Many mental illnesses, like many other chronic illnesses, are often cyclical. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, this means that at times the illness softens or even goes into a state of “remission,” in which the illness is not as prominent, invasive, difficult, and/or et cetera. This is especially true with mood disorders, such as depression or bipolar disorder. I think a full “remission” is rare, but I’ve known people who have reportedly (or rather, self-reportedly) gone for years without symptoms who end up hospitalized after an episode returns. Still, many illnesses are cyclical, like fibromyalgia for example.
The uni-cycle from hell
So, what is a “cycle” in terms of mental illness? It’s a little different for everyone of course as no two people really experience the same thing the same way, but of course, for a disorder to be a disorder, many people have to share commonalities of symptoms. Oftentimes, people in a heavy depressive episode will eat too much or too little, which will in turn make them sluggish, lethargic, or bring down their self-esteem, which will in turn impact their mood even more, making them feel sadder, lonelier, give them more feelings of worthlessness, which then will worsen the depression, which then will make them eat even more or even less, etc. The term you hear a lot is “vicious cycle.” I would say it’s overused if it weren’t so painfully accurate.
For me, my symptoms are all over the place. I eat too much or eat too little, I don’t exercise, I sleep too much or not enough, I do nothing but cry all day, I ruminate about the past, I complain a lot, I withdraw socially, I often stop creating unless I’m writing things that reinforce my bad mood, I tear my nails more, I used to self-harm, my hygiene worsens, I dress down/don’t bother, I spend money that I do not have, etc. All of these things are behaviors. Note: behaviors are not feelings or thoughts. So all of these behaviors maintain the cycle of my depressive symptoms. They create this whirlpool: Eating too much impacts my self-esteem, not eating enough impacts my energy, sleeping too much or not enough impacts my energy, doing nothing and crying too much impact my self-esteem, ruminating about the past and complaining a lot impact my self-esteem and often trigger my PTSD, etc. But these are all habits that I’ve gotten into because this is how the symptoms of depression manifest in me. This is why I do those behaviors. They are unhelpful. They are counterproductive. They are damaging. But I do them, because they feed the cycle, and the depression is hungry and wants to be fed.
Fibromyalgia, too, is another example that I deal with. Fibromyalgia gives me terrible all-over pain, particularly in my joints. It worsens in humidity and extreme temperatures and worsens most of all with inactivity. So when I don’t exercise? It rears its super ugly head. The fibromyalgia feeds the depression, as well, because it’s chronic pain, and the depression feeds the fibromyalgia because the depression makes it harder to exercise.
A vicious cycle.
So what exactly is “breaking the cycle?”
Both unfortunately and fortunately, because mental illness is impacted by our behaviors as it is by our chemicals–or perhaps impacted substantially even moreso by our behaviors–we have a humongous role to play in these cycles. Like in the case with fibromyalgia, swimming and stretching are excellent everyday activities but need to be increased during worsening cycles, even though it hurts; even though it seems counterintuitive, like your body just does not want to do it. Physical therapy for a leg that underwent a recent operation. Disinfecting the wound. The way the world works, and it is unfortunate, is that we have to suffer for our suffering in order to heal. Don’t ask me why; I do not know. It is painful, and it is unfair. It is a question I lose sleep over. But suffering means we’re alive. It is a reminder that we are experiencing the world; that we are learning; that we are growing; that we are fighting; that we are on an adventure. If that’s not something to celebrate, I don’t know what else is there. The idea of death as eternal rest? Maybe. But there is no development there. No adventure there. No growth, just the shrinking of flesh and the wasting away. How is that a celebration?
So will it hurt?
Yes. Breaking the cycle must hurt something, like breaking anything: breaking a bone, breaking a heart, breaking a window. You will think, “Breaking this cycle will hurt me. Breaking this cycle will make me endure pain.”
But… not quite. That’s not quite it.
Breaking the cycle hurts your demons. It hurts your pain. It hurts your suffering, your gray cloud, your thunderstorms, your joint discomfort, your rage, your sadness, your lethargy, your loneliness, your symptoms, your disorder, your illness.
It takes that f**ker in its hands and punches it square in the jaw.
It will hurt. You will endure some pain. Because your illness is a part of you. It’s something we have to face at some point: We cannot escape our sicknesses. Whether in “remission,” whether “truly” in our “past,” whether controlled or managed, whether uncontrolled, whether completely messing us up, whether sending us to the hospital every few months or not, they are a part of us. You may not identify with your disorder, (and that’s great if you don’t — it’s a good step towards having a healthy sense of self!), but it is still a part of you that you have to contend with. It is inside you. It influences you. It will do or has done things to you. Even if you don’t have a personality disorder, it shapes who you are because it shapes what you’ve been through, what you’ve seen, and what you’ve thought. You’ve experienced the world differently than someone without your disorder has. That’s the truth. It’s part of you. So a part of you is going to get hurt, and you will feel it.
I have been in a bad cycle of depression for months now. Many months. There have been occasions during which I’ve felt happy and even happy to be alive, but for the most part, I’ve been carrying on my sad and gloomy tradition of being chronically suicidal. I’ve been to the gym occasionally. I’ve done therapy homework. I’ve set goals. I’ve done work on my photography. I’ve blogged some. I’ve been doing little things to try and make it, you know. Been trying to do things to “break” the cycle, so to speak. But today, I realized something.
No pain, no gain?
I saw my new psychiatrist today. As always, it was another case of a selective listener with a lack of social skills and problems with black-and-white thinking. As always, the psychiatrist did what they could to summarize the whole of me in a 15 minute chart synopsis, play with medication that could effectively kill me, and then send me on my way with some insensitive advice said in a patronizing tone.
(NOTE: Ok, so not all psychiatrists have people problems. But mine was very private, closed-off, and carried herself more like a patient than a doctor. She was shooting off warning shots as if her vibes were cannonballs from a battleship, and truthfully, I think most people who go into psychiatry have a gross lack of social skills. Psychology is 50/50, but psychiatry? Good luck finding a charmer there.)
But anyway, regardless, the point of mental health practices are to help you help yourself and while psychiatry is more from a medical-science-based perspective, or supposed to be, and the fact that “get a job” is not good advice to give to someone who is literally unemployable (on disability, no “formal” education, can’t drive, etc), most of my wellness and wisdom has come from epiphanies I have gained through the flaws and faults of my therapists, counselors, doctors, and so forth. They’re human, too, after all, and my creativity and ability to make associations have always been important assets.
So yes, I realized:
I haven’t hurt It enough.
It. Not the clown, not Pennywise, although I can hear him in the background right now saying “You’ll float too” as quoted by my boyfriend occasionally ever since we saw the movie because for some reason that line cracks us up. But “It.” It. The disease. The diseases. The whole torture device that breaks me apart, I have to light a match to It and make It burn.
And It’ll hurt.
But that’s okay.
Because I know if I hurt It, It won’t hurt me as much. I’ll hurt with it a little. initially. But once I recover from that shock, I’ll get used to the water, and I’ll be able to swim away the joint pain — so to speak.
Aim High (but be reasonable)
I have to know and understand my limits, but I think I’ve been setting the bar too low. I’ve been going to the gym when I feel capable. I’ve set goals when I have quite a few things I know for sure I’m going to accomplish. I’ve blogged when I’ve felt inspired. I can’t keep waiting for good days or the “less-bad” days to show up. Yes, it’s cyclical. Yes, it’ll get better. But it only gets better to a point unless I break the cycle I’m feeding into.
I’m worried about my boyfriend’s food intake. He works at a restaurant and has been eating a lot of restaurant food. He works constantly but is able to come home on break, so I’m planning to cook all three meals every day for him to come home to. That will make me 1.) cook, something I love doing (or used to, before this depression set in, but the love will come back once I get better!), 2.) build structure (prepare & eat meals at certain times), 3.) eat all three meals a day (something I rarely do), 4.) eat more healthily, (as I will be cooking the meals, so I will be able to choose what goes into our stomachs!) and 5.) give back to my boyfriend which I want to do, because he is a great support.
I’ve started. It’s a little rocky right now, and it’s difficult, but I’m going to get the hang of it. It makes me feel good to be able to prepare food for my family. More specifically, the behavior of cooking food for all of us makes me feel useful, productive, giving, loving, creative, and appreciated. Those feelings are contrary to the depression.
I’m going to start cleaning again. A healthy home creates a healthy self, and our home is not too healthy right now. We have a lot of clutter and need to clear out a lot of stuff. I have many things I want to resell, donate, and simply throw away. I need to get stuff out of this apartment. There is just too much. I swear to you, dear Readers, that when time allows I will dedicate an hour+ a day to cleaning/sorting/putting stuff up on eBay/etc. Don’t be fooled. That’s almost every day. I have no life.
Resulting feelings: Productive, clean, organized, orderly, free (less restricted), optimistic, grateful, structured
I’ll start doing laundry more often. I’ll sort the clothes I don’t want into a different section to sell and donate. Maybe I’ll do laundry once a week.
Resulting feelings: Productive, clean, loving, attentive
I feel super domestic right now, so I’ll throw in some art too.
I WILL START SHOOTING AGAIN.
I MISS PHOTOGRAPHY.
I finally have my 35mm Canon camera back. I need to use it. I’m going to post post-it notes around the house to remind me to take a shot+ by the end of this week. It doesn’t have to be more than a shot. I don’t have enough money to be wasting film, and it’s an insult to the art anyway to do so.
Behavior: Shooting (photography)
Resulting feelings: Creative, inspired, calm, awestruck, grateful
So here we go.
- Cook 3 meals/day
- Clean 1 hr/day
- Laundry 1x/week
- Shoot 1x/week
All together these behaviors will help lead me to feel productive, clean, organized, orderly, free (less restricted), optimistic, grateful, structured, attentive, calm, inspired, awestruck, useful, giving, and appreciated. These are all great ways to fight depression.
I will let you know how it goes.