On the Importance of Compassion

One of the hardest things for me to do, sometimes is to have compassion for myself. I’m prone to black or white, all or nothing thinking. I’m either completely successful or an absolute failure. I vaguely remember a therapist in the psych ward pointing this out to me during a therapy session and I remember my Cognitive and Behavioral Therapist (CBT) pointing this out to me during one of our sessions. It can be my greatest weakness, but it can also be useful – when this side of me is expressed in a healthy way.

When I’m healthy it’s my tenacious, stubborn, disciplined side; it’s the part of me that refuses to give up and has enabled me to live with my mental illness so successfully. But, like most character traits these traits are a double-edged sword and can be turned on me. They can cut me if I slip into unhealthy attitudes about living.

I have a new therapist now (since my therapist of nine years retired last year) and she’s challenged me with being more compassionate with myself and I can see the connection between being compassionate with myself and all-or-nothing, black-or-white thinking. It’s all about cutting myself some slack, it’s about loving myself, it’s about not treating myself with contempt, and it’s about accepting my limitations – it’s about realizing I don’t possess super-human abilities.

I’ve been writing a novel for the past year and a half and it’s been a wonderful experience for me. It was a kind of off-and-on affair for me at first as I stumbled through figuring out just how to write one. I wrote three different versions of the novel before finally settling into a cadence that allowed me to find the voice I was looking for and then I really took off and was able to work on it on a daily basis, having found a rhythm and direction.

When I was writing the novel (and particularly after I found out it was being published), it was like I had a real job, a real purpose. I got up at a regular time, I reported to “work” at a regular time. I put in my four or five hours of writing and then spent the rest of the day taking care of myself: hanging out with friends, listening to music, going to doctor’s appointments, etc., etc. It was some of the healthiest I’ve been in recent years.

But then I finished the novel and it was time to ship it off to a couple people to have them critique it and suddenly I didn’t have that structure anymore. I tried to maintain it, getting up at the same time, reporting to work at the same time. But, with nothing to do it was a pointless endeavor. I was at a loss for what to do. And so my normally tenacious, stubborn, compassionate self turned unhealthy; I started feeling as though I was failing, I was insufficient. I lost the compassion I’d developed for myself in the fury of trying to find something to replace the novel I’d been working on for so long. The lack of compassion slowly started to be replaced with contempt. I thought I needed to be more disciplined and more regulated when in fact what I needed most was to rest, to sleep, to recover from the months I’d spent pouring myself into creating this book.

I’d been working pretty much non-stop on that draft of my novel from the beginning of August until the end of January. If you’ve ever written anything of length (especially something 400,000 words in length) you know how much of a toll it can take on a person, so it’s understandable I would be very much exhausted at the end of it. So I slept for a week. I took nap after nap, I slept in, waking up to take my pills before going back to bed to get more sleep. A week turned into a week and a half, turned into two weeks.

I panicked.

I thought it was a regression back to a number of years ago when waking up at 11a was a good day and my days were so short I was lucky to get anything done.

I got angry with myself.

I hated myself.

I grew contemptuous with myself.

The negative commentary ran freely within myself. I even encouraged the negative commentary, thinking that I wasn’t being disciplined enough. I must be doing something wrong. My doctors, my parents, my friends all told me that I’d just accomplished a great feat – I’d written over 400,000 words in a matter of months, of course I’m going to be tired. Just rest they told me…but no I couldn’t rest. I had stuff to do. What stuff, I had no idea. I just didn’t like the idea of reverting back to my old self – I wanted to remain disciplined, I didn’t want to rest, I wanted to be up with the sun like the rest of humanity, I wanted to be normal. I wanted things to be like they were when I was writing.

It all came to a head when I found myself in Dr. Carlson’s office telling him I was worried about having a psychotic break. My psychiatrist isn’t one to take statements like that lightly, but he’s also not a panicker. He suggested that I take a vacation at my parents’ house and I agreed to it.

But still, I had no compassion on myself.

I brought tons of work along with me, just tons. I pictured myself sitting at their kitchen table working on everything I thought I had to do – this mountain of generic work. And, when I didn’t get it done, when I didn’t do a single task I’d assigned myself, when I just continued to sleep – I found myself getting psychotic and eventually sitting on my parents’ back porch the next day contemplating telling them I needed to go to the hospital.

But I didn’t go.

I told myself it wasn’t necessary. I wasn’t a danger to myself or to anyone else and I wasn’t out-of-control psychotic, so I didn’t need to go.

I needed to lighten up. I needed to stop feeling contempt for myself and I needed to start feeling compassion for myself.

The literal meaning of the word “compassion” is two part: coming from the Latin compassus; com meaning ‘with’ and pati meaning ‘to bear, suffer’. So, literally: to bear or suffer with. My “good” dictionary (The Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary) defines compassion as: deep feeling for and understanding of misery or suffering and the concomitant desire to promote its alleviation : spiritual consciousness of the personal tragedy of another or others and selfless tenderness directed toward it.

I eventually ended up having a talk with my mom. She’s a wonderful woman, second only in wisdom to my grandma, her mother. She told me that I was on vacation to rest, that that was the whole point of the vacation, the whole point of any vacation. So set aside the idea of working on all of these projects, just rest and feel better and you can get to work when you get back to your apartment. Then she told me something her mother had told her: give yourself credit for the invisible things.

The invisible things are the things that get done that nobody gives you credit for, least of all yourself. It’s especially important when nothing else seems done: the dishes are piling up, the vacuuming hasn’t been done, when you’ve got all these projects piling up and your mental illness is forcing you to sleep all day, etc. The invisible things to her were things like making sure dinner was cooked every night or making sure my sister and I were shown how much we were loved. No one gives you credit for that, but they’re so essential, so vital in the lives of kids.

My own invisible things: taking my pills twice a day, every day; taking Kerrin for a walk, making my bed, getting dressed, eating enough meals, relaxing enough that I don’t get so stressed from the din of psychosis. The list could go on, but I suppose most of my day is made up of these invisible things, these things I don’t give myself credit for because I just do them and because no one (least of all myself) gives me credit for them because they must be done and because they’ve become so automatic.

Sometimes it seems as though pain defines the life of the mentally ill. It’s important that we not only understand that misery, but also that we try to alleviate it; that we try to help ourselves feel better. The Latin root of compassion is interesting – “to bear or suffer with” though this doesn’t encapsulate the entirety of the word compassion, but the roots of words rarely encapsulate their entire meaning. Still, they provide an interesting context. Compassion isn’t simply to suffer with, it’s to understand the misery and suffering. I could go on for several pages about what it means to “understand” but I’ll leave it this: it’s more powerful to sit with someone who’s experiencing the pain of kidney stones having had kidney stones yourself than having never experienced them at all.

Along with that understanding comes the desire to alleviate the suffering – which I think is key. Because if you understand that pain, but don’t want to do anything to alleviate it, do you really understand it?

That’s the point I had to arrive at – understanding my pain to the degree I wanted to alleviate it. And once I did, I realized taking those naps were an essential part of me taking care of myself, I gladly slept on the couch for hours at a time. Giving myself credit for the invisible things gave me a sort of perspective. When I would take my pills, when I would eat breakfast, when I would take one of my bi-hourly smoke breaks – I’d remind myself that I was doing one of these invisible things and feel better about myself. And, after a while I got better. I stopped getting up at 10:30a and started getting up at 9a, then I started getting up at 8:30a…things seem to have returned to normal. It was simply a process of having compassion for myself, of loving myself and understanding the misery I was going through and having the desire to end that misery for myself.

Above all, it’s realizing that success with a mental illness isn’t measured by what time I get up or how much work I get done in a day – it’s in this somewhat vague and entirely subjective notion of how I feel about myself; in my level of mental stability, the number and/or intensity of psychotic episodes I have, and my ability to interact with the world around me.

Mental illness is one of those obfuscated, unknowable things. There aren’t always clear answers, there aren’t always definitive right and wrong paths. But, while the answer might not always be clear, while it might be submerged under a few feet of murky water, the answer is always there. It’s just a matter of finding that answer and finding the answer comes easier with time and experience. It’s important, especially when the answer seems to be eluding you, to have compassion on yourself – to go back to the basics of self-care: plenty of rest, good nutrition, and a regular routine of helpful activities.

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