21st June 2019
soul survival guide
writer, poet &
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the darker shores of the soul
Hopelessness and despair lie on the darker shores. Many of us visit this lonely place during our lives, with some never returning. This complete chapter from my book soul survival guide explores those farthest reaches and how to make our way back if we find ourselves there.
falling into the pit
For some it is a sudden drop, others a slow slide. Whichever way, the pit is a deep and lonely place. Little light makes its way in and sometimes disappears altogether.
People tell us we are not alone, but this brings little comfort. It only confirms that the world is full of pain. Or it makes us feel guilty – life is a gift, and we are wasting it.
Mental health isn’t like other illness. How much is us and how much the condition? It’s hard to tell where it begins and ends. The chemical and neurological aspects are only one side of the story, part of the interplay between how we were brought up, the way we think, and where we are in our lives.
No single treatment is going to make everything all right. This places a large onus on the individual. While support from others is crucial, it’s ultimately down to us – and this makes it daunting. The steps to self-help can feel like hurdles, with the ever-present risk of being knocked back. Added to this, local mental health services are often over-stretched. With everything against us like this, why not just stay in the pit? Well, we can of course. We can stay there for as long as we like. Or we can opt out. Sometimes suicide seems to be the only choice.
when you want to cut the rope
The statistics are staggering. Up to a million people in the world take their own lives each year, with many more attempting it. Despite this, it’s still a taboo subject.
The truth is, life sometimes feels too much to bear. Thrown onto the darker shores, suicide can seem the best option, a rational choice even. It’s not that we want to die, we want the pain and struggle to end.
The taboo makes it difficult to express suicidal thoughts, but talking about them reduces their power. If you are having thoughts about ending your life, please call the Samaritans or similar service. It can be a life-saver – literally – offering the kind of non-judgemental support which is often difficult for loved ones to give. You don’t have to wait until you are on the verge of suicide or in the middle of an attempt. They are there to talk to at any time. Expressing your darkest thoughts to someone neutral but compassionate can bring a huge sense of relief and may well be the turning point.
There are millions of people living happy and healthy lives who have considered suicide. There is something potentially liberating about going to that far shore and standing on the cusp between life and death. The trick, of course, is coming back from it; looking death square in the face but choosing life.
climbing back out
When we’re at the bottom of the pit, it seems impossible to get out of it. But there are hand and footholds to help us. It’s just that we can’t always see them, especially at the beginning. Like a climber, we have to feel about, finding places to take hold to help ourselves up.
Everyone’s climb is different and it may take a long time, but every inch upwards is a move in the right direction. You can also make a safety net as you go along, so the drop behind you isn’t as far.
Here are some ideas to get you started:
self-compassion and more self-compassion
If you are experiencing emotional pain, please show yourself compassion. It doesn’t matter how you got there. You may have been selfish or made poor choices, but that can be worked through later. Never mind that other people seem to be worse off – it doesn’t take anything away from your experience. The pit is a terrible place to find yourself in and being kind to yourself is crucial.
weathering it out
Weathering is an opportunity to be with ourselves as we truly are, taking off the mask to allow difficult emotions to pass through. It’s like being a sailor, alone on a boat as a storm approaches, sitting tight to weather it out.
It takes practice to weather effectively. You don’t have to do it for long, and you can stop at any point if it gets too much.
Hunker down in an environment that feels safe and secure. Close the curtains, light candles, make a huddle of blankets – whatever works for you. Avoid alcohol or anything that will cloud or over-heighten the experience.
Allow the storm to come, without censoring any of it or pushing it down. Let it be as it is, in all its rawness. You might lie still with your eyes closed or move about. Do what you need to do to help it pass through. Afterwards, it helps to sleep or rest. Above all, be kind to yourself.
It takes courage to face the worst but weathering like this teaches us that the unbearable is bearable. We can come through it and survive.
dropping the mask
As a society, we are talking about mental health more than ever. But many of us still feel the shame, keeping it hidden from work colleagues, our social circle and loved ones. We pretend that everything is okay or at least not as bad as it really is.
Constantly covering up is hard work, draining resources that are already low. Maybe it’s time to hold up your hands and say, ‘I’m struggling here’. It often brings immediate relief and is a turning point for many people. Your energies can go into getting better instead.
asking for help
Few people come through the worst times in their lives without any kind of professional support. Your doctor is usually the best place to start. They often suggest medication, which can seem too easy a solution and not really dealing your problems, but it has its place. It’s worth considering, even if just for a temporary period.
Your doctor is the gateway to a range of therapies, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) often being the most available. This helps you challenge unhelpful thought patterns and core beliefs that affect the way you see the world. These aren’t easily unpicked, however. CBT often has to be revisited over a period of time, making it a learning process rather than a quick fix.
Many people find counselling helpful. This is a talking therapy, typically for a block of six to ten sessions. Counsellors don’t tell you how to fix things; you work it out for yourself with their support. It doesn’t suit everyone, but sometimes it’s down to lack of rapport with the counsellor or events may still be too close. Unfortunately, there are often long waiting lists, although there may be free counselling in your area targeted at particular groups, such as the under 25s.
Groups are a great source of support at little or no cost. They are usually run by health professionals or volunteers connected to a national organisation or local health service. The approach varies; it might be sharing personal experiences, socialising, or discussing a different topic each time.
Going to a first meeting can be daunting, especially if your confidence is low. It helps to contact the organiser beforehand to smooth the way. Perhaps you can take a friend or be matched with a buddy until you’ve settled in.
Courses and activities are another form of group support. This might be confidence-building, arts and crafts, gardening or mindfulness. There are also self-management courses, like the Expert Patient Programme, to build up coping strategies and resilience. Your doctor won’t always know what’s on offer, so have a search on the internet or contact local mental health services for signposting.
There is always online support, which can be accessed anonymously from your own home at any time of the day or night. You can read forums and blogs, or get more involved by sharing your story and posting comments. It’s a way of connecting with people around the world who are going through similar experiences. It’s often comforting to know you are not alone.
don’t wait until you feel like it
One of the cardinal rules of self-management is not to wait until you feel like doing something. That feeling can take a long time in coming, if at all.
Doing nothing all day rarely makes us feel better. We have to find a way through the inertia, however uncomfortable it is – and on a daily basis. Do some tidying, take a short walk, keep that appointment. Poor mental health gives us all kinds of reasons why we shouldn’t bother, but it is only by the doing that we have any chance of moving forward.
Be aware that you may not always feel better for your efforts. Your state of mind may cloud your perception so you don’t feel a change in mood. The way to approach it is to think, ‘Okay, I don’t feel any different but it is probably doing me good’.
Better to do something rather than nothing. At the very least, it breaks the day up and helps you get through the hours.
the stepping stones to self-belief
Mental illness often leaves huge dents in our self-confidence, when we may not have had much to begin with.
The way to build confidence and self-esteem is to take it steady and not overwhelm yourself. When we’re at a low ebb, our negative thoughts are all too ready to dive in if we over-challenge ourselves. They tell us there is no point in trying, it’s only going to end in failure.
Take small steps, building up slowly. If your goal is to get out of the house, walk to the end of your road on the first day, to the local shop on the second, and the park on the third. You’ll feel a greater sense of achievement, and it’s easier to shake off the disappointment if you miss the odd target.
Recording what you’ve done gives you something to look back on. Seeing how far we’ve come often gives us a boost. It’s also evidence that confidence can be developed from wherever we are.
turning tunnel vision around
When we’re in the pit, it feels as if life will always be that way. We get tunnel vision and forget the times when we felt more positive about life.
A way round this is to be less absolute. When we divide our lives into ‘bad days’ and ‘good days’, there is only the option of one or the other. In reality, life is a flow and there are constant fluctuations, some of them very subtle.
However awful you feel, it’s unlikely to stay at the same level all day. There will be times when it lessens, and these small chinks are like finger-holes in the pit wall. Try to be aware of them. The hope is that they become longer and increase in number as you recover, until the balance tips and the world generally feels brighter.
Another way of being less black and white, is to insert the word ‘probably’ into your thinking. Tell yourself that it will probably get better – or at least, it probably won’t always be as bad.
fending off the guilt goblin
The Guilt Goblin likes to dig its claws into our shoulders: What have we got to complain about? How can we can be so ungrateful and self-centred? What a fraud!
Unfortunately, telling yourself not to feel guilty rarely banishes the Goblin. The most effective way of showing it the back door is doing things to help yourself get better. When we do nothing, its grip gets stronger. Activity gives it less to hang onto and helps to combat the feelings of worthlessness. It also reduces the anxiety of those close to you. They are probably afraid of you sinking further into the hole, so it’s reassuring to see you doing things to help yourself out of it.
owning the illness
Depression and despair are often seen as a Black Dog or other dark force. It looms large in our lives, coming and going as it wishes. Even when we are well, there is always the threat of it returning.
We tend not to view other health conditions in the same way. Someone with diabetes has to monitor and manage their blood sugar to stay well. It’s part of their daily life. They know it can fluctuate and that certain behaviours will have a detrimental effect.
Taking the same approach to mental health means we’re less likely to see ourselves at the mercy of some beast. It’s a condition to be managed, and the way we do that directly impacts on our quality of life. This makes us much more active participants in our treatment and recovery.
It allows more room for our uniqueness. A group of people with a mental health condition may share some common symptoms, but this doesn’t mean they are all the same. What helps one person doesn’t automatically help another. By working out what’s best for us, we can own the illness rather than the illness owning us.
good for the soul
On the darker shores, we’re often removed from the uplifting stuff that makes us feel good about being alive. We see the world from behind glass, and it’s a grey and joyless place to be.
But now and then, however briefly, a few rays of light find their way in. Try to notice when this happens and make a note of what caused it. The idea is to identify what makes you feel good, then generate more of it. It could be the simplest of things, like looking at a favourite photograph or hearing a particular song. These are your pearls. They may not shed much light at the beginning, but the more you gather, the greater the glow.
Thankfulness is another way to nourish yourself. Writing down a couple of things you’re thankful for each day is proven to have positive benefits. This might be in a diary or something more creative, like dropping scraps of paper into a jar and watching it build up over the days and months. The trick is to capture the smaller stuff, specific to that day.
Of course, when we’re at our worst, it can be a struggle to find things to be thankful for. It’s always something you can come back to later.
unearthing riches on the darker shore
Going to the furthest reaches of ourselves has the potential to shape us in ways we never expected. Finding our way back takes tenacity, a determination not to give up. There’s inner strength to be found, a resilience we never knew we had. This is why people can see their bad times as a gift.
Suffering can widen our experience of what it is to be human, increasing our compassion for others and making us better people. It may also give us a new appreciation of life. The air feels so good out of the pit.