Winter Dragonflies wrote quite a while back about creating your peace. It made me think about the relationship between non-acceptance and suffering in the context of mental illness, and I started this draft that I’ve finally gotten around to writing.
Mental illness isn’t fun, that much is clear. How we relate to illness, wellness, and recovery can change a lot over time depending on the individual illness, how it affects us, and how it evolves. If there is partial or full remission of symptoms in between acute flares of illness, the outlook may look quite different than for someone who’s chronically symptomatic.
I think hope can look different depending on the stage you’re at with the illness. A hopeful outlook might mean hoping to get fully better or relatively better, or maybe just not decline. Somehow, that hope has to reconcile itself with the reality of the illness. That might look like different things for different people. It may be helpful to hope for a level of recovery that may or may not be a realistic. Or it might not.
I’m a very logical-minded person, and that seems to fit nicely with the fact that I’ve always tended to be a realist. Hoping for something beyond what’s realistic feels a bit like an exercise in futility, so I just don’t.
Since mental illness sucks, I think perhaps the natural reaction is resistance. This is bad, I don’t want to feel this way, I’m useless, I hate where I am now. Resistance can be good if it can be used to bring about change that actually has a fighting chance of making things better.
But what about when there’s no reasonable prospect of things getting better? You can resist, but it’s only going to spin your wheels rather than get you anywhere. Maybe that’s where acceptance comes in.
I mentioned a while back that I’d gotten a comment on an older post about the ACT life compass from someone who seemed offended that I’ve accepted the fact that I have treatment-resistant depression. I think part of the issue may have been that this person has a different concept of what acceptance is. Acceptance, at least in the context of ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) is the opposite of resistance. It’s not about liking where you are, giving up, or not taking actions to promote positive change. It’s about accepting that this is the way things are right now, and rather than fight it, I’m going to make the most of the hand I’ve been dealt.
I’ve gone through a major shift over the last few years with my own illness and what acceptance means. I used to have full remission between depressive episodes, so I was either sick or I was fully well. When I last relapsed in 2016, I figured it would continue on with the same pattern. Except it didn’t. Instead, I got worse and had a progressive decline in functioning.
It was probably 2019 when I started to have a shift in where I expected my illness to go. It didn’t come from a place of hopelessness; rather, it was just a realistic appraisal that the pattern of my illness had changed. Last year it started to become clear that wellness, at least like I had before, is off the table. As time has gone on, I’ve accepted that. Maybe some new wonder treatment will come along, but I don’t find it helpful to hold out hope for something that may or may not ever happen. There’s no point, in my mind, of trying to look ahead and push myself towards a future that doesn’t exist. I would much rather accept that this is where I am now, this is where my illness is, and I’m going to work with what I’ve got to make a life that is as meaningful as it can be.
I suppose there was a period of grieving, although it was spread out enough that there was never a hard hit. For me, acceptance is a good place to be. It’s comfortable, it’s realistic, and I don’t have the energy for resistance anyway. Non-acceptance would not be as good a place for me as I’m in now.
Resistance/non-acceptance probably feels like the path of least resistance, as odd as that may sound. Acceptance isn’t something that can truly happen overnight; it’s a process that can demand a lot of reflection. But I think suffering is inherent in resistance. We only have so much control over the suffering that’s directly related to the illness, but there’s more control available over acceptance.
I’m sure that, for some people, acceptance could never mean anything other than giving up, and that wouldn’t be acceptable. And if that works, that’s awesome.
But I think acceptance is an option that’s at least worth contemplating. It may or may not be the right fit, but if it could reduce suffering somewhat, that’s something to consider.
What’s your own relationship with resistance and acceptance?
The COVID-19/Mental Health Coping Toolkit page has a wide range of resources to support better mental health and wellbeing.