I’ve been wanting to write about the intersection between creative resilience and mental health for a long time now, but was hesitant to do so. Partly because it involves exploring some very personal things, and partly because I know that my experience is individual, and I hesitate to give advice on something so delicate when I know there are many out there who experience things very differently.
The thing is, my experiences with healing from mental illness lie at the very foundations of this blog. Creative resilience and mental health are deeply intertwined. I’ve never really been talking about one without talking about the other.
So, let’s start with my own background.
I saw my first psychiatrist when I was seven years old. I believe my diagnosis at the time was anxiety. Throughout the rest of my childhood, adolescence, and early adult life, I struggled on and off with various manifestations of depression and anxiety. I saw a number of different therapists; I was on Prozac for year when I was 19; but overall, I was kind of in denial about my struggles with mental health. I had deeply internalized that “mind over matter, happiness is a choice” kind of attitude so prevalent in our culture, and I was not going to let some sad or angry feelings define who I was, even if it sometimes meant denying myself help I might have needed.
But when I found myself a couple months pregnant with my third child, nauseated, exhausted, lying on the couch, listening to my husband put my other young kids to sleep, and wondering why the man had had the terrible judgement to marry someone as useless as I was in the first place… I understood that it was time to get some help again.
I saw a psychiatrist through a public clinic. He had–I swear this is true–a poster of Dr. House on his wall that read “Everybody Lies.” Way to inspire trust, doc. Anyhow, he told me it sounded like I have a history of pulling myself up by my own bootstraps, so I could probably make do without medication (which I didn’t want, especially since I was pregnant), and that a few months of therapy would do the trick.
That’s how I ended up in S’s office.
Those “few months” turned into six years.
It’s impossible to summarize everything I learned in those six years, but everything you’ve read in this blog so far is a taste of it.
In this post, I want to discuss the lessons I learned that relate directly to the intersection between creative resilience and mental health. I think these lessons may equally apply to people suffering from any chronic illness.
Find the Right Professional Help
I CANNOT EMPHASIZE THIS ENOUGH.
You do not deserve to suffer.
You deserve a chance to live a life of contentment and meaning, if not happiness and comfort.
If you’ve tried seeing a professional and felt it wasn’t helping you–keep looking. S was the sixth therapist I have seen; previous therapists were okay, but the support they gave me was superficial and never addressed the deeper, underlying issues. That’s not to say they were incompetent, it’s just a style that didn’t work for me. Keep looking until you find a therapist who really gets you.
I know how hard this is, especially when you’re depressed and everything seems like an enormous burden. But you got this far in life because you are strong and have found the resources you needed to survive within you. You can do this.
Don’t Be Afraid to Try Medication
I always had mixed feelings about medication. In a sense, I felt that taking antidepressants was Morpheus’s “blue pill”–take this, and you’ll wake up in a world where everything feels fine, unaware that you’re living a lie.
The truth lies–that is a line from Andrew Solomon’s TED Talk on depression, and it was that talk that convinced me to try medication after several years in therapy with S.
Until that point, everything–getting out of bed in the morning, walking across the room to pour my kid a cup of water, let alone taking a trip to the grocery store or working under any significant deadline–was a colossal struggle. It felt like I was climbing uphill, both ways, every single day; fighting with everything I had just to stay afloat. I was managing, but every day was a battle.
In the TED Talk, Andrew Solomon tells a story about a mother with seven kids who couldn’t wait for them to leave in the morning, and after six months of therapy, she had taken a job, left her abusive husband, and was able to actually enjoy spending time with her children. When I saw that talk, I wrote in my journal:
This story made me wonder. Maybe this isn’t just about stopping the pain, keeping me balanced, stopping the sadness. Maybe this is about me being able to thrive. Maybe it actually is possible for me to enjoy my life. (Yes, this is a possibility that had not actually occurred to me as being realistic before.) To enjoy my children more. To not feel like getting through every routine day is such an insurmountable task. To not be afraid that if I lose a night of good sleep, or take on a little more than the bare minimum, my mental health and that of my kids hangs in the balance.
…What if everything doesn’t have to be so hard? What if there’s a way to fall less hard when I fall, and stand up faster when I stand?
I’ve been in therapy for over two years. And it’s not like I haven’t been doing anything there. I have made an enormous amount of progress. But I still struggle a lot. I still often feel paralyzed by my fears. I still feel like I’m not where I want to be and that I have to constantly protect myself from shattering. Maybe there is a way to help me be more resilient. Maybe it’s time to reinforce the glass.
Finding the right medication wasn’t exactly easy. The first two kinds I tried made my exhaustion debilitating, and I had to switch psychiatrists because I felt that the first one wasn’t taking my needs and concerns seriously enough. (Shocking, I know, given his choice of décor.) But I found a drug that helped, and thanks to the combination of that and the therapy, I am happier and mentally healthier now than I have ever been.
So once again: if it’s not working for you, keep trying. If your psychiatrist isn’t taking you seriously, keep looking.
I know it’s hard. You can do this.
Accept and Find a Way to Work with Your Limitations
Having a mental or chronic illness means that you have limitations that people around you don’t have.
And you know what, you don’t need an official diagnosis for that to be true. Everyone is fighting their own battle. Everyone has “special needs.”
In a previous post I wrote about what it means to do your “realistic best”: that “doing your best” doesn’t mean the best you could theoretically do in ideal conditions, but the best you can do with the internal and external resources you have reasonable access to at this time. When you live with an illness, that means that you don’t have the same access to internal resources that people without that illness have. I wrote that sometimes your realistic best is getting out of bed in the morning; sometimes, even that will be asking too much of yourself.
Some of my limitations are not a direct result of my depression or anxiety, but factors that contribute to my tendency toward those conditions, such as my high sensitivity and low energy stores. The simple act of going shopping at a grocery store, with its bright lights, crowds of people, and noise–not to mention the dozens of decisions I need to make while I’m there–is so draining for me, I need several hours to rest and recover once I get home. Fortunately, there’s an online grocery delivery service in my area, and that pretty much makes my life liveable. When real-life trips to the store are necessary, my husband–who is less averse to dealing with such things–normally takes care of it.
I’m kind of embarrassed to admit this in public. It makes me feel like I fail the basic criteria of being a human adult, and it’s taken me a very long time to (mostly) get rid of the harsh critic in my head arguing that I don’t do these things because I’m lazy.
But I am not lazy.
Actually, according to social psychologist Devon Price, there is no such thing as laziness. “People do not choose to fail or disappoint,” they write. “No one wants to feel incapable, apathetic, or ineffective. If you look at a person’s action (or inaction) and see only laziness, you are missing key details. There is always an explanation. There are always barriers. Just because you can’t see them, or don’t view them as legitimate, doesn’t mean they’re not there. Look harder.”
I have limitations. I do my best to work with them.
Identify & Embrace Your Gifts
I think one of the most important things I learned in my work with S is that the things that limit me are also responsible for some of my greatest gifts.
Creativity is often associated with mental illness, and that isn’t because being depressed makes you more creative–studies have shown the opposite to be true. But I think creativity is one positive aspect of the same traits that make us susceptible to mental illness: sensitivity, empathy, emotional depth, and the ability and willingness to see beneath the surface of things.
I first learned about the high sensitivity trait toward the beginning of my process of therapy with S. Researcher Dr. Elaine Aron is the one who first described it, explaining that 15-20% of the population is more sensitive to sensory and emotional stimuli than other people. And when I started reading her book, The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, it immediately explained everything about me–from my intense friendships to my social anxiety to my hatred of horror movies to my tendency to get cranky when hungry.
And at first, I hated it.
“I feel like all this means I have to handle myself–and be handled–as though I were made of glass,” I wrote in my journal. “[Dr. Aron] is trying to get me to see how to celebrate that, but at least as of now, I just can’t. I don’t want to be made of glass. It’s not just society’s bias (and my own…); this world is not one that is easy to thrive in when you are made of glass. Being good at poetry and acting is nice, but I’d really rather be good at life instead.”
Two and a half years later, I performed this spoken word poem called Glass and Iron. (It’s in Hebrew, but has English subtitles.)
For too long I’ve been looking in the mirror
And seeing only the glass, and not the silver.
But maybe glass has value too.
Maybe glass is what makes the lens
The world would look upside-down.
Maybe glass allows the light
To pierce through
Into the innermost rooms.
And maybe glass is what interprets
The sun’s rays
And spreads before us all the colors of the rainbow.
And maybe true strength is gathering the shards of yourself
After allowing yourself to shatter
Time and again
When you encounter pain and sadness,
And to melt down the pieces and refashion
Yourself into something more exquisite and refined.
To be clear, I’m not saying that illness, pain, or trauma, in itself, is a gift. Some may find it helpful to frame it that way, but that’s something that only you can decide for yourself. Having accepted who I am and how I work, I have learned to be thankful for the gifts that come with being highly sensitive, and to appreciate my own unique strength and resilience.
I used to hate that I was fragile like glass.
Now, I am proud to be strong like glass.
Listen & Respond to Your Own Needs
Self-care is important for everyone, but it is especially important for you.
You cannot afford to live up to the stereotype of the artist who forgets to eat or sleep.
If that means you will be less productive, so be it. You are more important than your work. Your creations are your “babies,” and you must remember the old oxygen mask analogy: secure your mask before helping others. Going without food or rest when you need it may seem to increase your productivity in the short run, but it won’t in the long run. Your life is a marathon, and marathoners know how to pace themselves; if they sprint the first several miles, they’ll never finish the race.
To me, self-care means being attentive and noticing when something isn’t right–when I’m feeling particularly tired or stressed or upset–and then stopping and asking myself, “What do I need right now?” Sometimes it’s a nap, sometimes it’s to goof off on social media, sometimes it’s to watch comedy and get myself laughing, sometimes it’s working toward a new goal. Sometimes it’s nothing more than noticing what’s going on and checking in with myself. Whatever it is, I do whatever is in my power to give myself what I need.
It took time for me to learn how to do this. So give yourself time and space to learn, too.
Set & Protect Your Boundaries
Dealing with your expectations of yourself is one thing; dealing with other people’s expectations of you is another thing entirely.
It’s called an “invisible illness” because people can’t see it and don’t know what your limits are. So they might ask you to do things that are beyond your limits, and they might not understand why you’re saying no. They can’t read your mind, and it’s unreasonable to expect them to. You have to be clear about boundaries. You have to tell them what you are okay with and what you are not okay with.
I used to think it was selfish to ask people for what I needed. I had this irrational expectation that I should anticipate and accommodate their needs, and they should anticipate and accommodate mine. That may be a romantic idea, but it doesn’t work, and it’s a recipe for resentment and frustration. You are responsible for your own needs; they are responsible for theirs. Make your needs clear, and expect them to make theirs clear to you.
I know, it sounds so cliché. But there is no more powerful antidote to emotional pain than gratitude.
Gratitude means recognizing and feeling thankful for everything you have–and you can always find things to be thankful for. Training yourself to focus on those things is essential for your mental health; it helps reinforce neural pathways that train our brain to look for the positive. This is not just psychobabble gobbledygook; it’s science.
A couple months ago my oldest son was having a really hard time coping with the fact that he couldn’t have something he really wanted. I told him that the best way to feel better about things you don’t have is to think about all the things you do have. He was not impressed, but my husband and I started talking about things we are grateful for, and the other kids were eager to join in, and soon we were making a list. By the time we had filled four pages, the distressed son had joined us and was contributing items of his own, feeling a lot better. We decided to make a regular practice of it from that point on: every Friday night, around the Shabbat table, we list off some things we are grateful for that happened that week.
Many people recommend making a daily list of five items. Find something that works for you.
Interact with Other Humans
I’ve probably given this advice five million times on this blog already, but it’s worth making it five million and one: get support.
These days it’s easier than ever to find a community of people with your interests and struggles, and that’s awesome. But it’s important not to let online connections come at the expense of real-life connections. Online friendships are real and can provide real support; I’m not dismissing them. But there’s something you get from real-life interaction that you can’t get from online interaction. Hugs, for instance. We all need those.
Don’t Forget Your Resilience-Building Pursuits
As detailed in this post: cultivate meaningful relationships, help other people, learn new things, pursue other creative activities, and take care of your body–to the extent that you can, of course.
I think the bottom line here is really quite simple: be honest and kind to yourself.
The first time I ever had something published in print was about two years into therapy with S: a couple of poems and a bit of prose in a local literary journal. She asked me to get her a copy, and when I did, I signed it for her and dedicated it to “S, my kindest mirror.”
I’ll conclude with a wish that you, too, will find–and eventually become–your own kindest mirror.
I would love to hear from those of you reading who have struggled with mental and/or chronic illness: do you relate to the points I raised here? Do you feel I’m missing anything? Please let me know in the comments or contact me privately if you prefer.