Mental Illness: Love and Acceptance Must be The First Line of Treatment

Our son recently returned for a restorative stint at home, bringing with him the latest addition to our family, Sammy the cat, or “The Meister” as we call him.

Image of post-it notes with the words accept, love, empower and advocate on them
Photo by Polina Kovaleva on Pexels.com

He acquired Sammy during one of the COVID lockdowns last year when he was experiencing burnout. He was living alone and at a particularly low ebb because he unable to work at his job in hospitality. Not eating properly or taking his medication, the environment provided the perfect conditions for someone with ADHD to slip back into depression.

The idea of a cat didn’t appeal to me

Admittedly, when he first suggested acquiring a cat as a companion, I was resistant. Many friends of mine are now raising the pets of their adult kids and after almost thirty years as a pet owner, we are now looking forward to a period when we can rent nice properties again and go away without the worry of leaving them with strangers.

But despite my many (illegal) visits to my son’s apartment to try and keep his mental health in check, I could see that he was slowly sinking under the strain, and it didn’t take long for him to embroil me in an illegal mission to collect Sammy from a western suburb of Sydney with some of the harshest lockdown restrictions. Masked up, heads down, we drove through the unusually quiet streets to be introduced to the newest member of our family.

“Scaredy-cat” is an understatement to describe Sammy

Sammy is the most anxious cat I have ever met. He jumps at the sight of his own shadow and the noises his own body makes when he moves, and there were times in the early days when I visited our son’s apartment when he hid in his litter tray to avoid me. Although he was never aggressive each time my son foisted him onto my lap, it was clear from the way his body turned limp that every second he was there he was planning his escape.

Fast-forward a few months and I was still struggling to warm to him. His clear refusal to acknowledge me as the matriarch of the family (with the respect I believe I deserve) or to cow-tow to my many innovative attempts to connect with him were part of the reason, as was the later loss of our son’s deposit on his apartment for the cat’s damage to the carpet.

Nevertheless, I like to think I am the bigger person and when he turned up at the family home, I welcomed both my boys with open arms, even providing Sammy with a safe space (from me) – a furry cat cube to hide in.

He didn’t leave his box for the first month

The only time he left the cube was when our son’s bedroom door was shut, and each time I ventured into their space and tried to stroke him in the box, he did an impressive Houdini impression to avoid my touch, either by hiding under the cushion or pushing his body so far back against the wall it was impossible to reach him. Nevertheless, he was productive during his transition to our home, developing a handy left hook as an additional mode of defence.

There were a couple of occasions when I enticed him out with toys or expensive treats – because for a street cat, Sammy is surprisingly gourmet in his choice of cuisine – but each time I thought I was making progress, he reverted back to his street behaviour and slapped me back down where he has decided I belong.

It was more than a month before curiosity got the better of Sammy and he began to venture beyond the boundary of our son’s bedroom door, but this time rather than his own fears, the territorial behaviour of our terrifying Spoodle thwarted his progress. Luna is used to our undivided attention and each time he got close to the living area, she chased him away and set Sammy’s intrepid exploration back another few days.

Then one day he appeared on my husband’s desk chair in the study, which was helpfully tucked under the table and out of direct reach of our jealous dog. And even though physical contact with him was still a risky venture, occasionally he allowed me to stroke his paw gently before swiping it away aggressively – I should point out here that my son calls this “playing” and that Sammy is more Jekyll than Hide with him.

And slowly, over the past month, Sammy’s steps to integrate with our family have gone from strength to strength. It goes without saying that they are ALWAYS on his terms – he is a cat, after all – but suddenly he is everywhere, from the bench top when he is waiting for his food, to sitting outside my bedroom when he doesn’t think I am looking.

This morning we caught him checking out our dog’s bed

Evidently, whatever trauma Sammy experienced before the RSPCA found him on the streets had a lasting effect on him and he is learning how to trust humans again – something that can only be done with patience, love and understanding. And though it is frustrating when animals don’t behave the way we want or expect them to, people with trauma behave the same way. FYI, The perfect human example of this is the character of Marianne in “Normal People”.

Several times a year, our son experiences burnout and needs time out to recalibrate from the sense of overwhelm caused by trying to meet the weight of expectations that we (inadvertently) and society place on him. His ongoing battle with his mental health issues mean that he reaches a point when he can’t leave the house without feeling nauseous and feels permanently angry and fatigued. Because he doesn’t look disabled, there is little compassion for his struggles. Others see him as lazy, entitled or weak in some way.

People who have lost trust are often defensive and oppositional

But with love and acceptance – what I believe should be the first-line of treatment for people with mental illness – people like him feel less isolated, judged and ashamed. Though “tough love” may be the gold standard approach to care for some mental illnesses, it is a risky choice and one that doesn’t necessarily work for people who have lost the ability to function completely. It is not an easy route, either, because people who have lost trust, like Sammy, are disillusioned, and often defensive and oppositional.

In the three months since my son and Sammy returned home to live with us, we have watched them come out of their respective boxes and flourish. Slowly, we are reintroducing boundaries – which for Sammy means not scratching my rugs or chewing the leaves of my artificial plants – because we know that they are as important for them as they are for us. But the hope is that with some time to heal and just “be”, both will find the confidence and strength for the next period of their lives.

When You Don’t Feel Peopley Due To Anxiety

Mood-wise, I’ve experienced a bit of a crash over the past few weeks. That’s not unusual as you navigate menopause and anxiety, but it’s frustrating when I was about to launch myself into full holiday mode.

Woman lying down, looking hopeful.
Photo by Talles Alves on Unsplash

I know stuff is serious when I’m not feeling peopley, because as a Leo, I am generally energised by company and being at the centre of things (sort of). But last weekend, I had to cancel pretty much everything we had planned – much to the old man’s delight.

There is little doubt in my mind that anxiety (GAD) is the root cause of these sudden changes in my mood. It can’t be a coincidence that each time I allow myself to feel a measure of contentment with my life, that little voice pipes in to remind me not to get too comfortable, and then slaps me around the face with the unexpected.

Admittedly, there has been some stuff going on that has pulled me closer to the darkness, as well as the usual woman’s guilt about pretty much every aspect of my life – usually triggered by those “sobriety benefits” articles that pop up in my inbox daily – but I suspect that the real culprit is a virus that started with an irritating case of Laryngitis and then developed into mild flu-like symptoms.

There are two big problems with not feeling 100% now, in my fifties: the first is the fear that THIS IS IT, MY TIME HAS COME, and the second is that it stops me from my daily exercise routine. Exercise (and being outside) is my fix, so when I can’t get out, all of those bad thoughts such as worthlessness, feeling like everybody in my life hates me, or that the walls of the apartment are caving in on me, chase me like a swarm of wasps, draining the positivity and creative energy from my body.

My attempts to rise above my illness and use the time (when I should be exercising) effectively, to catch up on some research for my writing and reading, exacerbated the problem this time. Reading about anxiety when I’m already in a heightened state because of all the things I’m not achieving is highly detrimental to any improvement. As is reading about Pauline Hanson’s latest bid for the spotlight, the entitlement of those Liberal Party wankers who still believe they have a right over womens bodies, and watching depressing (albeit thought-provoking) series such as When They See US (WATCH IT!) on Netflix.

However, sometimes all it takes is a change of scene, a friend saying exactly the right thing, or even a self-help article to turn me around that corner and force me back outside again. Even a measured dose of exercise and sunshine can get the old endorphins back into the spirit of living.

This time, two things enforced the change: the first was an overdue trip to the city for some culture (and some good, old-fashioned man-hating) with Annabel Crabb at the Opera House – even though, I imagine that would be most anxious people’s idea of hell, to weave their way through the furious tide of tourists in Circular Quay when they’re not feeling peopley; and the second was an article I read in the SMH, written by Judith Hoare here, about Claire Weekes, who she lauds as the “the Australian doctor who cracked anxiety.”

Claire Weekes was a scientist who experienced such severe panic attacks as a young adult that for many years she believed that she had a serious heart condition and was going to die. So, when eventually she discovered that her problem was panic attacks – related to her mental health (and more pertinently to anxiety) – she used her science background to research the condition. Having examined the treatments available for the condition, she came to the conclusion that “acceptance” was the best approach for coping with them.

“To recover, they must know how to face, accept and go through panic until it no longer matters …” Weekes said.

“Acceptance” is a pearl of wisdom that I’ve picked up in recent years – and not only in relation to anxiety. “Acceptance” has been the key to my improving relationship with Kurt, the key to finding work that suits my strengths and limitations, and (most likely) the key to the survival of my marriage, (in this case, his not mine). In relation to anxiety, it is simple and effective and backs up the latest thoughts about positivity, which are that we don’t need to be positive all of the time. Sometimes it’s okay to smell the dog poo rather than the roses – in fact, it’s important to.

However, “mind over matter” is cruel advice to give an anxious person, especially when for some, the condition can be completely debilitating. And yet, there is no escaping the fact that simple changes to our lifestyle may be a highly effective starting point to ease the symptoms. Exercise, a change of scene, and some form of mindfulness of meditation are the most immediate cure for me.

After I read the article about Claire at the weekend, I sat there in bed and breathed deeply for several minutes – a strategy I’d dismissed as a waste of time at a recent mindfulness session. And as I did it, I reminded myself that things rarely turned out like my catastrophizing brain promised me they would, which was why worrying was such a waste of time. And this time it worked.

And On The Topic Of Self-love And Acceptance…

And while I’m on the topic of self-love and acceptance…

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Cue kaftan, joss sticks and Hare Krishna chanting…

 

That trip to the movies symbolized the start of a new chapter for me this week – a chapter I like to call “thinking about myself for a fucking change” – not to be confused with the old man’s version when he leaves the toilet seat up or only makes a coffee for himself. No, this chapter is about self-love. “Loving yourself” is something many of us lose sight of when things don’t turn out as planned or as we get sucked into the vortex of responsibilities that go with parenting or the demands of life and its disappointments.

 

As I mentioned in my previous post, one of the ways to initiate self-love is to get back to the stuff you used to enjoy and made time for, before you became an obsessive worry wort that forgot how to compartmentalize problems. And there are lots of ways to do that. As you are probably aware, I’m not hugely spiritual, so the whole happy place/yoga/taking up religion isn’t really my thang, but going to the movies – albeit by myself – was one step, “painting” will be another and “reading” is a huge priority.

 

I read my first book this week. Baby steps, I thought, so I chose something really light to break myself in gently – a book about the dangers of taking responsibility for the challenging behaviors of our children!  This, as you know, is a topic close to my heart and a conduct I have been guilty of for some time but never found the clarity needed to put it right. You see, I confused the responsibilities of being a mother and its requirement of unconditional love and sacrificed my own happiness for that of my child’s – which is no good for either of us.

 

It’s time to stop punishing myself.

 

(However, a return to self-love doesn’t have to emanate from parenting issues, it can come from any adversity that has knocked you sideways and tested your priorities and purpose, not just the stress that comes with the territory of raising challenging kids or kids with addictions).

 

What I loved about this idea is how the author rams home the importance of reaching an acceptance of who your child is, and ultimately the need, (as a parent), to put away the picture we expected of them when we saw that thin blue line.  We don’t all get the happy, smiling baby on the front of the parenting manuals and that’s okay because it takes all sorts of people to create a society.  

 

In the same way that our children have the right to live their own lives, so do we. Wallowing in anger, disappointment, and guilt means we miss out on living, and that ultimately helps no-one, least of all the child who senses that negativity.  Self-love is just as important as the support we continue to offer our offspring.

 

It is also important to remember two things: 1) we don’t know how much time we have in this world and 2)  in most cases, “change” only comes from people when they are ready to commit to that change – and it’s generally not something we can coerce them to do successfully. While in the author’s opinion, it is fine to remain in a consultant capacity to these children, we do need to step back at some point and take back our own lives.

 

I also have to stop punishing my son for how he has chosen to live his life. The book is about recognizing mental illness and addiction as a sickness rather than a weakness or a faulty gene and treating that person with the same respect you would treat someone with a physical illness. Which is fucking hard, to be honest, and for a while now my halo has been slipping as the lines of unconditional love began to blur.

 

We are human, after all.

 

Everyone deserves to be loved and second and third chances, no matter where their journey leads them. From the kid that can’t walk a straight line and the toothless, homeless man on the street, to the lottery winner who wastes all his winnings on drugs or the sex offender who was abused as a child, acceptance, love, and forgiveness are the sign of true strength.

 

Now I just have to practise what I preach.