When I studied psychology in college, even when I made it to an Intro to Clinical and Counseling class about seeing patients, mental illness, treatment, all of it was talked about in a clinical, fairly removed kind of way. Which is probably how it’s supposed to be done. In order to help people process emotions, regain control of their thoughts, and their lives, you have to be the objective observer. Sure you can say “that sounds tough, I’m sorry you went through that,” but you can’t be dragged down into the depths of the emotions with them. Now that I think about it that may be part of why I decided during my stint on the rape crisis hotline that counseling was really emotionally draining and not a viable full time career option. But I digress.
I did find out from my Intro to Psych, Intro to Clinical and Counseling, and Psychology of Gender professor, and later my research/presentation mentor that some of the things that had made me question my sanity were actually pretty normal. He told us once that if everything he thought came out of his mouth he’d be arrested by 9am every morning. Some people in the class looked uncomfortable, what could he possibly be thinking? A good portion of us nodded enthusiastically, glad to talk about something nobody talks about, normalizing the fact that your initial thought doesn’t make you a bad person or mean you’re going to act on all those things, it comes from that pleasure center voice in your head (Frued called this the Id, the Greeks called this Dionysus, and the Romans stole Dionysus and called him Bacchus) that thinks nearly everything can be solved by sex drugs and rock and roll. I know it’s more complicated than that, but I wrote my last paper about Freud 10 years ago… I’m a little rusty. In reality, there’s not as much crossover as you might think between treating those suffering from mental illness, and working on your own mental illness. Or at least there isn’t for me. Part of this may be a focus on “do as I say not as I do” which is not great so maybe don’t do that. Where was I? Right, thinking something doesn’t mean it’s real. Or something like that.
Last year I was seeing two counselors at once, one with my boyfriend and one solo, and it was a LOT of work. I found myself extra tired, overly emotional, and overwhelmed with the process sometimes. I bounced back and forth freely between “I’m kicking ass” and “I’m not doing enough, I’m a mess, why would anyone choose to be around me?” Our couples counselor described the phenomenon as having raw emotional nerve endings. Doing so much work in therapies, and with meds, and in my own head that it's stripping away the protective coating made of (sometimes maladaptive) ways of handling my mental illness, myself, my thoughts, my everything. That stripping away of things has left things really raw and sensitive. It makes me feel raw and exposed which I sometimes have trouble with, but it’s pretty accurate.
A huge focus at that time was being able to take time between experiencing a feeling or event, and a reaction. Honestly this is something that feels like it has improved my life a lot and in a lasting way. First of all this involved the concept and practice of “Not everything I think or feel has to come out of my mouth.” Yes I’m aware I have impulse control issues, just stick with me here. When something happens that upsets me or causes negative emotions, that doesn't always mean I have to try to fix it right that second. A common occurrence this time last year would look like this. Something happens, I freak out HARD either to myself or more often to/at others, I calm down from the freak out, I suddenly feel like it wasn't really a big deal to begin with. Oftentimes that even came with a *bonus* freak out of incessantly apologizing, saying I wish I could go back in time, take back things I said, etc. etc.. Or! Sometimes that didn’t come out right away and I would just suddenly panic and start apologizing to everyone for everything. I won’t lie, this is still a tough one for me, if I’m anxious but trying not to show it sometimes it presents as obsessive apologies, sometimes not even knowing what I’m apologizing for (I know, I must be great at parties).
Now, I let myself get to the “This isn’t as big of a deal as I thought it was right when it happened” part before I open my mouth. Almost always. Usually. I’ve learned that there aren’t many things that require the level of immediacy I gave, and occasionally still give, them in my mind. This was a fabulous realization! Nearly everything can wait, be it 5 minutes, 2 hours, a few days. Sweet! Holding onto things for hours, days, or weeks at a time? No problem at all! I’ve been doing that naturally forever, I can already tell I’m going to be great at this.
What do you mean it’s not supposed to consume my every waking moment until I come back to it? This is bulls**t...
Point being, I aim to give myself the time and permission to calm down before reacting. Which requires mentally being able to acknowledge a negative feeling, give it space for a moment, and then put it away to deal with it later when I can look at things more objectively. This way it doesn’t consume my thoughts, my reality. I acknowledge that it’s something I need to think about and process, but that right now isn’t the right time for that. Awesome yes? Super cathartic yes? Yeah, it's still really hard…The more I try to silence the automatic thoughts, the more they permeate my being. You know, I say don’t think about pink elephants, now you’re thinking of pink elephants. When negative thoughts permeate my being, and I’m also acknowledging the work I have been/am trying to do, it makes me feel like a big fat failure. I’m trying this hard and have been for this long and I’m still not getting it right?! Reassurance is a great way for me to feel better. In theory. In practice my brain tells me it’s less genuine if I have to ask for it, if I do ask for it I’m being a bother and people are annoyed with me. I know, I’ve got a real tendency to back myself into a corner here.
If you take anything from this, make it this. I see you. I know you’re trying. You are enough. If you’re perusing mental health blogs and stuff, you’re taking some steps. You can handle so much more than you ever think, I believe in you. But it will be work. But you can look back on that work and be proud. You’re allowed to do that, I promise.
It’s been 23 years since I was diagnosed with anxiety (and since then much more), years of on and off therapy, trauma, grand swaths of maladaptive coping mechanisms, too many medication changes and adjustments to count, and the sparkling wit and vaguely self deprecating humor you see before you... and I honestly feel like I’m doing pretty darn well most days. But some days it’s still work. Some days I need reminders. Some days I forget. Some days I feel like I never learned any of this at all. And that’s ok. Your hard days are ok too, they don’t mean you’ve failed, or that you’ve “regressed.” This isn’t a linear, obvious, or simple process. Wherever you are right now is ok, and I’m proud of you for it..