This article is part 2 in a series of articles on the Guessing Game Advocate by Cheryl. You can find post one here: The Guessing Game Advocate.
Last spring, my husband and I climbed Angel’s Landing together in Zion National Park of southern Utah. If you are not familiar with this climb, this is what the National Park Service says about the trail: “The route to Angels Landing involves travel along a steep, narrow ridge with support chains anchored intermittently along the route. Footing can be slippery even when the rock is dry. Unevenly surfaced steps are cut into the rock with major cliff dropoffs adjacent. Keep off when it is wet, icy or thunderstorms are in the area. Plan to be off before dark. Younger children should skip this trail; older children must be closely supervised.” The National Park Service website officially recognizes five fatalities where suspicious activity was not involved along Angels Landing, however other deaths have been reported.”
It was just as terrifying as that sounds. Especially if you have issues with heights, like I do. What you can’t see in this photo is the death grip I have on the back of my husband’s shirt to make sure I don’t fall off the back of the mountain while we take a picture.
But look how incredibly beautiful it was at the top! And I still feel so proud of myself for facing my fears and making it there.
What does that have to do with today’s post?
3. Learn how to trust yourself.
Learning how to trust yourself can be scary. It can be scary because many mental illness diagnoses are overwhelming and it seems safest to just leave all the “figuring out stuff” to your doctor. It can be scary if those around you (including your doctor) have taught you that you cannot trust yourself. Mostly, it can be scary because the consequences of trusting yourself when you’re not really in a place to be trusted can have very serious and dire consequences. So, learning how to trust yourself is kind of like trying to climb up a scary mountain along the edge of a steep cliff.
But, even more than making it to the top of a mountain and being surrounded by gorgeous views, learning to trust yourself is a critical piece to discovering the treatment plan that is best for you. Remember, your doctor has been trained on what works for so many people–but only you can help him/her discover what works for you.
I specify, “learning how” to do this because it is something that will take practice and care. With my mental illness I experience something I like to call “the bipolar brain”, which is when my thoughts are irrational and sometimes feel like they are not entirely my own. Whether bipolar II or I is your diagnosis, it is quite possible you experience something similar.
So, I would say that the first step in learning to trust yourself is determining whether or not you experience these irrational thoughts. I like calling it the “bipolar brain” because it makes it easier for me to accept this part of the illness. It is hard for me to understand that I am having thoughts or ideas that feel very real and are quite often very hurtful and harmful toward myself or those close to me, but that these thoughts are not actually true or fact. However, when I give this experience a name, then it is easier for me to see this way of thinking as a symptom, and therefore not necessarily a reality.
If you have determined that irrational thinking is a symptom of your mental illness, then you can practice recognizing those thoughts as such as close to when they occur as possible. In my experience, acknowledging my thoughts as coming from my bipolar brain does not allow me to shut them down or turn them off. But, it does help me to see that there might be a different, “more real” truth out there. For example, my bipolar brain likes to tell me that this is the worst I have ever felt and that I will never be happy again. Fortunately, I am becoming proficient at acknowledging the source of this as not coming from me, so I can say to myself, “Maybe that is not true. This probably is not the worst I have ever been and I have returned to happiness every time before this, so it is likely that I will be happy again.” Things still feel awful in that moment, but I can see that those feelings of awfulness are coming from my symptoms. No matter how real they feel, they are feelings and not reality.
Sometimes, it can be very challenging to distinguish between yourself and the “bipolar brain”. For me this is especially true when I am hypomanic. Even more so in regards to my treatment. As in, that’s when I think I don’t need any sort of treatment any more. Because I’m all better!!! It’s like thinking that I don’t need to hold onto the chains along the trail climbing up the mountain because I “know” that not only am I incapable of falling, but I’m pretty sure I could fly even if I did fall.
That’s when you need an outside source to help you in learning to trust yourself.
Maybe that sounds a little contradictory to trusting in yourself so let me explain. First, I recommend finding someone close to you that you can trust. It needs to be someone who genuinely cares for you and can put your well-being above their own feelings (i.e. they would never ever ever manipulate you to try to assuage their own hurts. Someday I will write another post about how challenging it is to be a loved one/supporter for someone with mental illness, but for today’s post I will just summarize that if you truly want your loved one to recover, you have to be willing to let go of the hurt you likely feel from their behavior during crisis, at least long enough to give them what they need.) It is best if this individual does not also have a mental illness, but is informed about the specifics of yours.
I am very fortunate in that my husband is this person for me. When I start to have thoughts that may be questionable, he is a great sounding board. For example, when I first thought I should go off of all of my medication, I discussed this with my husband before my doctor. I explained my reasoning to him and was somewhat surprised when he agreed with me, but grateful and very reassured. On the flip side, sometimes I set very grandiose goals and plans when I’m feeling well. I’ve learned to talk to my husband before committing to something that will take a long time and/or a lot of energy. He does a great job of helping me determine if the benefits will outweigh the potential downside. And on the occasion that I go against his better judgment and sign up anyway, he is really good at refraining from saying, “I told you so” if I crash. Instead he helps me find a way through or around whatever I have gotten myself into.
And sometimes it means he has to tell me that I really do need to keep holding onto those chains along the trail, and reminding me of what the consequences could be if I let go. Even when I really don’t want to hear this.
In addition to practicing recognizing irrational thoughts and finding someone you can trust to tell you if it is your “bipolar brain” or good intuition, you have to develop faith in yourself.
This mainly comes through practice. Start small. If you are tracking your symptoms like I suggested in my last post, that is a great place to start. If you see a trend that on the days you get to bed before 10, you feel better in the morning, then try going to bed before 10 for a week. If you see that within 2 hours of taking a certain medication, you feel sluggish and irritable, discuss with your doctor the possibility of changing that med. If you find that your anxiety is higher on days you interact with a certain coworker or friend, dig deeper to determine why, and then attempt to make some changes.
When we were hiking up Angel’s Landing, there were a couple of times that when I saw the scary stretch of trail before me, I sat down and cried a little bit. I was so scared and didn’t dare go further. But then (with the loving support of my husband), I got back up and kept going. Each time I successfully traversed a terrifying stretch, it boosted my confidence. Just a little bit.
One thing that helps me trust myself is to come up with a hypothesis and then Google it. I am constantly amazed when I think I have discovered something about myself, or my illness that seems so out in left field, only to look it up online and discover articles, blog posts, and studies about that very same thing. Do keep in mind that the Internet is not 100% reliable. Always check your findings with a health professional. Especially if it is something extreme. Do not change medications based on an Internet search without talking to your doctor first!
And practice trusting yourself within this context as well. If you read something that seems extreme or too good to be true, listen to your intuition. Discuss it with your trusted friend. But I repeat: Do not let go of whatever the equivalent to the chains on your mountain are. Learning to trust yourself is crucial to finding your best treatment plan, but keeping a firm grasp on whatever is your most solid foundation right now is essential.
My point is, that you can learn to trust yourself to figure out a lot of what is going on within you. This will take time, practice, and trial-and-error. And it takes placing faith in yourself, which can be scary. I have gone through phases where I have felt so overwhelmed by my diagnosis that I haven’t trusted my ability to think for myself or understand anything at all. That is a very discouraging state of mind to be in. When you believe that you are the best source for understanding what is going on within you and for determining what treatment plan is best for you, it is very empowering! It is a true source of hope. It’s kind of like standing on top of a mountain, knowing that you got yourself there, and being able to see a little bit of the beauty that this life can hold. Hope is powerful.
Hope, I have found, is the best medicine there is.
The Guessing Game Advocate – Article Series
This article is part of series of articles by Cheryl. Click on the links below to read more about the Guessing Game Advocate:
Part 1 – The Guessing Game Advocate
Part 2 – Learning to Trust Yourself
Part 3 – Going Natural
Real Imprints Travel Tip: Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon are two must see attractions in southern Utah and are only a couple hours drive from each other. The red rock mountains and canyons are gorgeous and completely unique. If you’ve never been there, you should consider it. It will be a trip you’ll remember! You can find more information, guides, maps, and books at Amazon. You can also find more information on these beautiful parks at the National Geographic website.
This article appeared first on Real Imprints.