We often grieve the loss of loved ones, but have you ever considered that we grieve the loss of our health? Coping with the ‘loss’ of my mental health due to lifelong mental illness has been complicated. I am still working toward reality acceptance and processing what this ‘loss’ means for me, my loved ones, and my future.
With my return to work, I now realize how important the time off was to allow myself to whole-heartedly embrace self-care and healing. I was able to leave behind my responsibilities and obligations, freeing my heart and mind to agree on the insight that ‘acceptance’ is my path to success and fulfillment in the future. In moving toward acceptance of the things we cannot change, we leave behind bitterness, resentment, anger, and stuck-ness. With this epiphany came such staggering clarity. The path ahead was lighted by the bright shine of the sun, cleared of all mud and debris, and was so singular that there was no other option but to keep walking forward.
But then I returned to my life. The path of acceptance is again muddied by everyday responsibility; clouds of judgment and fear threaten to cover the once bright sun; and the singular path appears harder to navigate, with many forks in the road ahead. Life has reminded me that acceptance and grief go hand-in-hand, and that the path to success and fulfillment is not so linear after all. The road ahead has rest stops with signs reading “To wallow in self-pity, pull over here and scream ‘this isn’t fair!’ The road ahead has bumps of guilt; guilt about being a burden, guilt about causing others pain. The road ahead has dark clouds, threatening its overcast of shame—shame that tells me I’m not good enough, not worthy of this much love and attention. The road has interconnected streets of uncertainty—streets that lead to fear of losing my way, fear that I will take a wrong step, a wrong turn. The road ahead has a thick fog threatening me with the deep sadness that I am alone, that life is unbearable.
There are important supports I have put in place to do my best to stay on the path of acceptance, even when it does not seem so clear.
First, I attend a weekly Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) group and work with my individual therapist to process my thoughts and feelings related to processing grief, acceptance, learning DBT skills for emotional regulation, and making changes to better manage my mental health disorders. This helps me identify thought-traps that tempt me off the path. If I can identify this, I can use DBT skills to right the path again. I struggle with things like:
- Catastrophizing those rest stops and bumps in the road (“This is the worst thing that could have happened! I will never be able to find the road again!”)
- Allowing my emotions alone to guide my footsteps, such as experiencing sadness, anger, or shame that stop my feet in their tracks (“I cannot bear this sadness, I give up.”)
- Should-ing myself or being overly controlling (“I should be able to make these symptoms go away” or “I should be doing better by now”)
- Disqualifying the positive, or forgetting all of the steps forward I have taken so far, even if I’m not as far along the road as I’d like to be. (“I’m overwhelmed by how many things I still need to work on”)
Secondly, I schedule my anger, sadness, and worry for times that will be most effective. When I am starting to feel overwhelmed by a strong emotion, I add a ‘temper tantrum’ to the schedule. In that moment, I tell myself ‘I feel a strong emotion of [insert emotion] and it is threatening to overwhelm me.’ Then I put that thought or emotion in a box and I schedule a more effective time to manage it, such as in the evening when I get home from work. Then I get on with my day (and maybe splash some cold water on my face or take a few mindful breaths if I need a little something extra before I can get on with it). You may be thinking having a temper tantrum as an adult sounds odd, or wondering what this looks like. It looks exactly like a two year old might look during a temper tantrum because you said ‘no’ to whatever thing he/she wanted right now in this very moment with no compromise willing to be made. This is how I do it:
- I inform my husband that I am going to go have a temper tantrum and ask him to please not come into the room for the next 15 minutes. (Yes, this may take a little more explanation to those in your household the first time you do it…but by now my husband is used to my temper tantrums, and I think he probably appreciates me taking my anger out on the mattress and pillows if you know what I mean…)
- I set a timer for 15 minutes.
- I imagine ‘un-boxing’ those strong emotions that were feeling overwhelming before. I allow myself to feel that emotion ALL the way and with my ENTIRE body.
- I scream as loud as I need to.
- I cry as hard as I need to.
- I punch and kick the pillows and mattress as much as I need to.
- And I do all of it as long as I need to, or until my timer goes off.
I’ve never made it to fifteen minutes. Before then, I am exhausted and then I am calm. You may be reading this and thinking it sounds strange. Believe me, when this was recommended to me by my therapist, I thought it was strange too. I thought, ‘Suuuuure, riiight, I’ll totally have a temper tantrum as a thirty year old woman.’ Then came a time I was so overwhelmed with anger, sadness, and willfulness that I couldn’t think of anything to do except to try it. And it worked. Seriously, it worked. So before you ask again, yes, I am a thirty year old woman who has temper tantrums.
Feel what you need to feel and then let it go. Do not let it consume you.Dhiman
Lastly, I lean onto my support system, or at least I am learning to. Over time, I have developed a social support system, my husband, mom, brother and sister-in-law, and many friends, who help to lift me when my own feet will not move forward. For this to work, I have to be willing to ask for help and willing to teach my support system HOW to help, which I am still working on. Asking for help isn’t easy, but I have found that when I do, its always worth it.
In the end, all I can do is my best to keep walking the path of acceptance, and acknowledge that I may have to take those rest stops once in a while, that those bumps in the road may knock me off my feet for a moment, and the clouds and fog may make my path less clear at times. But this does not mean that I am failing. As long as I find my way back to the path, this simply means I am learning better how to succeed.