I’m starting to sound like an evangelist. “Meditate and you’ll manage your mental illness.” “Be mindful and you’ll stay present, even as your mind pulls at you, trying to take you toward the abyss.” Well, for years this has worked, most of the time. But it’s not always so simple.
For weeks I’ve been slipping. I’ve had physical sensations- tingling, agitation, sweating, poor sleep- that read like the side effect profile of the two medicines I take. But I’ve been taking them for years without issue. So I worry about what will be the long-term effects of taking such powerful CNS altering drugs. I’ve also been terribly depressed, interspersed with spikes of hypomania. It’s as if I feel the earth move against my steps. The sky is heavy, the air humid and oppressive, and I can’t get comfortable anywhere. My thoughts are dark and confusing, I have social anxiety, and subtle impulses not to go on.
Meditation sessions are especially difficult. Why place such effort on staying fully in the present when the present is so awful? And then the kicker. Study this stuff long enough and you begin to realize that mindfulness meditation’s proponents aren’t only asking you to remain in the present moment, they’re either implying or overtly stating that you must accept the present moment.
The idea of staying present is difficult enough. If I am always fully in the moment, doesn’t life become a succession of disconnected moments? Fantasy and thoughts of the past or future drag us from this moment, but what if I want to think about the future or review the past? Well, mindfulness can help me there, too. Yes, when I am doing dishes I can be fully doing dishes. When I am playing with my daughter, I can be in the present, only playing with my daughter. But this doesn’t preclude planning and thinking long-term. Mindfulness enhances this. For when I am planning, or brainstorming, or sure, even wishing for things to have been different I can be fully present and attendant to these things. I can still review and learn from my mistakes. And I can still prepare for what’s to come.
But acceptance poses a much larger problem. I am mentally ill and at present the disease is assertive. I’m very sick and not sure I can go on. As I meditate and remain present these feelings are even greater and these thoughts are even louder. There is no way in hell I want to accept this. Several years ago after my most serious suicide attempt and back-to-back hospitalizations I hit rock bottom and moved in with my parents. At that time my father was battling an autoimmune neuropathy that had crippled him. He was wasting away and the doctors could do little more than treat his symptoms. They thought little of his life was left.
He vowed to overcome his condition. He patently refused to accept that he was sick and wasting and continued to work, suffered but never stopped walking, and kept an attitude that emphatically proclaimed that this disease would not defeat him. He did everything the doctors told him to do except accept their prognosis. And he got better.
At this same time I looked at the prognosis for a rapid cycling, mixed episode bipolar one patient with multiple hospitalizations and suicide attempts. I saw unemployment, disability, homelessness, possible jail, more suicide attempts, more hospitalizations, and death by about age 56. I also saw my father as my model and refused to accept that seemingly inevitable future. We fought together. It was almost a competition to see who could be healthier. We never once quit. Each wouldn’t let the other. Acceptance was the equal of surrender. And we both recovered.
Yet here I am writing that acceptance of the present moment is a key to recovery. How do I reconcile my enthusiasm for and dependence on mindfulness with my own experience? More in the next post.