Finding meaning and purpose in our lives is part of living itself. It’s something intangible that we need to hold close to our hearts and protect! In all of history to the very present, the only thing we can keep others from taking away is our meaning/purpose, dignity and morality. In short – our minds. This is why I feel that depression and other mental illnesses are demons or monsters. They’re the real kind; not under the bed or in the closet…not in Dante’s Inferno or a painting in the Louvre. They are alive and in us, and as much as we want to flee our minds and bodies to get away, there’s no separation and hence nowhere to flee. Have you felt yourself crumble to the ground and all you could feel was pain? A pain that you couldn’t necessarily pinpoint but that consumed your entire being and transformed you into a physical embodiment of pain? A fog where nothing else exists, just the weight on every inch of your body, grappling for an escape or something…anything, to pull yourself out? Praying to anyone, anything and everything? Feeling as though the pain will kill you, and knowing that the sun should be out there somewhere but you just can’t find it…
THOSE, are the real demons and monsters to me. A human may not be able to take our minds from us but these insidious, invisible demons…they can. And that’s what’s extra scary. It’s the ultimate enemy, when you think about it. It grows like a parasite and feeds off negativity and anything bad. It sucks out happiness, dims the colours on great memories and paints the canvas of our futures with grey and black. It twists itself into our personas, transforming us into someone we don’t recognize. At least until the prickly vines replace our veins and trick us into not even knowing who we’d be without our illness(es).
Learning How to Fight
KEEP SEEING YOUR ILLNESS AS A DEMON / MONSTER! Never let that thought go. Keep just one meaning for yourself if you can’t find any other; the meaning that it is NOT who you are! You are afflicted…struggling, suffering…but you are NEVER one and the same. Make your meaning to have meaning, to find it and to find yourself! In short, to not be your mental illness. Maybe finding a big life purpose isn’t realistic right now…but you can learn to view these demons as imposters and make your purpose to fight back for control. Even though you can’t physically leave or attack a visible enemy, you are still a soldier. Or more accurately, a fighter for your very own freedom. Our minds can feel overtaken and under siege am I right? But there’s a key thing I remind myself of each and every day, and it has kept me away from the level of danger and self-harm that I was almost constantly in and caused great pain for my family when acted upon. (Which was sadly very often…)
I have self-defeating, scary, and troubling thoughts. I have impulsive urges and intense emotions in multiple directions. These urges…these unwelcome and painful thoughts can be very dangerous. Somehow, and it took time, but I managed to ‘check myself’. I have a process to basically talk myself down. First of all if I sense movement in the wrong direction I try to tell it to f*ck off and then distract myself. (Yes, I talk to my thoughts this way all the time if I’m being honest.) If the bad is coming at me quickly I stop everything and replay what I’m thinking. It’s not hard because at that point I’m very concentrated on the thought, so I keep it held up but promise myself no immediate action. Nothing further can be done without an observation period! If I have to sit down I will, but now my re-frame job can be quick and effective enough to turn things around even when I’m moving. Once I understand the thought and see why I was triggered, I tell myself that it’s just a thought. Even if the thought carries a potentially bad action, actually, especially when it does! It. Is. A. Thought. Four extremely powerful words that can change your reality! Do you know how many thoughts we have in a day? I did a quick exercise once in a DBT book; I set a timer for 3 minutes and put a mark on a paper each time I had a new thought. The count was so astounding that the number of thoughts in a whole day would be innumerably unthinkable. Now I know that this thought is different, but that’s exactly why you have to minimize it to the point where it’s just another thought out of…what’s a big enough number? Do you see what I mean?
A thought in itself, is not dangerous; what we fear is its ‘action potential’. Our thoughts have the potential to be acted upon. The potential…which WE control! No matter how terrible the thought, as long as we don’t act on it, we’re ok. Yes we want to eventually stop these thoughts entirely, but I recommend starting by ensuring your safety first. It’s such a relief in itself to know that while the thoughts may come, you do have a barrier. I don’t know if you’re into Harry Potter. Oh. There it is…my first mention of Harry Potter. Sorry guys…this has been in my life forever and now you may never hear the end of it. Yup…but I’ll hold back, I promised I’d be good. Do you remember the dementors? The big, hovering and cloaked creatures that guard Azkaban and terrorize Harry until he learns the Patronus charm? Well, it’s a good analogy. The dementor is in our heads but we can create our own Patronus that keeps them at bay…it creates a barrier.
I don’t know about you but I fear my thoughts. I’ve feared them for years and I still do depending on the situation and my mood, but now I’m lessening my fear. While I may still be afraid of what my mind will do next, I feel more in control and therefore less afraid of thinking bad thoughts because now I have a recourse even though they inevitable come. If we have tremendous fear of our thoughts and what bad can come of them, we’re already surrendering control. We’ve just covered anxiety in psychology class and learned that facing your fear is essential to recovery. This applies to ANY fear and while it’s a no-brainer, that doesn’t mean it isn’t really fricking hard!
The next part may sound scary and counterintuitive because when we think of control we think of forcing ourselves to be in control and despairing if/when we don’t succeed. The desperation of cramming a thought / emotion inside a tiny box is exhausting and often ineffective because the “I shouldn’t be feeling this, no go away, stop it, I’m so stupid, I’m going crazy, I can’t deal with this, etc.” is getting in our way. Let the thought come. Yes I said it. Expect it, say hi, and accept it as if it were an ad before a cool YouTube video. In other words, do your best to not make it a big deal when it comes and end up using all your mental might to forcibly make it go away. Here’s an image: I’m 5′ 4″ and not that strong but my fiancé is 5′ 11″ and built like a tank. He loves to play fight so he can practice some things he learns online. Me? I end up locked up in holds and used like a practice dummy unless I face him with my skillset. Force to force, when unequal, just doesn’t work. What do I need to use? Speed, flexibility and distance. Now coming back to the thought, don’t fight in futility as I was when I tried to use strength against Aaron. I did this with my thoughts for far too long until I finally understood the quote that water will always win against stone, even though it takes longer. (Very paraphrased.)
Water Winning Against Stone
I am about to be extremely bare and honest. I always am, but this is particularly difficult for me to talk about though I did in my journal since I thought it was going to remain sight-unseen. Here’s one of my terrifying situations that is one of many with the same thought process: Warning, this may be triggering.
I was despairing. My stomach and chest were being squeezed by the hand of a giant and all my failures, insecurities and emotions were brought to the very surface. I was shaking with anxiety but otherwise still and trapped in the kind of depressive pain I mentioned earlier. I had no hope and I was once again on the razors’ edge of danger. I forced and forced to get the thought of badly harming myself out of my head. I punched at it with futility and desperation, trying to stuff it into a box so that I could contain it. I was afraid of the thoughts. Afraid doesn’t even scratch the surface. My boiling emotions jumped from suicide to my family, to self-harm to semi-realizing that Aaron was upstairs…and then back again. My mind was being warped… I felt detached and then resigned to believing the thought and interpreting it as inevitable. I knew I couldn’t fight it. Or should I say, I was conditioned to believe that I had no power against it. After my ineffective pushing, acting on the thoughts was the only thing I could do that made sense to stop the inner conflict that was tearing me apart. That’s because the energy I had expended to keep the thoughts away was unsustainable and when I could no longer hold it, everything sprang back and hit me full force. I took 3 bottles of my sleeping / anxiety meds. Quietly choking down handfuls…doing something that would remain a trigger for…well, I don’t know if that will ever go away. I was in a state of shock, out of control and nearly watching myself instead of feeling in my body. Part of me was screaming, part of me didn’t know what was happening but part of me was dead so couldn’t clearly feel the other two. I took out a blade and started making deep cuts…I couldn’t feel any pain. All I saw and felt was warm blood; a sole reminder that I was actually alive. My mind was (horribly) appeased, and the thoughts were to some degree, quelled? It was sick and I feel sick just thinking about it. Writing is at least a bit safer for me. Somehow, and I guess this is another testimony to my sad ability of hiding things and being able to hurt myself anywhere, Aaron did not know. Not at first, anyway. When I was unexplainably fatigued and weak there was no more pretending and we were on our way to the hospital. The only thing that kept me awake, which was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do, was the thought of Aaron leaving me. He was furious and threatened to leave me if I didn’t stay awake. He did this all the way to the hospital to keep me anxious and awake enough but in triage I finally passed out. The rest is for another time perhaps, because it was too traumatic to recount right now. I still wake up in sweats and panic sometimes because of it.
This was me when everything went wrong. It was horrible…but it was also one of the biggest teachers and motivators for me to figure something out. It took a couple months to achieve control of my reactions to thoughts. Let me reiterate the fact that I’m controlling my reactions, not my thoughts. Emotions stem from stimuli, whatever they may be. These emotions are both caused by and cause thoughts. Looking at thoughts in a different fashion has been key to changing my mentality. I believed in brute force to conquer my bad thoughts when I should have been seeing them as a tiny link in the chain that makes up my thoughts of the day. This may sound ridiculous, but bear with me. Make the bad thought of equal value as needing to go to the bathroom but knowing you need to hold it for a while. In other words, give it no more importance or value. Let the thought come and instead of reacting to it by carrying it out or by trying to shove it away, observe the thought and breathe.
“This thought is one of countless. and just because it’s heavily dipped in emotion doesn’t mean I have to react emotionally. This thought has action potential but I know I’m safe because I’m the one who decides if it gets carried out. Sometimes I think about punching my boss in the face but I don’t let that translate physically, do I? This is the same thing. I can think about anything. I can think about death, doing crazy things, robbing a bank, etc., but that doesn’t mean I have to do it! I’m the boss and my mind has made strange and unpleasant thoughts crop up probably because I’m worn out, tired and struggling. But you know what? I can just as easily sit down and sip a good coffee instead. I can take the pain and related crappy emotions because this too will come to pass.”
Though I began by comparing mental illness to demons and monsters, this was to recommend creating distance and separation between yourself and the illness. Aside from that, don’t treat the thoughts as a terrible enemy. The more you build them up and fear them, the more power they will have over you. One last thing before I end, because I’ve already taken up a fair bit of your time, is desensitization. This process I’ve written about involves desensitizing yourself to these intrusive patterns so that each time you face them you come away stronger and less fearful. One final step that I recommend is to think of your troubling thoughts when you’re in a better / more stable mood. Observing the thoughts in that context will help you the next time they come out of the blue!
Until next time…and remember, thoughts are just thoughts!
If this was helpful and you’d like to read more, visit Cognitive Distortions – Negative Thought Patterns.