Dualities, contradictions, and mental illness

Just last night, my wife turned to me and said, “Remember that my love for you isn’t transactional.” Immediately I slunk lower into bed, and my initial reaction was to want to turn my back on her. With conscious effort, I pulled myself up, and made a little noise instead.

That’s progress already. Two years ago, I would have begged, insisted, maybe yelled, that she not say something like that. It would have felt pointless and it would have made me feel way worse than I did. I didn’t know back then but my critic would have raised a stink. As it was, last night, it tried to – but I managed to actively remind myself that this was her viewpoint, and I had to respect it.

If I were to be honest and talk to her about my love for her, I would say the same thing. I love her for who she is, and not what she can do for me. What she does for me is only a bonus and an outworking of the person she is. But yet, applying that to myself is not something that’s possible or easy. There exists in my mind a duality, also a contradiction. Others whom I love don’t have to earn that love, but in *my* case, I need to earn my place in the lives of others, or I do not deserve their love. I am a hypocrite.

And therein lies a contradiction and duality in people struggling with mental health issues that I hope to explain a little with this post. Warning – this is also a rather Christian post, if you are someone coming from a secular background. I still hope it can help a little – feel free to take the Christian taugeh (beansprouts) out.

A friend pointed out, rightly, that duality is part of the human condition and experience. We can love and hate something or someone at the same instant. We can – almost will – be liked by some and disliked by others in the same instant. There are more difficult dualities that we have to learn to deal with, such as recognising that someone we love can also be capable of mistakes. Recognising that we can make mistakes and not be a bad person. Which in turn, results in a conversation about forgiveness and the nature of being human.

That is not what I’m talking about here.

In mental illness, there are many extremes that the conditions take the thoughts to. Bipolar disorder is probably infamous, perhaps unfairly, for the extreme highs and lows that it brings. Extreme highs can be characterised by the feeling that a struggler might not need to sleep, ever, and still complete every single task perfectly and quickly. Extreme lows can bring depression and extreme, sudden suicidality. Both are extremes. Both are not helpful.

In the same way, dualities can be a source of tension in mental illness. I can only speak clearly for myself and my peers struggling with depression. For example, I know, very well, that the Christian God, my God, values love and compassion for others. But my upbringing insists that I ensure beyond a doubt that my family – not even me – is well supplied for, in terms of money and time to earn that money, before I love or have compassion on others. In other words, whatever action I choose in terms of being loving and compassionate to anyone outside of my immediate family, I am open to judgement and liability, I am condemned already.

Of course both views can be considered true, though one is more true than the other in my knowledge and opinion. My God demands love and compassion because that is what He showed us first. Trying to ensure anything “beyond a doubt” is a futile exercise, and next to impossible. How much is enough? How much do we have to put aside before we start giving to others? But if we bear towards either in extremity, there are problems. If I were to give beyond having anything in the first place, my children would not have enough food on the table. Or I would end up struggling in silence and cursing how weak I am, while giving as much as I could to everyone, and still feeling inadequate. But even with the conviction that one truth is more “true”, I still struggle with the duality of both existing in my mind. The self condemnation doesn’t stop, whichever path I take.

As with everything in general then, the key is balance. To care for self – including family – on the one hand, and to love and be compassionate even if it’s uncomfortable, on the other. And not to condemn myself over either side of the balance when it tips.

But in mental health struggles, it’s never that simple.

Solve, solve, solve every problem, find every solution. Right?
Image by Gerhard G. from Pixabay

The key to talking about these dualities is almost always a lack of balance, or extreme reactions. Logic doesn’t enter the picture, compulsions and isolated, reinforced thought patterns do. It’s a contradiction, and treated head on, it almost always results in resistance and rejection. It has been seen as demonic for this reason – rhyme, reason, prayer etc all don’t seem to have any effects on these beliefs. In my worst episode, nothing could get through into the maelstrom that was in my head and body. I spend a lot of time and effort now making sure I don’t steer close to the conditions that would lend themselves to the maelstroms, either by warning my wife that I’m not doing so well, or removing myself from situations. Or not going for long walks when I know my inner critic wants me to hurt or it won’t be a good enough walk.

But it’s not demonic. For one thing, physical avoidance doesn’t keep the Devil away (if you believe he exists). For another, I am aware – I am just stuck in my dualities, and trying to fight past them. But why do such dualities occur?

Beliefs and mental habits are picked up naturally as we grow in life. Some mental habits, however, are developed as a result of trauma or hurt. Abandonment, neglect, abuse and conditional love are but a few such possible sources of trauma or hurt. Some people manage to develop healthy mental habits in spite or out of these experiences. Some others develop unhealthy mental habits such as throwing themselves into work, or seeking identity in causes that they find worthwhile. However, they continue to function well, or well enough.

Then there are those who crash because they can no longer function. Sometimes the crash happens when they’re very young. Sometimes, it happens in the future. However it happens, mental illness often circles around the cracks of reality. As we grow into certain beliefs that don’t align with our past patterns, the cracks start to appear. These beliefs can often mean a lot more to us in our present time, and form what are our core values. For example, if I had stayed selfish and only focused on earning money, I would never have felt that duality start to tear me apart from within, or sought a job at a hospice of all places. But my values were formed aside from my upbringing, to acknowledge that being kind and polite is important especially as a Christian. Spending time with my children became more important than earning more than enough money. Teaching them about God became as important as teaching them the alphabet.

But when the external criticisms over these choices became overwhelmingly loud, they became internalised, and the cracks continued to multiply, even faster now.

My values were starting to clash badly with my innermost fears and beliefs.

Will the sun always rise? From the East?
Image by Gisela Merkuur from Pixabay

Logic serves a good purpose in recovering from mental health issues. There is a part of me that knows that truth is sometimes immutable, unchanging. My wife’s love for me. God’s salvation plan. The sun rising from the East. Then there are relative truths that contradict themselves – love and compassion versus saving all the money I can get my hands on. And then there are outright untruths that my mind has developed to protect me. I will never be loved. I am never funny enough. I try too hard. I am unlikable. I am hopeless. I will never succeed. I will never be enough. As a specific example, I will never earn enough money to be enough for everyone. Everyone will find something to say that is bad about me.

This is protection in the extreme. These are words, or actions that were said or made to me in the past. To prevent me from getting hurt in the future, my critic has developed to say these words to me before any future interaction to make sure that I don’t feel that same hurt or disappointment.

So logic serves a good purpose, but it isn’t enough. This is the reason for a lot of frustration when caregivers or untrained persons in care try to interact with mental health sufferers. LOGIC MAKES SENSE. I might even agree with you, the caregiver, that it makes sense. But I cannot bring myself out of my head to believe it. I would agree in principle, or I would even avoid agreeing by trying to change the subject. I have done this myself in my earlier struggles, to avoid having to make the conclusion that my brain is being wrong. Faced with a truth, I instead went back to the comfort of repeating the mantra that I was not good enough, and that I should leave this world. I ended up tearing myself apart from the inside because logic points to my thoughts being wrong, but everything else in my mind points to that logic being unbelievable, even if right. That duality couldn’t go anywhere. So I broke.

This is where therapy can and should take a different approach – by heading back to the beginning. This takes a lot of time, and a lot of space. Seeking out the past incidents that caused the pain to be internalised. Finding out what caused the false protections, the beliefs that don’t tie in with the present values, to arise in the first place. To address the pain behind the incidents. To allow that pain space to be felt, and addressed, and released if possible. To create a safe space to let these memories out, with little judgement on the past, but with reminders about the future. Remind the mind that these protections need not be necessary anymore. Retrain the mind, while holding space for the hurting parts to hurt.

Logic doesn’t bother with pain and emotion. But without addressing pain and emotion, there is no space for logic to take hold.

What does it mean to retrain and reframe… everything?
Image by free stock photos from www.picjumbo.com from Pixabay

I hate that my recovery is taking so long. What was supposed to be a single hospitalisation became a matter of months. What was a matter of months became two years. Two years are now four, and I am learning not to put a time on it, but I hate it. But the entire process of even identifying the pain and addressing it, is where most of the time has gone. Retraining is now finally possible, and only by God’s grace. On one morning in November of 2020, I woke up on a Monday morning, with therapy in a couple of hours. And I thought a thought to myself which I cannot share here, a thought that was completely out of the blue, and I told my therapist, and that sparked off a downward spiral as we worked through the issue that had been uncovered. Because of one thought, I had found the key to my undoing, as it were. My wife had told me about it a couple of years before, and I had rejected it. And now because I faced it, I had to face all the pain and struggle that came with it. I am still struggling with it.

But retraining can now start to take a better hold in my mind. I have to learn to discard some of the dualities, by first accepting that they are present, and that some are invalid. I have to learn to live with some of the other dualities, again recognising what they are, and learning to not be extreme with them. To react to my wife’s reminder that love is not transactional, by simply nodding and eventually believing. My values are there for a reason, and they aren’t bad values. She agrees with them and is proud of me for having them (I think). Instead of finding reasons to deny, diminish or reject the idea that I can be loved without having to earn it.

As with a broken bone, healing must come before retraining for use. The bone must be set, and heal somewhat before attempting to use the limb again. Or the break will happen again, worse than before. And that is what this all is. A broken bone that had never been set properly, needed to be broken again, and set properly this time for a proper, whole, recovery.

Is it not enough to pray… and try to believe?
Image by Himsan from Pixabay

In that way, I have faith in God too. I have faith that He is carrying me through all this. I think He’s wrong to love me. I really do. But at the same time, I know He can’t be wrong. Logic can’t work through that duality. But I know he loves me. I know it’s worth more to me to hold on to Him, then to let go and say that I am too hopeless for Him. But I feel hopeless. And I feel worthless. Which is another duality present in my faith which cannot technically be true.

It doesn’t mean that I love Him any less. If anything, as my wife has shown me, it is entirely possible to love her and Him more because they have not given up, even if I want them to. I have been told that it is wrong to think that God is wrong to love me. As if my faith is not mature enough, or that my Spirit-filled awareness is not good enough. I am aware of the truth behind these accusations, but I can only plead that I have not lost Faith. Instead, it is only faith that lets me live on and pray on even if I cannot speak sometimes.

Logic cannot help, where the pain has not subsided. Until the pain has subsided, or is at least manageable, maybe I will come to understand that He is not wrong. But for now, I struggle. Does that make me less of a Christian?

If you think so… please try to be kind. Give me time and space – if it is yours to give! – before you judge. Hold me and my family in prayer, and plead not for the Devil to leave me alone.

Plead instead, that my mind heals, and that I will see clearly once again, some day. Not at your given time, but in God’s good time.

Sorry for this rambling post.

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