Mutual kindness and mental illness

I read an article recently about the secret to making a marriage last, based on the research of John Gottman. While the article found many of his findings exceedingly obvious, the theory of mutual kindness struck a chord. When we are in a secure relationship of any kind, whether it’s a friendship, a romantic relationship or a family bond, it is easy to start taking it for granted, and to stop making the tiny overtures of friendship we make with people we don’t know so well. The research suggested that whenever someone makes a tiny comment about their day or something they’ve noticed, they’re sending out a tiny message for reassurance and comfort. And if those gestures are knocked back more often than not – “you’ve told me that before” “I don’t think that’s true” or just a “hmm” and barely a glance up from the phone/tablet/TV/computer – then the bond can begin to fail.

I was thinking about this in the context of relationships with people who suffer from mental health problems – depression and anxiety, and particularly the latter as it is what I’m struggling with the most these days. It struck me that this advice relates even more to these more difficult relationships, and in a number of ways affecting both parties.

First of all, if you are having an anxious or depressed day, it can make it much easier for you to take your mood out on the person who is closest to you. You know they are not going to leave but at the same time it terrifies you that they might, especially when you are low or feeling like a burden. This fear and discomfort with yourself makes you more likely to lash out, especially if you’ve had to spend a day pretending to be perfectly well so you can carry out your job. If you have been fake smiling or hiding anxiety attacks behind water cooler chat all day, the pent-up pressure getting released may make the evening at home difficult. You want to relax but sometimes you’ve forgotten how. You want to have a nice evening in but you’re exhausted and just want to lie down and cry. The knowledge that you’re wasting the precious free time does not make it any easier.

I found myself in this mood recently and the only thing that helped was a kind of forced reset. You know when you can only turn off a computer by holding down the power key? I did that. I forced off all electronic appliances, poured a glass of wine and parked myself on the sofa with an Agatha Christie. No electronics within reach, all notifications off. It helped, but any kind of half reset I don’t think would have had the same effect. For partners, it can be very wearing to be on the receiving end of this kind of mood. It is isolating, frustrating and sometimes hurtful. I can’t offer much advice except to try to be patient and, for me, it’s probably best to give me some space. I want company but know I’ll be bad at it in that mood. And while it could also be useful for a partner to suggest a total relaxation shutdown, ultimately it needs to come from the person who is upset. If you suffer from mental illness you need to learn your own moods and how to cope with them, to get support from people around you without pushing them away. Easier said than done, so, in the words of a best friend: communication, all the time, until you can read each other’s minds (or near enough).

The issue described at the beginning also works the other way round in these relationships. If someone with depression or anxiety reaches out, especially about how they are feeling, even in a very small way, it can be very difficult for them. In the words of Dr Brene Brown, we are making ourselves vulnerable by opening up about something that makes us feel ashamed. People get anxious about all sorts of things: job interviews, flying by plane, public speaking, driving, going out to social events, going out to places they don’t know, talking to people on the phone, going to the shops, going out of the house, going outside a set of rooms. If you suffer from anxiety, when you’re in one of those triggering situations – I, for example, get anxious about driving – then your physiological reaction to doing that thing may be the same or even more extreme than someone going to a very important interview, or sitting an exam, things that make most people at least a little anxious. Because for most people, these things like making a phone call, or going to a party, are “normal” and not stressful at all, we feel ashamed that we get so worked up about something so “small”. So with any reaching out about these things, the need for mutual kindness is ramped up to a hundred because of the shame behind the feeling. If our partner or friend or family member then replies with something that is cutting the feeling down, making it sound silly or irrational, if they respond with a deep sigh or an eye roll or even with a platitude like, “oh don’t worry, it will be fine” we feel a hundred times more shut down and irrelevant than someone might under “normal” circumstances, if they shared something they thought was funny or interesting and were met with stony ambivalence or disdain.

For partners and friends it can be very difficult to know how to respond. The best thing to do is to acknowledge the fullness of the feeling that person is having – try to imagine it from their point of view, take it seriously and don’t just shrug it off or treat it with frustration. Think of how you would want to be met if you were talking about something you find particularly frightening and difficult – this is that thing for that person. I used an example the other day – I’d booked myself a horse riding lesson, which I was really excited about, but nerves about the drive there and parking in the small and awkwardly shaped car park were making me very nauseous. My partner said, “but I thought you wanted to go riding?” because for a normal person, the excitement of going riding would outweigh the nerves of a ten-minute drive. I explained that, for me, it was the same as if he was going for a job he really wanted, or even had the job and today was the first day, and he was quite nervous about it, and then if I said, “but I thought you wanted this job?” Somehow you need to find a way to understand that what seems so small to you, is not small to the other person.

The person suffering with anxiety or depression has to be careful to do the same thing. I often find one of the best ways to get me out of a low or anxious mood is actually if my partner needs me for something  – I tend to start focussing on them and my own problems seem smaller because I’m not looking at them so closely. But it can be difficult sometimes, if you’re caught up in your own head and are used to being the one to receive support, to remember to turn around and give it to your friends and family and partner too. Especially if you are afraid that part of their issue is their worry over you. Of course they need other people to lean on too but it can help, when you’re in a good place, to talk over the effects and issues together. Talking about the difficult times and what you both want and need in those situations is essential. It’s a give and take process – and mutual kindness and empathy is absolutely key.

When you’re both feeling down, as my partner and I have been a bit this week after the US election, it’s even more important for us both to practise mutual kindness. I feel like we’ve both feeling a bit defensive, hurt and beaten down, like little creatures evicted from our safe shells, trying to find some comfort and warmth. We all need to turn in towards each other, be honest and stay vulnerable, to keep our closest circles a happy corner in which to regroup in these difficult times.

 

 

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Keep hoping, friends.

Well. Since 3am I’ve been lying awake or having nightmares about Trump becoming president. Maybe it’s because I had a few run-throughs of waking up to it before I actually woke up to it, or maybe it’s because of the Brexit result in the summer, but this result isn’t such a shock to me.

I know how terrifying this is, especially for people of colour, LGBTQ+ people, women – or essentially, anyone who isn’t a straight white misogynistic power-crazed man. I am very depressed for what this says about people’s attitude to women in the 21st century. By voting for Trump, people are voting for a view of women which many hoped had died off around the 1950s. And by going with an “anyone but Clinton” attitude, although people say it’s because of her corruption, it seems to me pretty obvious that one of the main reasons for it is because she’s female. If you keep their histories and behaviour but switch their genders, there’s no question about how this election would have played out. A 70-year-old woman who had been divorced three times would never have got close to the White House, while a man with Clinton’s experience would have been, I would guess, far more popular. I don’t understand all the reasons why people dislike Clinton so heartily, but I do think they underestimate the role sexism has to play in it. If we take the view that people see women as Madonnas or whores, Clinton doesn’t fit: she’s clearly not a whore, but she can’t be a Madonna because she is powerful and, at times, ruthless. Terrifyingly, apparently the majority of white women voted for Trump. This is baffling to me, but perhaps feeds into arguments that women are threatened by the power of other women. Or maybe they enjoy that kind of ‘man taking control’ bullshit that Trump espouses so brilliantly.

Anyway. We could talk for hours about what a depressing result this is. God knows 2016 has been a hell pit for anyone of a liberal persuasion. Here are a few thoughts I’ve been having to try and counteract the negativity this morning:

  • I have such low hopes for Trump that really, the only way is up. If he hasn’t nuked China within the first six months, I’m counting it as a win.
  • I am taking solace in the fact that there are millions of people all around the world who are feeling just as lost and powerless as I am today. Thanks to today’s technology we all have ways of connecting and joining virtual hands around the globe, and that kind of connection can only be a point of comfort.
  • I have recently finished The Art of Happiness, a book full of conversations between the Dalai Lama and an American psychologist. Together they try to find ways of creating happiness which take elements of both Eastern and Western philosophy. It is a heartening book particularly at times like these, showing the surprising similarity of ideas that originated in such different cultures, and also what it can be like when people are open and receptive to other people’s thoughts and opinions. One idea that is helping me in particular is samsara, or cycles of death and rebirth, which is central to Buddhist thinking. I do not believe in reincarnation per se, but Buddhists also believe the world goes through cycles of samsara. I’m not entirely sure if it’s supposed to be used in this way, but I am looking at history today for these cycles.

    In the nineteenth century there was a rapid increase in communication across the world, with the advent of telegrams, railway lines, and increases in trade. This was in many ways the beginning of western hegemony, as previously China was one of the most powerful empires in the world. With western industrialisation, the balance of power changed. Through the first half of the twentieth century many racist attitudes held sway, and extreme nationalism brought several terrifying leaders into power. After a massive cycle of change and, of course, wars, the balance changed again. The second half of the twentieth century saw many of these “scientific” racist attitudes thrown in the trash, empires slowly began to come apart, and since then we have had huge steps forward for women, gay rights, and civil rights.

    I am, of course, simplifying MASSIVELY and I’m sure any academic reading this will want to step in and teach me a few things. Not today, please. Be tolerant today. Unless you believe my views are harmful or you’re really in the mood for teaching and debate, in which case, let me know and we’ll discuss it like adults, and like rational human beings, and I’m sure we’ll both enjoy the conversation immensely. But sadly we are now seeing a backlash to this “opening up” which has brought joy and happiness to so many. Unfortunately, for some, these expansions in rights have not been a sign of progress, but a sign of their own power being reduced. If we believe that there is only a finite amount of power and influence to go around, these are frightening times if you are someone who has, to date, held most of that power. Or if your beliefs are such that you think only certain people should be allowed to hold it. If you believe in the verses of the bible which prohibit homosexuality, then I can only imagine that the day the US allowed same-sex marriage you had much the same feeling as I do now. If you believe that the colour of someone’s skin has something fundamental to say about what they can and cannot achieve as a person, then the anger that has flowed through many American cities of late can be read as confirmation of your beliefs, rather than the righteous fury of people mistreated for too long, too often. And if you believe women’s main role should be at home raising a family, then this year will have been a real shake-up for you.

    I am sad to think that people believe these things. But I am not surprised by the fact that they have not disappeared yet. It seems clear that these attitudes have risen up again, that we are rushing headfirst into a new era of intolerance and rolling back of the rights of people who have been fighting so hard for them. I am hopeful that we will avoid wars of the kind of magnitude we experienced a hundred years ago, especially as, with someone like Trump having their finger hovering over the button, it would literally be the death of the earth. And although that’s depressing to think about, if it does happen, then we’ll have nothing to worry about anyway. (Side note: I’ve just started watching The West Wing (I know, I’m ten years behind the times. When I’m 40 I’ll start Breaking Bad) and I had no idea that it is basically ONE person’s decision to start attacking another country. Just the president. Terrifying! Also, is Aaron Sorkin and the West Wing cast available to run America? I feel like they’d do a stand-up job, especially compared to this crazy waxwork clown who’s got in instead.)

    Steering back to my positive point: the world has gone through some serious shit before. We’ve had men who chose to try to exterminate an entire race. We’ve had terrifying eras of persecution and intolerance and people treated like less than animals. And it does end. Eventually. Although sometimes it doesn’t feel like it, we’ve come a long way and more people have more than they have done at any time before in history. A friend said she read an article which argued that if Clinton had got in, as the ultimate establishment figure, the feelings that started with Sarah Palin and ended up in Trump would just have got worse. Maybe getting what they think they want will prove that it isn’t as advertised (hello, Brexit). Keep up the hope, my friends. We are all human beings underneath. I know it is tough for everyone who has already worked out this fundamental human truth – that we are all just people – to see the rest of humanity continue to be so fucking stupid, but the millennial voting map in America was very positive. Hopefully this new generation, of which I am a part, will rise up against the bigotry and dumb rhetoric which has characterised politics in the UK and US this year, and we will fight for a brighter future. The cycles will keep on turning.

    And in the meantime, there’s The West Wing to distract us.