Thursday, September 9, 2010

Help Yourself. Thursday, Sept. 9, 2010.

“The Lord helps those who help themselves.” – NOT in the Bible

If you have strep throat, you need to take antibiotics. It helps to drink a lot of liquids and get a lot of bed rest, but other than that, there’s not much you can do to help the healing process.

If you have clinical depression, or any other mental illness, it’s very different. The onus is on you. You can go to therapy, and you can take medication, but there is one hell of a lot of work involved in getting well – and complete recovery is seldom in the cards.

Maybe that’s why mental illnesses are so often viewed as moral failings. “If she only tried harder …” “He needs to help himself …” “Stop wallowing in self-pity…” “Happiness is a choice!”

The problem with such statements is there is some truth to them. Those of us who struggle with mental illness are correct in identifying our problem as an “illness” that is not our fault. But it doesn’t follow that we can be passive, waiting for someone or something to come along and “make us better.” There is no Wellness Fairy that can sprinkle us with pixie dust and take our depression and anxiety away.

This sucks. It’s why I have so often begged God to take my bipolar away and replace it with some visible, physical disease – something that no one can look down at me for having. Something with a simple cure that will disappear with the right injection.

That said, there is another problem with such statements: they are overly-simplistic, and often condescending and hurtful. When I was very sick, I was told that I was being selfish and choosing (even wanting) to look on the dark side of things. I wanted desperately to get well, so I sent away for several books on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (“Mind Over Mood”).

The problem, these books told me, was in the way I was thinking. And fixing it was supposed to be simple – just replace negative thoughts with positive ones. David Burns MD’s books informed me that the chemical imbalance theory of depression is a myth. I filled up more than seven notebooks with my “cognitive distortions.” At one point I was writing in my cognitive distortions journal every half-hour.

I tried. I tried. I tried. I wound up in that motel room.

So is it my responsibility to get – and stay – well? Yes, it is. It’s my responsibility to see my doctor, be honest with her, take my medication, eat properly, get enough sleep, write my blog (which is part of my healing process), and – yes – work to keep negative thoughts in check. There is a place for cognitive therapy.

But there was a time when I WAS too sick to help myself. And I don’t care what anyone says – I did not want to feel like I did, I did not choose to feel like I did, and I was literally unable to change my thoughts and feelings.

Recovering from mental illness does require you to make the effort to climb out of your own hole. But sometimes, you do need help to find the ladder in the darkness.

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