Saturday, 7 January 2012

The Magically Powerful Personification Trick

In my last article I wrote a thank-you letter to Mental Illness for all that I'd learnt from it. The idea of turning illness, or indeed any annoyance or frustration into an imaginary person came not through the counselling I received but from a friend of mine who had cancer.

He and his family were struggling with the news that he had terminal cancer. When diagnosed he was told that he had less than two years to live. He survived for over six years and made the most of every minute he could right up to the end.

The turning point for him in adapting and adjusting to his having cancer was when someone told him to personify his cancer to become angry with it, argue with it and defy it - it was told repeatedly to stop bothering and interrupting him while be was enjoying himself. It was told he wasn't interested in it as he had plans to go out that day for a picnic or to see a show or some other pleasurable activity.

Yes he had better success on some days than others, but when he discovered he could have a good day after weeks of bad ones, that was all he needed to start fighting. He came to imagine it as no more than a rather ugly looking creature no bigger than a wart lurking in the dark corners of a street as it was allergic to sunshine. So he'd simply cross to the sunny side of the street, much to it's annoyance. If the creature came banging on his door he'd simply turn his music up until it went away. What he didn't do was invite it in. Sometimes this odious slime ball would throw bricks at the window and get in, but the emergency services swiftly attended and it would be locked up and peace was soon restored.

From understandably having a bleak 'might as well give up now' mindset my friend was transformed into a person who embraced and enjoyed nearly every second of his final years. Never have I come across anyone half so positive in what would, on the surface, seem impossible circumstances to do so in.

'Be angry with the illness' was also useful to his family who, quite naturally were becoming frustrated with worry (and what do we know about what frustration can lead to - anger) that even the burden of caring for someone so ill. It's a myth to think that people with a serious illness do not become a burden at times, it is better be honest about it when it happens. By being honest with ourselves we identify the difficulty faced and can then develop a strategy for dealing with it. Just as the illness is a frustration to the sufferer so it can be to carers too. By everyone aiming their frustrations at the correct target of the illness it enables everyone to cope better and avoid taking it out on and upsetting those we care for most. It has certainly helped me that way.

Personifying illness gives us a target to vent our frustration and anger at the circumstances that arise because of it. In some ways I feel that mental illness is an easier illness to personify and an easier battle to fight for unlike terminal cancer, there is nothing definitive about it. There is no such thing as terminal mental illness unless we choose to end our lives; the illness itself is not to blame for that, we are for making that choice. The trick is to choose not to and learning to rant and rail against the illness for planting negative thoughts in our heads can make all the difference to choosing life instead.

No, it's not easy, at least not until the new mindset of choosing life has been well and truly established. It can be extremely difficult to get started when a deep depression hits especially when it's situations and events out of our control that have triggered the depression in the first place such as the death of a loved one.

Death is always difficult to come to terms with, never more so when it's caused by murder, the loss of a child or a suicide. In those circumstances suicidal thoughts can start to consume the bereaved. But another death only serves to escalate the misery by passing it on to others. Without our surviving such a loss how can we do honour to the person who has died by passing on all we came to know of that person? Others might not have been lucky enough to have met our lost love at all, so who's going to tell them how wonderful they were if we don't?

Our choosing life becomes a living memorial to those who die. Such became my own conclusion upon losing loved ones through cancer, accidents and indeed suicide. By my choosing life I can share with others all their brilliance, the sheer privilege to have had them in my life and the joy it brought me. By choosing death I cannot.

Bereavement itself is perhaps not something we can personify and probably shouldn't try to. We are justified to feel angry at our loss, lonely, hurt and lost but even from the agony of bereavement we can choose to fight for life with thoughts of what others would want and wish for us, even though they have died.

Instead of thinking in terms of things our loved ones are no longer around for, we can think in terms of trying to finish that bit of planting in the garden for them, sending that gift they'd prepared and wrapped for someone, and finding someone who would have known, appreciated and understood that odd collection of nik-naks of theirs. In other words think of what they would have done and thought that would have best pleased them. Memory coupled with our imaginations can help tell us what they would advise on any situation so that they are only ever a thought away from us when we need them. By thinking of them at their best our loved ones never leave us. Loved ones always, always, always want us to embrace life and be happy.

To sum up, personification is all about using our imaginations to our advantage. We always have a choice to use it to create and/or make any situation worse or use our imaginations to help guide us through even the darkest of days. The first step is to create as vivid a picture of the odious impostor and happiness-snatcher as possible and the smaller you can imagine it to be, the smaller it will become.

We find what we look for in life. So if we are continually looking for troubles and pitfalls that is what we will find. If, on the other hand we spend the bulk of our time seeking joy, fun, happiness, how to improve our relationships with others, how to find new opportunities, new sources of inspiration and things that help us to feel at peace and content with our lot in life then bit by bit that becomes what we find. Choice is a very powerful tool to use in this regard. We can seldom choose to avoid a loss or misfortune, but we can always use that power of choice in how we deal with it.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Journeys to 'Normville'

It's a curious thing to anyone who has had encountered Mental Illness to re-establish a connection with what I term as 'Normville' and the 'Norms' who are lucky enough to escape having ever been ill in this way. The fact that just about everyone has ups and downs doesn't seem to figure in it.

Even among close friends who have always been 'Norms' I find there is a reluctance to discuss, communicate or even mention the subject of Mental Illness. That's fine to a point as 'Madville' not a place I would wish anyone to dwell in bu it remains damaging when it bars sufferers from the necessary outlet of expression in order to be able to recover. 'Close' friends? Perhaps not, at least not on this issue as I keep finding I have to bite my tongue and put a hold on my needs in order for a 'Norm' to feel comfortable. The question is, do they do the same for me? Maybe, maybe not. I suspect if I were to ask, they'd say yes and even there lies a difficulty. They are not always right to do so. Tricky for all concerned, isn't it?

In other ways 'Norms' can be close though. They can be close by being inspiring, encouraging and showing an interest the things I do in other areas of my life and most of all by acknowledging my achievements not despite having been mentally ill, but just because I worked at them in the same way that any 'normal' person does. It's possible that this statement isn't a true one though. Can we ever separate ourselves from the experiences that make us who we are? As outlined before, mental illness is as much an experience as any other.

Strange are the habits of the 'Norms' or so it seems to me, and it occurs to me that the onus is very much on the sufferers of mental illness to out-norm the 'Norms'. We have to learn and adopt a far more sanguine attitude to life, relationships, pressure, stress and change than even they are capable of in order to be able to stand a chance of being accepted in their world again. Frankly there are times when I'd rather not be associated with 'Normville', but nor do I want to be a part of 'Madville' again. Just be, is the only viable answer and leave it to others to work it out.

Habits of the 'Norms' include becoming jealous of friends who become friends with their friends as if there is an ownership of any and all friends any of us make. 'Norms' often feel betrayed if they feel their friends are getting on better without them being present. Friendship is regarded as something that comes intact with undivided loyalty attached which is an unreasonable assumption to make. No two people can ever be expected to agree on absolutely everything all the time, nor to share identical interests, opinions and ambitions. It's alarming how many relationships I've witnessed where a minor difference of opinion has resulted in a total collapse of what would otherwise be regarded as a brilliant and mutually rewarding relationship.

It's as if relationships come with a set of unwritten and unsigned for 'Terms and Conditions' that simply never get discussed. Breaking those 'Terms and Conditions' means the bond will be irrevocably broken. The trust is lost; the loyalty rubbished and consigned to oblivion, never to be mentioned again.

Through a multitude of mental healthcare services, but particularly through talking therapies, sufferers of mental illness learn how to stand back to put things into perspective. A crass and insensitive statement can become something to laugh about instead of something to break contact with another over.

Instead of counting the number of injuries, insults and offences against us, we learn to appreciate, focus on and value the compliments, the interest and the encouragements. So much so in fact that I am now of a mind to advocate that all people undergo such therapy.

It should be born in mind that it is actually quite an achievement for two people to be 'in-tune' with one another for any length of time so why are so many worthwhile relationships so easily dismissed over as little a thing as 'so and so, didn't give me a hug.' Perhaps that person wasn't in the best of moods that day and had their mind on other things which had nothing to do with you, but on another day they might long for a hug. Remember, all feelings are transient unless we put inordinate amounts of time and effort into feeding them. They will pass of their own accord so long as we allow room for new, positive experiences to enter our lives.

In some forms of counselling you may hear about a term called 'transference'. This is an all to common behavioural pattern among all human beings. 'Transference' is the practice of attributing what one person feels to others instead of taking ownership of their own thoughts, feelings and behaviours. E.g. "You are always picking fault with me." In fact, it is more likely that they are the ones who are constantly picking fault with you. Watch out for transference statements of this kind as they will tell you far more about the person who makes them than they will about what they feel about you. Transference is often a symptom of a mind that is striving to over analyse.

When one is mentally ill, you really are being analysed for any nugget, strand of logic, interest and insight on what will help you get better. In my opinion, 'Norms' really shouldn't even attempt to play on the analytical playing field when sufferers of mental illness are so well acquainted with this game that they could write a book on it. As a result of so much in depth analysis and therapy a mental health sufferer who has recovered has all the potential for having the healthiest of mindsets as they become aware of a multitude of pitfalls and learn coping strategies to avoid them.

On these simple examples alone, it seems that not only is 'Normville' not all that it's cracked up to be, but that in truth it is the stuff (and belongs) to the realms of myth and legend. The 'Norms' are merely a form of potential fellow mental health sufferer when all is said and done. Up to them entirely what pickles and scrapes they get themselves into, up to them if they choose to ignore the warning signs of their own behaviours. A sad thought, when one considers that once upon a time I too was as blase and complacent.

Finally, here's a thank-you letter to an acquaintance of mine that you might know. Not exactly a friend but...

Dear Mental Illness

Thank you for showing me the difference between what's important and what isn't. Thank you for making me aware of the needs of others and myself. Thank-you for ensuring that I went on a journey of self-discovery and self awareness for my life is all the richer for it. I can't say I liked, welcomed or enjoyed your company, but I am grateful for the wisdom, experience and development it led to.

Without your traumatic, horrific and miserable presence in my life I would not have learned to appreciate the better things in life; I would not have learned real joy, happiness or contentment for when you have been starved of such things it makes you appreciate them all the more on the rare occasions that they come to visit. It helped me to go in search of how to retain and maintain them in my life. No one who has not experienced despair can value them half so highly.

I would not wish you to accompany anyone (myself included) ever again, but know it is your habit to visit those who are persecuted, bullied, tortured and bereaved. I can only wish that my best friend Hope shadows you everywhere you go to compensate and endure far beyond the worst you can think up.

Thanks again... it was educational but if there is ever a way for you to teach these things in a pleasanter fashion I would take it if I were you. If you need instructions on how to then I suggest you refer yourself for counselling!

Yours sincerely

Wilde Woman