Fighting Mental Illness during COVID-19
It is day 6 in lockdown for me. Day 6 of not seeing my friends and family. Day 6 of not going into the office, not being able to order uber eats and day 6 not going to catch up with my friends over coffee at a cute cafe down the road.
Covid-19 is taking its toll on everyone, it has stripped us of our comfortable normality. For those already dealing with mental health issues, this has flipped everything on it’s head and for many has increased anxiety and feeling alone. When you are battling any kind of mental illness you already feel so mentally and socially isolated - The feeling and fear of being alone is one that is overwhelming and often overbearing, and to now add physical isolation has made it increasingly harder. Even as someone who has won her own battle with mental illness and no longer struggles in that sense, I have found this time difficult. We naturally rely on human connection and interaction to keep us walking and well - And for me, a lot of my healing was in the arms of other people. So, I understand the difficulty of this period for so many people.
However, a significant part of my battle for freedom was done within the 4 walls of my own bedroom. And so, I wanted to share with you some practical tools that you can use to try and use this time to engage in fighting for freedom rather than allowing covid-19 to send you on a bigger spiral. Choose now to come out of this a little bit stronger, more resilient and tooled up to win your battle.
1. Today’s freedom is in your decisions.
There was many things I did to fight - One moment I remember in particular was after my final suicide attempt. I was sitting at home in my bedroom and had an overwhelming urge to go and hurt myself. The thoughts and emotions within my built up very quickly but as I sat on my bed I started saying to myself “Jazz, you know the outcome if you try to do this. You know the process. The crisis teams, the cycle you will go back into.. You can choose RIGHT now to not go down that path. Your freedom in this exact moment, in these next 10 minutes, is in your decision.” That day, I didn’t try to take my life - I didn’t try to hurt myself. The urged did eventually subside (as they always do if you sit with them long enough) - This was a decision that I had to make every single time that these urges came. It was hard work, but all you need to do is make it through that one urge. That 5 minutes. Then, the next time you know that you got through it last time - That it passed last time, therefore it can pass again.
2. Connection is key.
I know this may seem contrary to the whole covid-19 isolation thing - But human connection still remains a vital part in fighting during this time. Thankfully, living in 2020 we access to things like facetime where even though you can’t be with someone in person, you can still connect. Remember to keep up connection through this time, and not only when you are in crisis. In order to flatten the curve of any impulses or down feelings, proactive talking is significant. It by no means is a cure, and doesn’t mean that life will be smooth sailing, but it does help lesson the feelings of being alone. (This goes to people who know others that are struggling.. Initiate conversation, set up weekly ‘coffee dates’ - We really are all in this together.
3. Learn how YOU can fight.
Fighting looks different for everyone. For me it looked like writing out core belief contradiction lists, journalling, writing letters to my future self and dream boards. I spent a lot of time researching the things others had done to fight through their battle and I made lists of everything I could find - Then I went through and tried everything until I found things that worked. A key lesson I have learnt is that we can often spend so much time wishing to be well, wishing to not feel that way - But also kind of sit around hoping that one day someone will say or do something that fixes it all.. I know I talk a lot about the conversation I had with Esther where everything clicked for me - But that conversation was only significant because I chose to act on it. I chose to get up and fight with every part of my being. I chose to get up everyday and try. I chose to pick up the phone and call someone instead of hurt myself. I chose to get in a shower, to journal, to write core belief lists - No one did that for me. And that is the section of fighting that we can do during this time. When everything seems so uncertain and scary, you can use this as an opportunity to learn to fight - To put into place tools your counsellor may have given you or tools you find online.
Hold on, your feelings and battles are valid. And if the only thing you can do during this time is simply survive, then that it okay too. But kind to yourself, and know that these feelings won’t last forever.
Below is an extract from my new book “Stop Surviving, Start fighting.” that may help make this a little clearer for you..
A few weeks after the big conversation with Esther that we started this story with, I remember spending a whole day trying to figure out what it actually meant to fight, to work out how I could overcome the dark battle going on in my mind. While doing so, I came across an article about the process of soldiers going into war. I realised that while the situations were different, the fundamentals of an army battle could transfer to the battle of mental health. This is what I discovered:
PHASES OF AN ARMY BATTLE:
1. Prepare — intelligence-gathering phase.
In army terms, this is all about gathering information on the opponent and the battle that is about to take place. Who were they fighting? What were they fighting for? What are their opponent’s strengths and weaknesses?
In my own case, when gathering intelligence and deciding what it was I was trying to fight, it was important not to confuse the symptoms of the problem with the underlying problem itself.
The underlying problem was not my suicidal behaviour — that was just a symptom. I didn’t have to fight my suicidal tendencies, I had to fight the beliefs that put me in that state. This realisation was what kick-started that core-beliefs list I wrote.
While writing that list I began to untangle another belief, one that told me that my issue was just simply who I was. However, I now knew my illness was not my identity. And if this was not my identity, then maybe I wasn’t fighting against myself, but against incorrect beliefs, behaviours and responses.
This is one of the key things to remember when it comes to engaging in the battle — you have to sit down and figure out what it is you are really fighting.
The ‘intelligence-gathering’ phase for this looks different for everyone, but I found a good place to start was finding stories of people who had overcome the same situations — researching what they learnt, how they got through. For me this meant spending hours finding stories of other people who had fought through mental illness, rather than spending hours binge-watching Netflix! I would literally google ‘how to fight’ and list all the practical things I could do, thinking about what had been stopping me from fighting and how I could push forward. I would read articles on websites like themighty.com and watch documentaries on YouTube about people who had survived mental illness and come out on top.
Don’t mistake this phase for researching your illness, as sometimes this can do more harm than good. I know that for me when I was at one stage diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) I googled a bunch of stuff and read that there was no cure! This led me to me thinking ‘Well then, there is no point because this is what I will be like forever’ — which obviously was neither true nor helpful! (There are good evidence-based therapies for BPD!) This goes for all kinds of mental illness, though — if you start researching too deep into it you can begin to box yourself in and limit your thinking. Instead, this research is all about how you can fight your thoughts, behaviours and responses. What are the practical things that you can do to begin to engage in the battle?
2. Conduct — initial (combat assault) phase. Also known as the ‘action phase’.
For an army, this phase is the battle itself. The soldiers now know what they are fighting and how to best fight it and now it is time to do the work. It is all well and good to plan, think and talk about change, but the reality is that nothing will change until you actually action that change.
To be honest, I think that I did only the ‘prepare and research’ phase for so long. I would spend hours talking about change and complaining that nothing was happening, but I don’t think I ever actioned the things I was saying. It would be like saying ‘One day I am going to be a sports star’ but then never getting on the field to practise. You can’t think yourself to freedom, you have to action it.
For me personally, ‘conduct’ looked like a few different things. This is where I started to write those core-belief lists, where I started to engage in therapy for the first time (I will talk about this soon) and when I started to wake up every day choosing to engage in this battle and fight back for my life.
This wasn’t easy. I couldn’t tell you how many times I just wanted to quit and go back to my old ways, how many times I would be sitting there tempted to just run away again and hurt myself. I had to start using all of these urges as decision points to engage and put into practice the things I had to do to fight. I had to allow the people around me to support me, and I had to learn to trust that they wouldn’t leave me if I told them the reality of what was going on for me. This meant actually having to reach out when things first came up and not waiting to hit tipping point before I called.
The people around me were incredible. They supported me with a lot of tough love (the kind of love that would say ‘OK, Jazz, I’m so glad you reached out — it’s horrible that you are feeling this way, but you know what you need to do to get yourself out of this’). This is important, because once they knew that I had been learning to fight, they knew that I could get through this, and they empowered me to do so. They didn’t dive in and save me every time; instead, they encouraged me to do the work and to put in place the things I knew I needed to. There were times when they would just embrace me, but a lot of the time they challenged me, not giving me the answers but instead making me find the answers with them walking by my side.
This phase of the battle is vital for the final phase, which is the breakthrough phase.
3. Breakthrough — this phase occurs when the attacking force breaks or penetrates their opponent’s defensive line, and rapidly exploits that gap.
Once you have gathered the intelligence, engaged in the conduct and begun to action your fight, this is when the breakthrough can occur. Retraining your brain to believe that you are worth it may seem like only repetitive words that don’t mean a lot for a while, but eventually it will become truth and one day you will wake up and believe it as fact; it will become a new belief. This isn’t something that happens overnight, but with consistency and reworking your brain patterns you will start to see the difference.
I remember a key moment when I realised that my beliefs were changing; it was a very small but significant thing. I was at church one morning, and Wayne and Libby had been packing stuff out after the service. I was standing in the corridor backstage about to leave and Wayne and Libby both walked past me (they were in work mode!). Usually my mind would have freaked out at that point and I would have wondered what I did wrong and why they didn’t say goodbye — but this time I didn’t. This time I felt fully secure that they were just busy, and them not saying bye had absolutely nothing to do with my worth or their love for me. The months of hard work and core-belief contradiction writing had started to really pay off. I no longer second-guessed my worth based on their response, because I knew for a fact that they loved me.
Engaging in a battle is hard, because often we want to be able to jump straight through to the breakthrough phase. We want to just start living without this illness. But the reality is that it is a process — a process that can feel impossible (trust me, I know how that feels!). I could not tell you how many times I thought to myself that there was no point in trying to change things, or how many times I have heard other people say it. But it is so important that we learn how to engage in this battle for our freedom, despite everything in our life that tells us otherwise — because once we gear up and begin to really fight, change may be closer than we think.