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Welcome back. You’re here for my epic solution to all mental health issues ever. And if you know me by now, you know….
I don’t have one.
I’m sorry, but there’s just not going to be one thing that works for everyone, all the time, in every situation. Like I said, there are some things that are completely unchangeable and out of our control. Death. Accidents. Permanent brain damage. The family situations, societies, and genes we are born into. There is simply nothing we can do about these things. And yes, this can be heartbreaking. I was having a conversation the other day with someone who works with people with disabilities, an area in which I’ve worked on and off for years. There are people who, because of psychological or physiological mental disabilities and deficits, are nearly completely unable to control their own behaviour. Either they are trapped in an inaccessible world, or their brains are damaged, imbalanced, or not formed properly. Just like there are some people who’ve got brains that developed properly, and have properly functioning synapses and hormones and all that. But if you’re reading and able to understand this, you are not someone who has lost control of all mental faculties. Not yet, anyway. Remember, any one of us could end up with that sort of damage, and I’ll talk later about why we should do what we can to make sure that the society we live in will treat us the way we would want to be treated if this ever happens to us or someone we care about. Not just for our sakes, but for the sake of people who are in supportive care right now who are dismissed, abused, and given up on because of their completely out-of-control psychosis.
But I think a lot of people make the mistake of contrasting this with things that are in our control. That’s not the contrast, since just because something is within our control, doesn’t mean that we are in a position to control it, and this ability can change at any given time. Something that we were once able to control with ease can later become nearly insurmountable, and things that were insurmountable before start to come second nature, and we forget where we once were. But still, these “controllable” variables are where we have wiggle room and potential. Our lives may never look like that shining example of those gurus who beat the odds, but we can hopefully find more and more satisfaction and successes. More importantly, we can let go of the notion that we need to be “cured” or never fall back into our traps again in order for our recovery to be authentic or worth celebrating. There are just sooooooo many variables, that it can be impossible to consistently make accurate predictions and stick to our plans. On any given day, hour or minute, your raft, the supplies, the river, the weather, and your muscle strength might be in vastly different states. Whether you are neurotypical and mentally healthy or neurodiverse and riddled with trauma and emotional/mental disorders, perhaps to the point of being completely out of your own control and dependent on others for everything, one thing that’s going to matter a lot to your experience of life: your social system.
But before that, let’s say the spectrum is based on what we have the strength to change. In the raft metaphor, your human body represents your personality, will, dreams, goals, perseverance, and general daily energy. Resources, abilities, and desires that are internal, as opposed to the external resources in your raft that represent your time, money, and access to social supports. Not the actual people within those social systems, mind you. I think this is another mistake we make – seeing actual other people as resources in our lives, as opposed to separate people with their own courses, rafts, internal and external resources, and goals. Our internal resources are what we use to mobilize our external resources to manage the ups and downs of life.
Our nice little spectrum ranges from the left, or things that no amount of internal resources can overcome, no matter the external resources available, like permanent brain damage or death, to the right, where things that take so little internal resources and effort that we don’t even have to think about it. Everything on the spectrum can be “good,” or leading to outcomes that bring us peace, or “bad,” things that result in disrupted peace. The more left you go, the less often you are able to expend this energy or tolerate the thing that requires you to expend the energy. Toward the right, we are able to expend these smaller energy requirements with more frequency, until it doesn’t even feel like we are expending any resources at all. The thing is, everything to the right of permanent physiological damage and death will vary from person to person, based on the variables that I mentioned. On my spectrum, for example, on the far left, a bad thing that would destroy my peace that I would probably not be able to do more than once in my life is to kill someone. I don’t like the thought of death, or blood, and I think that would wreck me. For others, though, this might not be a big deal. Not always because they are a serial killer. But maybe they are a soldier, or police officer. Part of their external resources might be access to social systems that provide validation and support from others in their profession. Part of their internal resources includes a sense of the greater good and protecting others that sometimes requires killing someone. This internal processing of the act gives them the strength to do this more than once, sometimes dozens or even thousands of times. That’s not to say that it doesn’t take it’s toll, but they have the internal and external resources to resist damage to their psyche, or patch it up often if damage does occur.
Something on the far left of the spectrum that would enhance my peace and integrity (if the process of expending the resources to do it didn’t completely wreck me first) but would nonetheless feel so difficult that I would only be able to do it once in my life, if at all, would be to face a certain person in my life who has caused me the most pain and trauma in my childhood, and tell them what I said above about how I hope they can overcome their abusive behaviour and find the peace and integrity they need to live a life that is healthy for themselves and those around them. I don’t think I will ever do this, even though I could do it in the abstract through my writing, or for abusers who haven’t specifically abused me.
On the opposite side, something unhealthy that destroys my peace but I do almost effortlessly is spending almost all day plugged into YouTube. I’m literally mainlining it right now, and I’m 100% addicted. We could pair this with an opposite action – it would take a lot of resources for me to overcome this addiction and become someone who doesn’t need to have it playing in the background in order to function. Most things on the spectrum will have an equal opposite. However hard it is to do something, there is something that is equally easy to do to avoid doing that thing.
On the right of the spectrum, something that is good for me that I do without thinking is drinking water. I almost always have my water with me, and I sometimes don’t even realize when it’s empty, or that I’ve refilled it. Okay, maybe the gap in memory of walking to sink to refill it has more to do with distraction than effortlessness, but it would take more effort for me to drink something else. I have my plant milks sometimes, and on rare social occasions I have juice. On even rarer occasions I might have a soda a few times a year. And just last week, I had some artificial wine, which I don’t think I’ve ever done. For me, unlike many others, drinking water is so thoughtless, but drinking other things requires a lot of thought, specific situations, and intention.
Those are just four examples from one person, and again, any of these things could change. Maybe there will be an apocalypse and I’ll need to defend my family. Maybe I’ll become an alcoholic, or a coffee addict (blech. I had a mocha yesterday because I was out to lunch with someone, and no amount of milk chocolate squares could make it taste good.) The point is, your spectrum will represent a moment in time for you. It’s very easy for me to get severely depressed about times in my life when certain things were easier and I didn’t have some of the struggles I have now. I miss being top of my class in school. I miss being endlessly social. I miss when I was able to do everything as a single parent. But I’m a different person now than I was then. And there’s lots of things that I can do better now that I couldn’t before. Tolerate living alone. Avoid spending hundreds of dollars on eating out. Not getting trapped in endless rage cycles as I replay memories of people hurting me. And next year? Like I said, maybe there will be an apocalypse, maybe I’ll be Prime Minister, maybe I’ll get into an accident and go blind or be in a wheelchair. I have no idea what my spectrum or resources or any other variable will look like then.
So, things range from completely unchangeable and outside of your control, to technically changeable but still extremely difficult and require massive investment of strength, perseverance, and resources to change, to less difficult and still requires a lot of work, but we can have a few of these scenarios happen and muster the strength to go on.
Now, there’s a reason I set up my metaphor this way. Other people are present in this world of rivers, but you’re not always going to be in the same current as someone else. In this world, you can’t get into someone else’s raft. Not for any obvious in-universe reasons that I can see. Maybe there’s a force field, I don’t know. You just can’t. Your raft. Your life. Nothing else. But, as mentioned, you can come up alongside someone. You can talk to others, and share resources. But there’s nothing anyone can do to change the size of your raft, or make you able to accept things that just won’t fit in it. For example, some people are simply not able to attend school, for one reason or another, or are simply unable to do any sort of job, even though these are resources that help make life easier, some people are simply unable to access or utilize them.
Anyway. I think society and relationships are the key to enhancing and maximizing the mental health of everyone, no matter what you’re starting with. But we have to be very careful, with the caveat above about not treating others like a resource. We also have to make sure we don’t let ourselves become a resource, either. Oh, and the general, goes-without-saying caveat that everything that I say is easier said than done. Remember, I’m just an unemployed, soon-to-be-divorced, 24-year-old, college drop-out, addict, speaking from a place of severe impostor syndrome. Did I forget to mention my mosaic tree also includes perfectionism, insomnia, and potential PTSD? Sometimes just the thought of “friends” or a “social system” sends me into full panic. One of my self-destructive/suicide triggers is people being too nice to me or doing over-the-top sweet gestures like loving me unconditionally or giving me thoughtful gifts. I know a thing or two about social anxiety. I have physical stomach nausea right now just thinking about it.
I’m going to try not to tell you to “just” do something, but during those times when you’re able and ready to give something a try, maybe you can give some of these ideas a try. The first thing – and the worst and hardest thing – is to try to find your people. If you already have them, awesome! All your problems are solved. If not, oh boy, you’re in for a ride.
So. Here’s what I’m learning, as I try to overcome my crippling intimacy issues, social anxiety, and general social neurosis. People will betray me, whether they intend to or not. There will be times when I think everything is fine, but they will come to me saying that I’ve been offending and hurting them without even knowing it. There will be people I try to open up to, who will later turn against me and throw my vulnerability back in my face. Maybe it will even be you, reading this, right now!
People will be mean and cruel to me. Those I trust will abandon me and leave me. All of my borderline nightmares will come true.
But I’ll survive. And in some cases, these relationships can be saved, and made stronger. Right now, this is pretty easy to admit. I’m sure there will be a point in the future when I will be absolutely convinced this isn’t true. But right now, this is where I’m at, because I’m finding that exploring this concept is helping me to achieve the intimacy and closeness that I want, but am terrified of.
Oh, and horror of all horrors? People will be nice to me, too, and this doesn’t have to send me into a paralyzing spiral of self-deprecation, wondering whether they mean it, what will I have to do in return to clear the social debt so they don’t think that I’m a selfish, horrible person, what behaviour of theirs will I now have to excuse or endorse. All of these thoughts are learned behaviour – we can’t always trust nice gestures, because in the past, these are what were used to control us. It’s a horrible dance of whether to accept the gesture, and waiting for that person to demand that we pay back the favour. So yeah, I understand that you might not be all that jazzed about accepting love and kindness from others. If you even believe that it genuinely exists, especially if you get borderline episodes like me. If you’re up for the challenge every now and then, it will take a lot of trial, error, failure, forgiveness, and a huge amount of trust to navigate the world of relationship and find some people who can be part of your social system and add to your resources. This is probably a topic for another post, but let’s continue on down the river and assume that when you try to realize these concepts, your spectrum includes tolerance for some level of social exchange and vulnerability.
So, if people are not resources, and you can’t get into someone else’s raft, what is possible in this universe?
Tune in next time to find out! And I promise I have a real answer this time.
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“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him.”
~ Romans 15:13