Last week was Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK and there were a lot of wonderful blogs, audios and videos posted on social media by a variety of people. People keen to share their experiences of how they’ve healed, what they did or read, or saw that changed something for them. I thought about it a lot and decided to write something new.
There was a time in my life when the outlook felt bleak. And if I’m honest it looked bleak on and off for 10 years or more. Being in my head was a pretty grim place to hang out and yet that’s what I did, day in, day out for years. On the surface I seemed to have it all, a lovely home, a husband, good food on the table, 3 lovely, healthy children, I had friends and family who loved me and yet I felt depressed. There were days I could barely get out of bed I felt so overwhelmed.
I wrote about it in a blog over 5 years ago and although I stand by much of what I wrote then I see it very differently today. My understanding of depression has changed.
I used to think I was broken, that there was something intrinsically wrong with me and that I needed fixing. I used to believe that I’d always be depressed or at least risk falling back into old ways, and that I’d be there again caught in the hell of depression for years at a time.
I’ve come to see things very differently and the best way I can explain this is to share this metaphor with you.
Our default setting is one of mental health, we were born with mental health, it is our birthright. I believe it is very simply our experiences though life, the day to day living of our life that has led to mental health becoming hidden from us.
Let me illustrate what I mean. The default setting of the sky is blue. Above the clouds the sky is always blue. Agreed? Well, that’s a bit like us. We are the blue sky. Clouds, storms, wind, hail, tornados pass through the sky. They aren’t the sky they are simply the weather. Our mental weather are the thoughts, feelings, moods we experience moment to moment, day to day. We aren’t the weather though, we aren’t our thoughts, our feelings, or our moods. We are the sky. It could be blowing a gale in our mental landscape, a biting wintry wind, torrential rain might be pouring but we are never, ever the weather. Just like the weather in the sky, our mental weather is just passing through.
And what creates our internal weather? Well, that’s only ever our thoughts. When the weather is stormy it’s simply a reminder to us that we’ve got unreliable thinking going on that’s keeping us in the stormy weather. Thoughts that we’re taking seriously, believing and acting upon. Remember our thoughts, like the weather are transitory, they come and go, all day long and up to 80,000 of them. A day!
We aren’t our thoughts. We experience our thoughts. I’ve come to believe that there is nothing wrong with us. We’ve just got caught up in a misunderstanding that we believe we are our thoughts. The inspiring psychiatrist Dr Bill Pettit calls it, “an innocent misuse of the powerful gift of thought.”
It’s interesting reading back on something I wrote 5 years ago. I see it so differently now. There wasn’t anything wrong with me, nothing was broken I simply and innocently got caught up in believing the thoughts in my head to be true. They weren’t.
I was choosing to believe all the negative stuff that was my mental soundtrack. It was in my head therefore it must be true, right? I believed it when I heard, “I’m not good enough, there’s something wrong with me, I’m going to be like this forever, being a mother is hard, my husband should be doing x, y, z, I’m no good as a mother, I should be able to cope, everyone else seems to cope, why can’t I cope, I’m lazy, I’m stupid….blah, blah, blah. There was a never-ending loop and it exhausted me, the clouds came over and they were pretty black at times.
Our thoughts simply aren’t fact.
I’d love what I’m about to say to be the one thing you get to see in reading this blog. Think of thoughts like the news ticker that runs along the bottom of CNN or BBC News 24 on the television. They’re a continuous flow of words. Like this ticker tape we have no control over our thoughts. I’ve not idea what I’m going to be thinking in 20 minutes time. I might like to think I’ll know what I’m thinking in 5 minutes but even then something pops in my mind and I wonder where on earth that came from…sound familiar?
What I didn’t see at the time was that there were times when I felt ok and even happy. Those I saw as flukes rather than me simply returning to my default blue sky setting….isn’t that curious? And then I’d think it’s a shame I don’t get those happier thoughts more often and would focus on feeling rubbish again and that’s where I’d end up heading.
Going back to those clouds I mentioned earlier. The negative thoughts I’d have moments after waking are just like clouds in the sky. They pass through the sky if I do nothing with them. If I try to hang onto them they multiply, popping up all over the place because by focussing on them I’m giving them meaning. You know how it goes — “if he said that, it must mean x and if that’s the case then x must mean y and then that must mean z…” see how crazy that is? It’s like make believe join-the-dots and creating a monster.
And then I start to believe the monster thoughts in my head…because they must be true, right?
“A man will be imprisoned in a room with a door that’s unlocked and open inwards; as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than push.” ~ Ludwig Wittgenstein
I was creating my own suffering. Nothing outside of me can have any impact on me….it wasn’t my husband, it wasn’t my children, it wasn’t being a new mum, it wasn’t feeling unfulfilled, it wasn’t my circumstances…I was responsible for it. I had built my own prison.
So how does this help me these days?
I might have a low feeling day but I don’t make a big deal out of it. I really don’t take much notice of it. I allow my feelings to be my guide. Yes, of course there are crappy days, that’s the reality of the human condition. It would be bizarre and somewhat boring to be in a perpetual state of nirvana I suspect. We’ve been led to believe that being happy, positive, bright and shiny is what we’re aiming for all the time. Life simply isn’t like that. Some days are just bland and neutral, some are great and others suck. It’s all okay though. I find I care less about the content of my thoughts, don’t take them so seriously and know that this too will pass. Simply knowing that I have this gift of thought is enough for me to settle into a place of peacefulness and to appreciate what a truly wonderful world we live in.