Like many people, I have experience with mental illness, if what you mean by mental illness is depression, sadness, despair, grief, anxiety and a lack of faith in myself and everyone else. Like many people I have felt hopeless and helpless and didn’t know if I could face another day. I guess that sums up a lot of how a person feels when they are suffering from mental illness. If you look at it that way mental illness almost seems normal.
In my own personal story I grew up believing that I wasn’t good enough or worthy of love and respect. I felt bad about my self and that lead me to make some poor choices and to have trouble accepting the good that did come my way. In my experience I had to pay for love, affection and kindness because I certainly couldn’t count on it based on my own merit. This way of living was a constant with me even when I succeeded at things or had reason to feel proud of my accomplishments. I came to call my persistent sense of longing and sadness my “ache”. I spent a lot of my life wishing for someone else to soothe that for me, to fill up the big hole in my centre and blaming the people around me because they couldn’t. I engaged in psychotherapy several times, a couple of years of couples’ counseling, several courses of anti-depressants and I read every self-help book that promised to fix me. As you might imagine, there was no quick fix, no magic pill and no way to have the world tell me I was good enough when in my heart I didn’t believe that I was.
Like many people struggling with their own issues I chose to work with others who were having a hard time, first children and youth and later as a therapist myself. Since I really needed to figure myself out I made a career out of helping other people slay their own dragons and work toward greater mental health. For me, that proved to be a life-saving choice because it forced me to become increasingly psychologically aware and it motivated me to continue to try to work through and resolve my own issues. I came to understand that the reason I felt so unloved was because I believed myself to be un-lovable and I saw everything through that filter. Luckily, I was able to find a therapist who understood the huge impact those kind of core issues have in mental health and had some tools to challenge them. I will never forget the session in which I finally faced my own worth as a human being and the great sadness at having lived without it for so long. That session changed me profoundly at my core. I’m not saying that life has been easy or there haven’t been hurts and disappointments since then. Those things are part of life. The change has been in how I view and deal with those hurts and disappointments and what I believe they say about me.
The kind of therapy that worked for me was something called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). It uses lights/sounds and tactile stimulation to stimulate both hemispheres of your brain while you focus on your negative beliefs about your self and the profound way they make you feel. It’s a hard therapy to describe or explain but it has been very helpful in the treatment of people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety disorders. If EMDR is successful the client experiences a shift from what they have believed about themselves to something more positive and more accurate. That shift can have enormous positive effects on the clients sense of well being… mental health instead of illness.
As a therapist I have been trained in EMDR and practice it quite frequently. I have been blown away by the shifts that have occurred before me eyes… a person who has always blamed himself for the abuse he suffered as a child finally realizing it was not his fault; a sexual assault survivor who has never felt safe realizing how good she is a keeping safe; a woman who has always believed happiness was an invitation to disaster finally seeing happiness as something she could experience and experiencing it... these are some of the wonderful outcomes that I have witnessed.
In my own life, shifting that negative core belief that said I was unworthy to one that is sure of my worth and value has affected my mental health in the biggest ways imaginable. Those dark, hopeless days are gone, despite the on-going challenges and disappointments in life. Now I know without doubt that it’s not all about me and my worth. My worth is now a constant that accompanies me through every moment of my life.
Individual, Couple and Family Therapist, in private practice in Ottawa since 2000
Wife to Steve for over 30 years and proud mother to Emily (20), Heather (18) and Greg (16)