The Tenuous Balance of Mental Health Stability
by Mike Hedrick
It’s a beautiful spring day. You’re cruising along a stretch of ocean highway. The top’s down, the Beach Boys are crooning, the motor is humming, and the sun is streaming in. Things are good. Suddenly, the idiot lights on the dashboard come alive. The car stops dead in its tracks. That comfy ride you had been enjoying, perhaps without even realizing it, has ended.
In my most recent essay, I spoke about finding stability. But what happens when you have stability and you find that it’s still so easy to lose, given one or two unfortunate events? Finding stability is a challenge, but maintaining it is just as complicated and stressful. It’s an inevitable, and often cruel, tightrope act of living with a serious mental illness. I’ve been stable for a few years now, (and I’m taking a chance even saying that), and there are several things I’ve learned about maintaining that stability that may be helpful for you, or for someone you love.
The building of supports has helped me tremendously. If I am, in fact, walking a tightrope; my supports are that giant, inflatable cushion underneath so that, if I do happen to lose my footing I have a chance at a safe landing. Amassing and cultivating your supports is a process that can take years, but it is essential to have people and plans for when things may falter.
One thing I’ve done is build a career around people and organizations that understand if I need to take some time to myself to focus on my mental health. This includes organizations centered on furthering education about mental illness that have compassionate knowledge about how mental illness can affect a person. I realize this is not something everyone can do but being open about your illness to your superiors at work can open some doors for you in terms of providing the net that is so necessary. Of course, disclosing your illness is a very delicate matter that requires a considerable amount of thought. There may be consequences to disclosing and while, in a perfect world, there shouldn’t be, the reality is that disclosure may require some counsel on the part of your doctors and your support structure.
The people you choose to surround yourself with probably matter most of all. Both friends and family have my back through thick and thin and, while this network is small, (fewer than ten people), these people are there for me when I slip and need help getting back up. I recognize, too, that many people with a serious and persistent mental illness would do anything to have ten people on their side. My allies understand my illness and they know how to support me. Support, like all aspects of relationships, should be a two way street. My brother and I are in therapy dealing with our own individual mental health issues, and we help and support each other as best we can.
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I also believe that maintaining stability without an abundance of education is nearly impossible. Education could mean reading relevant subject matter, or discovering new therapeutic modalities that I can then try out with my therapist, or researching coping strategies for the problems in my life. Coping with mental illness is my full-time job and, while it can anger me and cause me a great deal of heartache, it’s an endlessly fascinating “occupation.” There are many authors with diverse and intriguing perspectives who specialize in mental health and, when a new book on neuroscience comes out, I quickly get my hands on it. I’ll do anything to get even the smallest inkling on how to deal with the thoughts that careen through my head.
Educating myself about schizophrenia is perhaps one of the most beneficial steps I’ve taken since being diagnosed. The knowledge I have gained has helped me analyze the mechanisms in my brain that cause things to erupt or die down, and I’ve used plenty of strategies I’ve learned in dealing with my illness and becoming a productive member of society. Having these has helped me parse out my paranoia and my delusions from reality.
Implementing knowledge and skills gained from reading, research, and therapy is the final piece, for me, of the stability maintenance program. Acquiring tools is great, but, if you don’t use them; then it’s all for nothing. I use deep breathing almost daily when dealing with my anxiety and paranoia, and that’s something I wouldn’t have learned without reading about anxiety. Reality-testing, (the process of attempting to parse out delusion from fact), is another little nugget has saved me countless hours of frustration and anxiety. I learned about reality-testing from reading about the function of delusions, combined with countless hours of practice and talking with my psychiatrist and therapist about what things are real and what things are neurological impulses bent on deceit.
I have often talked about my delusions that I am, or will be, under attack from people that I deem to be shady characters. I fear that they will make fun of me or verbally assault me somehow. Working through these feelings in the safety of my therapist’s office has shown me that, the vast majority of the time; I’m projecting my own fears on these innocent people. It’s frightening when you can’t trust your brain, upon which you’ve relied to carry you through the world, because it is now telling you things, sometimes harmful things, that have no basis in reality.
In flashing moments of panic, the pulsating pressure of paranoia, or during extended periods of depression, it is critical that you have the tools and people in place to support your stability. As you live with an illness, you learn what is necessary to keep you grounded in reality. Like learning how to do a Sudoku puzzle or read a map, it takes learning and effort until using these tools becomes second nature.
Maintaining stability is a delicate dance that, at times, can be very unstable and can cause some strife trouble if you fall. However, building these support structures, educating myself and using the tools I’ve learned has kept me, for the most part, on the highway, my motor purring away.