Learning to Swim: Accepting the Limits of Long Term Mental Illness
Breccan is learning to swim this summer. He is a fearless fish, which is good in many ways because he is already diving down to 4 feet and has mainly figured out swimming. It's bad because I feel like, without a little bit of fear of the water and understanding his own limits, he's a drowning risk. So he requires a lot of management in the pool, almost more than kids who are less skilled.
Olin is now sleeping with only 1-2 wakes up a night and is completely weaned. He's been consistently sleeping better for about 4 weeks now, basically since he stopped nursing. It's amazing how taking those 2 drains off of my body changed my mood.
I got to a pretty low place. I had enough signs of depression - low motivation, disinterest in thing I previously enjoyed (part of my absense here), social avoidance, difficulty concentrating, fatigue - but it took me a lot of humility to admit it. I have been in these phases plenty of times in my life. I know what skills I have to use to help myself out. That doesn't mean it is any easier to pull myself out. In fact, sometimes that makes it harder.
Because I know what skills keep depression at bay, part of me feels like I shouldn't slip. I feel like I should always be able to read the signs and have a fluid adjustment to the ever-changing flow of triggers. Admitting that despite medication, despite my best efforts, I've slipped, takes buckets of humility and radical acceptance.
It's faulty logic: I know have mental illness, therefore I'm not allowed to experience mental illness. We know lots of things that help with the symptoms of depression and anxiety aside from medication (if your doctor has prescribed meds, definitely take them, and don't be afraid to ask for them!). The thing is, these things ease the symptoms of mental illness. They aren't necessarily a cure. To expect that a person with Bipolar will never have manic or depressive cycles despite meds and lifestyle adjustments, for example, is like expecting an asthmatic to never have an asthma attack despite having an inhaler.
Sometimes we expect too much perfection from people who struggle publicly. When the toxicology report for Carrie Fisher was revealed, many people blamed her for her own death, as if her drug addiction was a moral fault. When Chris Cornell’s toxicology report was released, his suicide was looked on less compassionately, like of course, that's the rock star life. Substance abuse and mental health are are inextricably linked, and it is time we acknowledge that addiction is a physical state not a moral shortcoming.
A prominent member of the yoga community died recently of a fentanyl overdose. People were shocked, as if someone who embodied the commitment to mindfulness wasn't completely free from mental anguish.
Mindfulness is like a life preserver for someone who can't swim - it keeps them afloat, but it doesn't teach them the strokes. Learning to thrive with mental illness is like learning to swim with minimal instruction - we thrash about moving our arms and legs like we're told to do, and only until we feel the exact way our bodies react to the water and get the right rhythm and coordination can we keep afloat. But we're constantly in danger from the waves. And, tragically, some people drown despite knowing the strokes.
So where is the hope? How do you keep battling when you know it may never get better? Sure, a big part of it for me is being better for my kids, but one day they'll need me less, and motherhood cannot be my total existence. I need a reason to try to thrive outside of them. Like swimming, you know it's risky. But, for me, the key is to find joy in the strokes. Focus on the moments I feel better; focus on the learning. Committing to helping others learn to kick their feet and paddle their arms against their own waves, be they ripples or swells, is part of that for me.
The good moments like an endorphin rush after a hike, a delicious new restaurant, the beach in the summer, snow in the winter, don't exist if you give up the fight. The learning stops, the joy stops. So every day that I slog through a schedule that feels mundane, every hour I commit to yoga when it'd be easier to slump on the couch, every instance I could give into my anxiety but instead I challenge it is one step away from suffering and a step closer to a moment of joy.