Guest post by Orion Abrams, Member of the OCA Advisory Committee
“Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” This is a commonly used phrase meant to motivate lazy people to get ahead in life by taking some responsibility and control over their lives. While recovering from mental illness, this was also the most annoying piece of advice that anyone could give. How do I pull myself up by my bootstraps when I have no bootstraps? Or when I’m not even wearing boots?
Having an intense manic episode and losing all of the progress you have made in your career, in relationships, in finances, in sense of well-being, in possessions, and in health is like starting a new life again. It’s like being reborn; like starting from zero. It’s like to walking around outdoors naked in the winter in Iowa. It’s like burning or breaking all of your possessions because they just don’t help you achieve spiritual enlightenment anymore. It’s like totaling your car and getting a permanent shoulder injury. It’s like hitting your stepdad and breaking your hand. It’s like constantly calling your ex and telling her you wish you had gotten married until she gets a restraining order on you. It’s like ending your friendships with some of your best friends by emailing them hateful emails.
Yes, these are actual experiences I have had. All of them were devastating, for others and for me. After having these experiences, ending up hospitalized after each of them, and then getting exceedingly depressed right after leaving the mental hospital, how did I find my bootstraps?
I can tell you that I did not find my bootstraps very easily. I had to look for the boots first. It was as though all the ground that I could stand on solidly before my manic episodes disappeared or turned into liquid; there was nothing to put my feet onto or into. On top of that, the mental health system turned me against myself. The western perception of mental illness that it is a disease and has no redeeming values—spiritual or emotional—made me think that I am just abnormal and unhealthy. The constant push by the mental health system to keep us “under supervision until healthy” in hospitals, residential care facilities, then supervised living group homes made me think that I am a child that is incapable of taking care of myself. I have seen many other patients treated this way, and instead of challenging it, they simply say, “well, if you think I’m a child, I’ll just act like one! If you think I’m a lunatic, I’ll just keep acting like one!” They then become so invested in and identified with the idea they are “crazy” that they will actually do things for no other reason than to reinforce this idea for themselves and those around them. This leads to the entire rest of their lives being spent in mental hospitals and residential care facilities.
Negative stigma and crippling low self-esteem have been the biggest barriers to restoring a healthy functional way of living life in the recovery periods after getting out of a mental hospital. Who would want to hang out with me, this “crazy” person who has no passion or goals except for when he is manic?
The main thing that has helped me is setting small, achievable goals for myself and achieving them. This has slowly rebuilt my self-esteem. After this last hospitalization, I slowly began playing a little bit of golf, exercising at little with basketball once in a while, going to toastmasters club when I felt like it, spending some social card game times with friends once a week or so, writing a first page of a novel on bipolar, writing some poetry, spending some time getting better at some of the video games I play, streaming the games I play on Twitch, making a YouTube bipolar awareness video here and there, applying for some part time jobs, becoming a Peer Support Specialist, getting married, and vacationing in the country I most wanted to visit: Japan.
Sure, all these goals would have been overwhelming, had you taken the depressed me and told him that he needed to achieve all these things within a month. All of these goals and achievements happened slowly over the last two years, with many real struggles during many intense moments. I almost gave up all of these plenty of times. My self that thinks I’m unworthy almost stopped me from trying on every single one of these goals.
Whether you are fortunate enough to have a mental illness or not, everyone struggles with times where they just want to give up. The hardest barrier to overcome for me was the idea that I can’t do what I want anymore or be who I want anymore because I have a mental illness: this insidious idea that my life was over just because I had to start most of it over. Everyone has to start over after any sort of crisis, from a family member dying suddenly, to a mass shooting, to a hurricane ripping away their houses. A manic episode is just another kind of crisis. It is temporary just like all other kinds of crises. The crisis will pass if you let it. Don’t carry it with you for the rest of your life.