely an antidote to mental illness, but more of a preventative manual. Dr Hanson basically advocates better habits for the mind – always something good! Training your mind to be healthier definitely has benefits for every part of your life.