How I Found Peace by Accepting Mental Health Crisis

Many years ago, on a rainy morning in February, my 27-year-old self called my  mother to let her know I had been diagnosed with depression.  It was long enough ago, that most people’s reaction to this news was still based on the misinformation and stigma swirling around mental health.  But I wasn’t worried about telling my mom, she was a psych nurse. Solid. Still, it was a hard conversation and, in an effort to protect her or maybe myself, I left out the part about suicidal ideation. 

I was lucky. I took a really safe pill once a day and after a few (hard) months, I felt normal again. So, her insistence that I at least try to see if I can live medication free led to many jaw-clenching, frustrating conversations.  But she spent her days seeing the results of a lifetime of mental illness and she wanted me cured, not treated.

Last year, after some crisis or another, my son’s doctor stared me straight in the eye and said, “We can’t cure him, but we can treat him.” At that moment, I remembered those fraught conversations with my mother.  It was one of those moments when her past behavior made sense to me in a way I had been too young or too inexperienced to understand at the time it was happening.  It was probably due to those conversations that I didn’t feel like I was slapped in the face by the doctor’s words.  Instead, they crept into me and I felt them rather than heard them.  Not to be too mystical, but I pondered them in my heart. And this was new for me.  Over the course of my son’s disease and treatment, I have at different times over-reacted,under-reacted, intellectualized, dismissed, laughed, and cried at whatever news the person in the white coat threw at me. But I rarely possessed enough energy or context to really figure out what it all meant.  This time, for some reason, I did.  And the results were powerful. 

Once I accepted that crisis was just part of the disease, I feared it less and began dealing with it better. Kind of like how you get used to being puked on by your infant so you just plan for that eventuality and are  ecstatic every time it doesn’t happen when your late for a meeting.  Acceptance has made me calmer.  I feel less frantic when I recognize this is a long-term struggle and we are all doing the best we can. I still don’t know how to answer the question, “how is your son” but I am less frustrated by it.  The answer -that mental illness and addiction are hard and we are taking it one day at a time- no longer feels awkward.  I can even say it with a smile. 

I have also found time and energy that I didn’t have before. When I’m not constantly searching for a cure that doesn’t exist, my effort dealing with this illness is more focused and gives me more down time. I have even started gathering up the threads of my life that were lost to the storm of emotion surrounding his illness. Coffee with friends and no tears, finally! All this because of a few honest words from a physician that I took the time to absorb instead of react to. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still not happy about it—this illness.  Sometimes I still get angry about it. I mean teeth grinding, fist clenching, plate throwing angry.  Other times I’m just despondent. But, once I accepted it as the reality, I felt a lightness and freedom that hasn’t been mine for over 5 years.  

Coming to terms with a no-cure scenario isn’t unique to mental health conditions, but it has been a huge stumbling block for me.  I wonder why it took me so long to accept this? Maybe because this all started when he was only 15, and I felt like giving up on a total cure was giving up on his future.  It wasn’t.  It just meant re-imagining it, and watching it unfold in ways I would have never expected. Maybe it was because I wanted my life to get back to normal and, when you’re in crisis, it takes awhile to realize normal isn’t a thing. My life is just my life, my reaction to it is what transforms the situation.  Most likely, though, it was simple denial. Like my mom, I wanted a cure. I can’t get what I want, but I’m strong enough to accept treatment, and happy to reap the unexpected benefits of acceptance.

Mindfulness and Mayhem, mmmmmm

In my twenties, mindfulness practice seemed impenetrable.  All that sitting, and focusing, and what the hell was I supposed to practice anyway? Seriously, I let the word “practice” get in my way much the same way I let the word “metaphysics” derail my first philosophy class.

Now in my fifties, DBT has come in handy as a good practical introduction to mindfulness.  We start off each group with a different mindfulness exercise.  Mindful observing, mindful knitting, mindful counting, mindful candy eating.

Folks, you can do it with candy!

I was clearly reading all the wrong books in my twenties. Mindfulness isn’t about clearing your mind of all thoughts, it’s simply recognizing what you are thinking about and not hanging on to it.

This, along with my deep-seated need for survival, has brought me deeper into mindfulness.

At home I sometimes practice mindful dish washing (getting better), and on the road, mindful driving (lost cause).  It has really opened up my idea of what mindfulness is and how I can use it.  Almost in spite of myself, it has become a real tool.

In my current life-as never-ending-crisis cycle, I find myself reaching for this tool more and more.  Recently I have tried to incorporate it into my weekly routine, grasping for even the barest bit of sanity.

3 days a week of mindfulness practice at the beach a week—that’s the goal.

Waves of Mindfulness

Now before you get too far into imagining me sitting peacefully in lotus position on the beach in some sort of flowy garment smiling the Mona Lisa smile of a true practitioner, I should remind you that I reach for mindfulness to help me function.

Function minimally.

If I was together enough to arrange a quiet, pleasant mindfulness on the beach session, I wouldn’t need mindfulness.

No, my mindfulness consists of stopping off at the beach parking lot on my way home from carpool.  Sometimes I even manage to change out of my pajamas before I leave the house.  And as much as I would enjoy having a quiet moment to myself, usually I’m sharing the lot with a sketchy RV on one side and someone who is blasting hate radio on the other.

The goal is to do 30 min to an hour of mindfulness practice, or writing, or thinking about gratitude.

Yep, you got that right, mindfulness in my car, that’s the best I can do.

It usually turns into 15 minutes of me checking Facebook then another 15 trying to find a meme I really wanted to share with someone, 15 minutes of wondering if I’m doing it right, and maybe 5 minutes of actual mindfulness.  The ratio has been changing in the last few months, to the better I might add, but it’s roughly 5 minutes of mindfulness.

Don’t judge.

But today was different, today I went beyond mindfulness.  Today I was full on communing with nature.  Today it was dolphins!

Pulling into the parking lot I could see what I thought looked like dolphins moving close to the shore.

Remember, I always want dolphins at the beach, but I don’t always actually see them.  And when I do, it’s usually just one or two and I only see a glimpse of their back and maybe some spouting.  Maybe only 6 out of every 10 visits do I get full on, whole dolphin sightings.

I know, sometimes I hate me for living here too.

When I reached my parking spot, placed strategically between the industrial trash can and the recycling bin, I confirmed the dolphin sighting.  Lots of dolphins.  A small pod moving north.

I never even made it to checking my Facebook.  Still in my jammies, I jumped out of the car to get a closer look, noticing they were swimming toward a group moving south.  Today, I decided, watching dolphins was going to be my mindfulness practice.

Leaning back onto the hood of my car, I focused on them.  I focused on the color of them, the slide of them through the water, the arc of their backs as they surfaced. I noticed when one would surface, I absorbed the closing distance as the two groups moved toward each other. I breathed in through my nose then breathed out through my mouth (not required for mindfulness, but I do try to incorporate all the clichés I can). I was so totally rocking this mindfulness shit.

I didn’t actually take this picture

OMG there was a baby!

Not that it takes a lot to distract me, but this was total dolphin pandemonium—a couple of babies and more than a dozen other dolphins.  The two groups met up and then all began moving south together, showing off lots of flippers and tail flukes and breaching. Some were running into each other and then chasing each other.

Mindfulness evaporated, my mind was in full flight imagining what they were up to.

It was almost like the adults were going back to look for the teenagers that were lagging behind.  Teenagers trying out independence and being awful about it.  I saw the eye roll one of the girl dolphins gave her mom when asked why she wasn’t staying closer to the main group. I felt the mom’s relief and simultaneous frustration at finding her daughter safe, then realizing there was no reason to worry to begin with.

I’m sure one of the tween dolphins was bitching about having to look after his baby brother.  I imagined teenage dolphins flirting, showing off.  I saw the boys daring each other to do totally dangerous things to prove they were “cool”.  I imagined a great white shark following them around like the schoolyard bully.  An octopus trying to give them her words of wisdom, while trying not to be eaten.

I saw the whole ocean being dwarfed by the energy of the teenage emotions they were desperately learning to manage.  And the parents struggling to keep them safe while realizing there is no way to control them or their environment.  I could hear their grandparents sigh, those damn kids, where have they gone off to now?

These dolphins were living my life, I swear.  And they were doing it better!

I don’t know how I knew they were better, but it could be because they were not at all terrified of open water.  Or not.

They were clearly doing it better because they had created a community of strength and support.  It takes a pod to raise a dolphin.  The mother and father aren’t in it alone, and they’re not afraid to accept help. It was like these dolphins were speaking to me.  Directly to me.  Reminding me that I don’t only find my strength in independence, I find it in interdependence as well.  My community, my tribe, my relationships.

I wondered how dolphin parents would handle cell phones.  How do they deal with depressed teenagers?  Is it easier to manage teenage sleep when you sleep with half of your brain?  Are hypoglycemic dolphins as volatile as my daughter?  DBT talks a lot about rational mind, emotional mind, and wise mind.  But I don’t remember it talking about metaphor mind. My life works better in metaphor mind.

Realizing I didn’t make it to even 5 minutes of mindful practice, I noticed an adult break free from the crowd and take a moment to ride a wave before returning to the pod. That dolphin gets me, I’m certain of it.

(c) 2017 Gigi Quinn

 

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