I’m really sorry for the long delay in updates. I’ve been in my mind so much that it requires a lot of discipline to sit down and try to sort through stuff and express myself on the screen.
That hurts more than you’d think… but well.
We’ve moved out of what I’d call the discovery phase into the action phase of therapy. My therapist has switched therapies for this purpose, using what is known as schema therapy. I’m trying to draw that into my comic but it’s difficult. You may wish to skip the next few paragraphs if you don’t like dry stuff.
Schema therapy is a therapy based on Schema Theory. In a nutshell, as children, there may be needs that are unmet, and we react in certain maladaptive, or unhelpful ways to try to cope with these unmet needs. As we grow older, these maladaptive modes are unhelpful for us, since the situation has changed. Schema therapy aims to help to redevelop the Healthy Adult to manage our emotions and to break us out of these maladaptive strategies. The Healthy Adult balances the needs of the inner child, and the criticisms of the inner critic in everyone, and helps to ensure that the responses are valid, and are for the best with all the inputs given.
In my case, there’re quite a few schemas that have been identified which have caused my inner critic to become the dominant voice in my head and in my life. I have a practically non-existent (she says very small) healthy adult, and an inner child that has been stepped on, shunted away, and has had all the pain of rejection pushed onto it. Fun is not allowed in my life. My needs are never as important as the needs of others. All that repression and limits have been pushed over to the inner child because that is the part of me that likes spontaneity and fun, disregarding responsibilities and what not. Any shame, or pain from rejection gets swallowed by the inner child while the critic points out where I went wrong. You shouldn’t be spontaneous, you have no right to have fun, and you are disregarding the reality that there is no such thing as having fun.
That’s not the worst of it. The worst of it?
Unrelenting standards. Internal standards that can never be met. And yet there’s a mental block that prevents me from moderating the standards much as I know they need to be moderated.
I hate myself because I can never hit those standards. I’ll always never measure up.
What is hatred, really? It’s an intense dislike, to the point that you don’t want to see someone or something again. You want to hurt it. You want it to be gone. You want it destroyed because of what it stands for. You want it out of your life.
That’s how my brain works right now. I hate myself because I can’t live up to my own standards, and the standards set for me implicitly or explicitly by some people who are important in my life. I hate myself because I can’t get some people I want to look up to, to say to me, “Good job, well done!” I hate myself because I need a nurturance that I’ll never get. I hate myself because I fail to do what they want from me, such as getting a good and stable job as a doctor, or being able to deal with politics in the workplace, or earning enough for my family at the age that I’m at. I hate myself because someone thinks I should be a manager, or a team leader, and I’m not even close. I hate myself because to them, I made all the wrong choices, and I still don’t see that I’ve made the wrong choices, even in my depression. I hate myself because I internalise these demands even though I don’t agree with them, and I desire that pat on the back or the head. I hate myself because I’ve plotted my own course and for the last few years, all I hear is I’m wrong, I’m wrong, I’m wrong.
I’m useless. I’ll keep failing. I’ll never succeed.
But I’m coming to learn.
These standards aren’t my standards. They belong to others, and I somehow keep looking to these people for their approval. Perhaps I’ll never stop looking for their approval, but it’s a start to move past this huge mental knot. Whose standards do I follow?
It’s easy to say, God’s standards. Those are moral standards, and I still hold that I need to keep up to some of them even when I struggle, to remember that I can fail, and pray for forgiveness and make things right. I yelled at my elder son out of frustration over his whining noises recently, due to a dropped tooth, and then spent an hour lying on the floor curled up in a ball, so much so my wife thought I’d left the house. And the next day, my son and I talked and we apologised to each other. Him for whining (actual whining noises that trigger me very badly), and me, for yelling.
But the practical every day things, still need to be worked out. I can’t jump straight into saying, this is my new standard, this is my new level. I can’t ignore the screaming noise in my head that is the inner critic, measuring, gauging, saying that I don’t measure up. Financially. Physical strength. Looks. Being a son. Being a husband. Being a father. Being a Christian. Being a friend.
My therapist and I are now meeting every fortnight instead. In the action phase, it’s better because sometimes it takes me just a week alone to absorb all that I need to absorb before I try taking action. Or to adjust to the new topic.
It went badly at first.
I was supposed to learn to rest. To accept that it’s okay to take a break. During those two weeks, I tried my best. I stayed at home when I was tired. I tried not to keep monitoring my thoughts. But as I tried to rest, the guilt crept in and kept building. I withdrew. I got more and more quiet. I couldn’t talk to anyone, including my wife. All she knew was that I was withdrawing. I felt helpless and more and more of my energy was reserved for repeating to myself that I must stay safe. Must stay safe. MUST STAY SAFE. I didn’t even have the mental capacity to gauge what was going on.
When my therapist and I met again, she immediately stopped me from that. She assured me that it was okay to fail. She noted that the task was too difficult for me, and that we could always change targets. She reminded me that it was okay to not be able to accomplish this goal because some things are just more difficult for some people. We changed targets instead, to just try to have my healthy adult to speak more to the inner critic.
It took me another week before the tears came. Someone I was relatively friendly with online tried to push me too hard to try harder, when I was already at the limit. And I broke. But with the breaking, and the waves of tears that came, I finally told my wife how close I’d come to the brink again, and how hard it’d been to fight off the temptations. When I wanted to rest, the critic kept saying that I didn’t deserve to rest. Because I didn’t deserve to rest, I felt guilty, so I couldn’t rest properly. Because I couldn’t rest properly, my inner critic blamed me for not being able to do something as simple as resting. And so on.
I forgave that friend, who apologised after the event. I can be more forgiving to others than to myself. Because I see where they’re trying, and where they’re coming from. But I don’t see why I should forgive myself.
What you don’t see, when you see someone with depression staring off into empty space, is the war that’s going on in the head. In the mind. In the back of the mind. Behind every smile, behind every twitch of the fingers.
DiediedieNo. This isn’t right.DiediedieDIE NO! OK fine. You suck.
We’re now moving more gently. I successfully asserted myself over my critical voice (if you’re more comfortable thinking of them as parts of my mind rather than actual aspects of my head) now and then, but over very small things, such as shipping off small gifts to friends overseas so that they can smile, instead of being paralysed because my critical voice is saying that I can’t do anything right. Things that I value. The chart that my therapist and I use every meeting to measure my progress is now measured on how well I managed to accomplish things that are important to me, instead of how well I’m functioning overall.
As part of the exercises set by my therapist, I tried questioning myself, whenever I noticed that the unrelenting standards were in play, why the standards were there to start with. As that happened, I started to overreact in response, because it felt like I was doubting my own standards, and that part of my brain simply got angry with myself for questioning. You don’t trust me. You have no right to question me. You’re challenging me. I became irritable and snappy, and for a few days, the standards were unrelenting again. And I also fell ill during that period. Paradoxically, when I was running my fever, it was perfectly fine to rest. I had a reason to. I was actually better mentally because I was ill physically.
It’s all about adjustment and tweaking, slowly turning the gauge, trying to get the right channel. I’ll still zig when I’m supposed to zag. It’s no fault of my therapist – or me – since we’re navigating a fog. It hurts, like today, where I feel useless for no apparent reason. My current task, instead of asking why, is to let my critical voice, my inner critic, know that I’m listening, but as a healthy adult. And to ask instead, what the fear is. What the worry is.
And then take no action other than to ignore, as long as I can focus on doing what is important to me.
In fact, a debate arose over this last couple of weeks, over whether I’m kind when I care about others, despite my condition. Now, from my personal perspective, if I don’t reach out to others when they’re obviously in pain, I hate myself more. Therefore it’s selfish. But to the ones who I reach out to, they insist it’s kindness. My therapist had a few questions for me, but realising that she wasn’t going to make much headway, especially as I kept physically dropping my head and mumbling, she finally pointed out that regardless of what it’s called, I should just keep doing what’s important to me.
You suck. Let me do what’s important to me. It’s important to me as a person. Fine. But make sure you do it well.
Sigh. Progress, I guess.
My therapist used a couple of metaphors that stick with me now. The first is that this recovery is going to be like climbing a mountain. As you climb, it actually gets harder as you near the peak, rather than getting easier. So it’s okay to slow down, but eventually there’s hope of reaching the peak, the goal. But it’s also okay for it to feel insurmountable and difficult. Just keep at it.
The second metaphor was that of exercising a muscle in the gym. If a weak muscle is exercised, it’s bound to hurt. But if you keep exercising it instead of letting it rest, you’ll injure yourself further, and it’ll set your goals back even further. Conversely, by resting, the muscle actually has a chance to grow before you try again. And with that pain and rest, there comes growth.
Every time I feel down or low, I feel like I’ve had a bad setback. And the hatred and hopelessness hangs low. But what my therapist was telling me, is that crashing isn’t necessarily a setback. Instead, crashing and being tired and sleepy is perfectly fine, especially if I’m exercising brain muscles that were non-existent for 30 years and more. If I expect more of myself, if I push, I’ll burn out again, which has happened a couple of times over the last few months. It’s okay, therefore to crash and rest. It’s okay to stop monitoring myself now and then.
There’s a lot of work being done in my head, and there’s a lot more to be done. For that reason, I find it even more difficult than normal to talk to people. Giving talks about depression is still okay for some reason. I call it God’s grace.
It took me a long time and a lot of effort to type this out, and I’m going to play with my piggies after this. And maybe have a bit of ice cream.
Half a tub is a bit isn’t it?
So… I don’t know when I’ll next write. I don’t know how far this journey will go. I’m blessed by many people who’ve been supporting me, and I don’t want to disappoint anyone. You will. I don’t want to be a burden more than I already am. You are a burden, and you’ll be a bigger one if you keep this up. But I’ll keep fighting. Why? Because I have to.
I have to.