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Self-Knowledge • Psychotherapy
Recovering from Mental Unwellness
It’s one of the benefits of most physical illnesses that they are immediately observable and hence command a ready degree of respect and kindness from those around us. We know to prop a pillow beneath the person with a broken arm, we immediately open the door to someone on crutches.
But without anyone meaning to be thoughtless, it is harder to keep this caring attitude in mind when dealing with a mentally unwell person. As sufferers, we may ourselves forget our condition — and therefore launch into tasks and situations for which we are not ready and which will undermine our efforts at recovery.
To get well, we need to recognise fully that we are ill — and therefore that we must endure a period (which could be very lengthy indeed) of convalescence.
This will mean rigidly patrolled and regulated routines, an absence of stimulation, a huge emphasis on rest and a close monitoring of visitors. We should be as careful with ourselves as we might be if we were recovering from a cancer or lung operation. We may have no physical scars but we should do ourselves the kindness of accepting — simply based on our symptoms — that we are as sick as those in intensive care wards or those for whom sirens wail across the city at night.
We need to be selfish about the state of our spirits, and ruthless in removing ourselves from situations that sap us. We should go to bed early, eat lightly, bathe often, go for a walk every day, have something pleasant to distract us — and most of all, be kind to ourselves for the mess we are in.
We should learn from physical rehabilitation how long it will probably take to feel well again. Recovery from a broken wrist might take six months, it can be a year before a new hip is functioning once more. A mind that’s broken can take longer still; it could be one or two years, even four or five. We shouldn’t be surprised; the mind is a far more complex organ than any bone or muscle and so warrants a correspondingly lengthy period of recuperation. Nor — as with other injuries — should we expect progress to be linear. There will be many days when we will go sharply backwards, when we’ll be catapulted back into a sort of despair we had hoped to leave behind forever. We should not be discouraged, what matters is the overall trend as measured over months, not a bad day here or there. There will be periods of darkness just when we had started to hope once more — and we should greet them without panic.
We have become experts over many years in a distinct language, a language of illness and self-torture. It will take a great deal of time to unlearn it and become fluent in the language of generosity and self-compassion.
We may not be living in any institution, but we should proceed with as much care and seriousness as if we were. We should construct hospitals for the mind within our own homes — and educate those around us about our needs. We will gradually grow well again as we learn to lead the peaceful, warm-hearted, kindly and well-regulated lives that our minds have craved for so long.