Ordinary Overcoming

Guest Post: Overcoming the Despair of Mental Illness

By Marty

Writing this was hard.

What I thought I’d overcome and transcended ‘loftily’ seems to have returned recently in a more resistant form. A mild but nonetheless sticking form of despair which, despite its persistent nature, I’ve found I can allow and sit with more. Without needing to ‘fix’ it.

Here’s my overcoming despair – in the context of mental illness – story.

My daughter just turned 32. Her illness began 17 years ago. For two to three years it showed up as fairly typical teenager ‘out of sortedness’. She’d always been the good girl who, while a little reserved, got on with things. None more so than her study, especially her art. She won an International Art Competition medal aged 8.

Then, in her final year at school, reports emerged from her school – a school ‘for those fearful of failing’. Reports that she was visiting the school nurse to advise she was feeling anxious. There was an incident too in which she took about a dozen paracetamol. 

Then, the school year concluded with a grand School Leavers’ Ball (in some countries called a Prom). She seemed ambivalent about attending, not helped by not having someone to partner her, until some young man volunteered to escort her, on the condition he could get away early. School finished and all the demands of compulsory schooling she battled seemed to evaporate. In my eyes. But for her, she was now confronted by the prospect of leaving home, living with strangers in a University Hall, getting a psychology degree.

We were about to sit down to dinner at home one evening four days after the school Prom. My daughter was home. Or at least had been 10 – 15 minutes earlier. Not responding to calls to come to dinner, we inspected. She’d left the house. She’d clearly taken some harmful substances. We searched the neighbourhood frantically. She was found nearly an hour later about a kilometre away lying on the side of a street. Unconscious.

She was admitted to hospital and remained in hospital or like residential care for four and a half of the following 6 years. The health system battled to address her ever frequent self-harm and suicidality. She was diagnosed with a raft of conditions: borderline personality disorder, PTSD, depression, an eating disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder. Subsequently, she had countless short-term visits to hospital (mostly to the Emergency Department) and on average a few days each month in a respite facility. There were also two long stints in a residential psychiatric hospital specialising in her disorders.

My initial response to my daughter’s illness was interesting. Misguided too. Twelve years ago, the experts said to expect her recovery to take 12 – 14 years; if she survived what was expected to be years of self-harm and suicidality. Instead, I was determined this would not be such a prolonged affair. At best 2 – 3 years. At worst 4 – 6 years. The thing is I expected my daughter to work her way through this in a steady, getting on with things way. We were going to overcome this challenge. I had no grounded notion of what the doctors were saying. I didn’t want to believe them.

By year 4 or 5, after unceasing heartbreak and setbacks but, equally, so wonderful and miraculous ‘escapes’ from what seemed like the inevitable, my expectation softened. It became hope. Hope that my daughter might recover. Here and there dashed by some more significant regression. Hence the despair. But always the hope. Buoyed by a court order ordering the local health authority to up my daughter’s therapeutic based treatment several fold. Lifted by securing the necessary approvals and funding to admit her to specialised psychiatric care. And after 7 – 8 years, my daughter revealing an increased appetite for recovery and life. Dashed by the persistent challenges in her building a life beyond the identity of the mentally ill, hospital, Community Mental Health Services etc. Dashed by her inability to hold down study or employment. By the ever-constant return to old self-harming – or worse – behaviours.

In time, hope took on the character of someone who was a tad naïve. Gradually I befriended a more useful and constant ally. Faith. Faith that my daughter would recover or, if not, that that was meant to be. There was a purpose, indeed value – albeit terrible sadness – in her unwellness.

An important part of that was to focus not on the experience of her illness. What seemed at times wretchedly slow progress. Like watching paint dry. In a cold, damp climate. Instead of dwelling on the drama of the experience (of recurring events), I learned to be more fully present to my thoughts and feelings arising in relation to that experience, those events. This ‘mindfulness inspired’ rise in self-awareness also facilitated greater self-management on my part, of which a shift from the rigid and unrealistic realm of expecting my daughter’s recovery eventually morphed – via hope – into this thing called faith.

What’s interesting too, and helps maintain my faith, is the occasional falling out of it. Such as late last year when my daughter was readmitted to hospital twice following serious self-harm and worse. That falling off the faith track helps me ‘re-gather’. And to better ‘know’ faith once more. How it always eventually ‘catches’ a falling, flailing me. Without fail.

There’s doubtless more to this journey that I’m on with my daughter. Perhaps a clue of what that might be is captured in the wonderful words of Reinhold Niebuhr …

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope.
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love”.

Yes, love. The reminder that we’re all in this together. We all have a part to play. My daughter tells me from time to time that it’s the love of family that keeps her going. It’s the love of her carers that has her digging deeper and putting the work into her recovery. And with that love is emerging in her a greater capacity for self-love and compassion. Perhaps the most essential faith of all. It’s most certainly a major contributor to what we’re now experiencing. My daughter’s quite consistent and steady recovery.

We may indeed overcome our troubles, our challenges … such as in my case the control driven expectation that my daughter would recover. But in a paradoxical kind of way that ’overcoming’ is a kind of surrender to a more useful notion founded in connection. The sort of connection we experience in having faith, in choosing love over fear and despair.

Finally, as I’m writing, I’m reflecting too on the current impact of Covid 19 worldwide. In responding to that, I feel enormous gratitude for my learning associated with my daughter’s illness and her ongoing recovery…

That, ultimately (and most assuredly beyond this pandemic), the importance of resurrecting the universal and timeless healing power of love and faith. As an integral part of how we live and who we are in our relationships … with one another, with the world itself.