Psychology 101. Lecture Stream: Positive Psychology. A few years ago, a large crowd of first-year university students were slouching in the lecture theatre seats (myself among them) while a wrinkled and unfashionable professor waddled around. “You always have a choice,” he said, while numerous yellow smiley faces bounced around on the power point presentation screen behind him. “You can do whatever you want, be whoever you want! Things such as time, money and responsibilities mean we often feel confined to reasonable and rational choices, but in the end they are still choices, and you always have the freedom to make different ones.”
‘Huh,’ I thought to myself afterwards, when shuffling out of the hall. ‘Maybe I can make the choice to not self harm tonight, if it’s that simple.’
I couldn’t. The overwhelming anxiety, intense self-hatred and paralysing fear were simply too much for me and I felt unable to cope.
There are various life coaches, religious leaders and wealthy gurus who claim that we always have a choice, and that the only reason we don’t feel like we have a choice all the time is because of the negative consequences of an appealing choice. For instance, we may dream about quitting a soul-sucking job, but do not, because we need the financial stability and would have a lot trouble finding another job. These life experts say that we feel stuck because we are only complaining and thinking negatively. Instead of thinking ‘this is unfair, I can’t do much about this at the moment,’ the solution, according to them, is to apparently ‘take charge’ of our situation, ‘accept responsibility’ for our actions, and ‘become proactive’ in getting what we want. It’s all very well to accept responsibility for quitting a job you hate, enjoy the resulting freedom, and work hard to find another job – but personally I would find it a bit pointless if you eventually were to starve to death in a cold street because you couldn’t afford to pay for food or rent.
But I digress.
Mental illness is not a choice. Hence the term ‘illness.’ No one chooses to be chronically sick. Some believe that it is a choice: that eating disorders are simply a vain cry for attention, anxiety is just an excuse for nervousness, and that depression is merely pessimistic laziness. They may also think that mental illnesses are akin to lifestyle diseases, brought on upon oneself through particular ways of thinking and an inability to realise the ‘selfishness’ of their situation. This could not be further from the truth.
Luckily, most people nowadays can agree that suffering from a mental illness is as much of a choice as a disease or virus: they realise that it is legitimate, it gets in the way of things, and it wasn’t asked for. You never smoke but can still get cancer, you can always wear warm clothes and yet still catch a cold, you can be a normal human being and still suffer from a mental illness.
However, what many people tend to forget is that the symptoms of mental illness are not a choice either. Just as someone with bronchitis can’t stop their coughing and (somewhat gross) phlegming, just as someone with a broken leg can’t help but block the footpath with their crutches, someone with anxiety can’t stop worrying or stop being self critical and someone with depression can’t magically increase their energy and simply cheer up. All need a variety of time, medication, extra energy, and rest to improve.
What we can choose is recovery. Unfortunately this is not as easy as it sounds – if recovering from a mental illness were simply a one-off choice or a way of thinking, a lot fewer people would still be suffering from it. You cannot outthink a mental illness. It is extremely hard to rationalise constant, intrusive, and cruel thoughts. Nor can you simply choose not to have a mental illness, as much as you might wish for it to not exist.
In the end, recovering from a mental illness is making the constant choice to do what is right for ourselves and our lives.
These include the small, everyday choices that benefit our mental and physical health: going to bed on time to get enough sleep, taking our medication, eating well, getting fresh air and a bit of exercise, showering regularly, seeing other people, spending time with animals, and making time for hobbies.
These also include the humongous, daunting choices. Consciously fighting by putting an end to unhealthy behaviours, resisting urges, giving in to what is healthy and ignoring what the illness screams at you to do, facing your fears and exposing yourself to your demons. These choices are indescribably difficult and often terrifying. They can feel unrewarding and thankless. You have to choose not to do what is easy, preferable, comforting and routine. The anxious person goes to the party, despite the nauseating fear. The person with an eating disorder eats something they haven’t touched in years, despite their guilt. It is easy to forget that these are continual choices that people with a mental illness have to make numerous, infinite times every single day. It does get rather tiring. Imagine all the routine choices that you make in the day suddenly becoming conscious ones you need to make an effort to do and feel afraid about – getting up, choosing what clothes to wear, what breakfast to eat, who to email or message, when to leave the house, what to look at, who to talk to, what to pay attention to, which train or bus to catch, which lane to drive in, what to do when you get home… Following through the choice to recover is exhausting and takes up an immense amount of concentration, bravery, and effort.
Yes, life is made up of choices, but to constantly make difficult choices all the time, even while knowing that they are the best for us, gets, well, difficult (or onerous, for those who say I need to use a thesaurus more.) And that’s why continually choosing recovery needs to be commended and appreciated. People also need to realise that recovery, like a fractured spine, needs a lot more than one night to happen (unless we live in a futuristic robot society, but I will save that idea for another time.) And it’s a struggle. Sometimes we make the wrong choices because it’s the best we can do in that moment and we feel incapable of more. That’s ok, as long as we try our best to choose the right thing the next time.
The last choice a mental illness gives you is the ultimate choice: whether to hold on or not. If you’re reading this, you’ve made it this far, so well done. Keep choosing not to give up.
Happy Thursday, dear readers. Please take care. :o)
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