When you are in treatment for a mental health problem, one of the questions that comes up a lot is the query of “What do you want?”. Many people find this helpful, and in thinking about what they want from life, they find motivation and strength to recover. For example, I know a lot of people with eating disorders who want to have children, are helped to eat by the thought that they need to be healthy to have a nice comfy womb (that is the scientific term for “be fertile” I believe).
When you know what you want from life, it doesn’t make recovery easy, but it gives you a purpose, something to fight that nagging voice in your head with, an argument as to why you are forcing yourself to do things like challenging pieces of therapy that make you feel uncomfortable. With an end goal, the stress and pain of recovery make sense, like running a race and focusing on the finish line with a giant gold trophy at the end of it, whether that trophy represents kids, a passion to travel the world or a desire to pursue a difficult career that wouldn’t be possible with insanity by your side.
To be fair I think “What do you want?” is a really important question for anyone to ask themselves in life, or indeed an important question for waiters to ask customers prior to bringing them food. Imagine if every time you went to a restaurant the chef just always assumed you wanted oranges and served everyone who ever sat at a table a bowl crammed with citrus wedges without finding out if the person liked such a thing first. WHAT A MAD WORLD THAT WOULD BE!
Clearly then, the aforementioned question is vital for sanity in the mental health world and the restaurant trade, but the problem with it is how you answer such an inquisition when you are unsure of exactly what you want, what your goal in life is, and it is an issue that can leave you feeling a bit stuck. That is how I feel, like I am running in a race where I can’t see a finish line or big shiny trophy to aim for, and considering that a loss of interest in things is a symptom of depression, I imagine it is a feeling that many are familiar with.
The only thing that I can hand on heart say that I actually have a desire to do, or a want to achieve, is to be a published author one day. That idea is the thing that gets me out of bed in the morning, but I am tentative to make that my overall focus for recovery. Becoming a professional author is a notoriously difficult thing to achieve and I am fearful of basing my entire recovery on such a risky goal that is really quite out of my control. Of course I realise no career or dream is straight forward and nothing anyone would ever really want is easy to reach. After all, if dreams weren’t a little fantastical and difficult, where would the appeal be? The point of dreams is that they have that element of the unattainable surrounding them to make them special. That said, wanting to be a writer is probably up there in the top ten dreams that are seldom realised.
When you want to be a writer, there are no directions, no post code to put into google maps and no yellow brick road giving you a little route to follow to your desired destination. You want to be published and can write all you want, but getting anywhere with it is a little out of your control and a lot of it is based on luck. It really is a case of writing and then keeping your fingers crossed, a particularly difficult combination of actions to do together as when one’s fingers are crossed, it makes it infinitely more difficult to hold a pen to write anything with.
In terms of concrete and definitely attainable things I want then, my pocket of ideas is empty. I suppose I should count myself lucky that I have the want to be a writer at all, as like I said, when you are depressed or caught up in a mental illness, you are so wrapped up in your mind that you can’t want anything other than for the pain to stop.
Coincidentally, when psychology professionals and therapists ask me what I want, that is pretty much my answer. I don’t know what I want, so personally I find focusing on what I don’t want is easier, as I know I don’t want to feel the way I do. I don’t want to feel the weight of sadness on my shoulders when there is nothing rational to be sad about, I don’t want to be anxious about touching doorhandles, I don’t want to shower for ages and I don’t want to care about what food I will be eating in the next few weeks. At the same time though, it has been such a long time since I lived in any other way that I don’t know what the alternatives to those things are. When you have been out of the real world for so long, how can you remember what it is like there, let alone what things you would want to get out of it?
It sounds pretty negative to focus on things you don’t want rather than the things you do, but recently I have to say that actually thinking that way has been a bigger help and more of a motivation than any potential desires on the horizon.
When in hospital and indeed now I am back home, at every meal time I am scared and I do not want to eat. It isn’t a case of not wanting whatever food has been place in front of me (please let it be known that my mother is a fabulous cook and all of her concoctions are a delicious treat for all the senses…if you don’t have an eating disorder screaming at every mouthful). No, rather than a case of unappetising culinary creations, when I do not want to eat, it is a case of feeling so sick with terror that I fear consuming the food as I know it will only make that anxiety worse which, clearly, I do not want. If anyone was placed in front of a plate of something that scares them, who on earth would dive in with joyous anticipation of the spine tingling sensations they knew would ensue?
Say someone was scared of spiders and they were presented with a plate of little arachnids performing a traditional waltz around a dinner plate (fun fact, 8 legged insects are fantastic at and passionate about ballroom dancing. You won’t find any evidence of it online or any book so you will have to trust me on that. Seriously though, they LOVE it.)
When presented with these graceful creatures using crockery as their own professional dance floor, who with a fear of spiders would offer a hand to one of the many limbs scurrying before them in the interests of dancing a jive or having a cheeky go at a tango? More importantly, who would want to? Probably no-one. The only way I can think of getting someone to want to do such a thing would be to make an alternative which they wanted less. For example, if it was a a case of dance with a spider for ten minutes or marry a spider for life, I imagine a lot of arachnophobes would want to give the insect tango a try.
That is in essence how I manage to eat at home and how I motivate myself to do a lot of challenging things treatment requires of me in terms of anorexia, OCD or indeed depression. I do not want to eat, I know that I will feel anxious and an agonising guilt just from picking up the fork, but I know that if I don’t there will be consequences I want even less and fear even more, such as my CTO having me hauled back into hospital before I can say “why are there nurses banging at the door?”.
I guess what I am trying to do is play fear at its own game. I know that I am going to be scared every day and I don’t have a positive idea of what I want in life to override that. Therefore instead of being cornered by the fear, I come back at it and use fear to make me do the things I am scared of by creating a far more horrifying alternative, by making whatever action scares me in recovery the “lesser of two evils” as it were. I am scared to eat dinner this evening, but I am more scared of being taken back into hospital and made to gain more weight, so I know I will get on and chow down no matter what.
I would love to write a Disneyfied post instead of this, one that reassures any readers out there that dreams can come true, can conquer any mental torment and that focusing on the positives like answering the question as to “what you want” in life is the key to recovery. I want to tell people who are struggling that all you have to do is find your passion as the way to overpower your demons once and for all, but answering that question as to what you want is a challenge in itself. Of course it would be infinitely better if I were able to eat a steaming bowl of spaghetti without any anxiety because I had goals and passions in life stronger than the fear flowing through my veins, but it is I suppose better to use fear to manage the scary things than to not do the scary things at all.
If you have a mental illness that is taking over your life and you don’t feel a burning desire to dance like Billy Elliot or paint like Van Gogh pushing you forward, don’t let that lack of knowing what you want hold you back and don’t let the fear of making changes bind you in chains. Play fear and lack of interest at their own game, take advantage of them. Rather than being dominated by an OCD or anorexic fear of touching a door handle/eating pasta, think of the alternative to challenging that behaviour and find a fear of living your whole life being controlled by your neuroses that inspires a greater terror than any door handle/Italian carbohydrate ever could. I can’t promise it will work and I can’t even be sure whether or not this will make sense to anyone out there, however this post is at least an attempt to explain how I am dealing with the fear and apathy involved in the struggle for sanity.
Nobody ever wants to feel fear, but often when it comes to mental illness, fear is all you have, so I for one am going to use what I have got until I can find something better.