In our fascination with diagnostic labels and our faith that giving something a name somehow explains it we have lost track of an important and central truth. Much of what happens to people with mental health issues happens to them, not because they have bipolar or anything else, but because they are people. We get so caught up trying to list out what is “bipolar” that we lose what is person and more than that begin to believe that it is not important. After all “they are not like us.”
One thing I believe that is central to the experience of “mental illness” is dread. Dread is the anticipation of terror. It is the terror of terror. It is what happens when you know that trying hard just doesn’t matter and that the next bad thing can come at any time, seemingly without warning or cause. It is “seeing it coming” in every thought, deed and situation no matter how innocent or trivial they may seem. One person told me, ”All I want to do is have a normal day? Will anything ever be normal?”
Dread is a very human response to something terrible that just seems like it won’t go away and is always there to mess everything up. It is what all of us feel about the “monsters” in our life. The first step in hope is not so much faith in what will happen as it is an assurance about what will not.
Dread constricts our vision and alters our hearing. On guard we cease to notice those things that don’t signal danger and lose an appreciation for the good things in our battle to keep the bad ones from overwhelming and devouring us. At its worst we no longer need to experience the bad things to be terrorized, we need only see the signal of its approach.
Most of the people I know with a mental health diagnosis want to hope. They want to believe in a better time. They patiently try out medications that most people I know hate and are grateful for at the same time. When you medicalize human experience (they have —–, they have—-) something of the human experience gets lost. Dealing with problems simply becomes a matter of being a good patient or a bad one.
But people with a mental health diagnosis can tell you it isn’t that simple. There is no magic pill. ”Mental illness” still occurs within the context of everyday living of a real person. It still has impacts. It is not just about chemicals. It is about meanings and without considering these meanings you lose the simple human truths of life. People get scared. They have a hard time with loss. Shame scars. These and many other things are some of the things it means as a human being to have to deal with a mental health diagnosis.
I know people who dread being with other people because they know to do so means they will be told in ways said and in ways unsaid that they are somehow diminished and less than whole people. I know people who dread being with themselves because their experience of themselves is that mood and impulse always triumph over decision and choice. I know people who are so tired of being afraid that they just numb out and try to walk through the motions of life. I know people who are in constant war with monsters seen and unseen and who believe the only thing they can count on will be to be disappointed with whatever happens.
Dread coats life with an urgency that drowns the things important to us. Instead of life being about giving and receiving it becomes about a futile effort to prevent things from being taken that seem forever slipping from our fingers.
Someone once told me, “I can never see the light at the end of the tunnel. … I just hope to remember there is a tunnel.”
Recovery moves past dread. Maybe not even with things getting better, but just the ability to accept it might get bad. Many of our problems are the messes we create trying to deal with what we think might happen. They are our responses to dread. If you know there is hope… If you know things can get better… You can survive even the most horrible of rooms because you know that is not the only room in which you will be. Recovery is moving past what will be to what can be.