It is no fun being stuck. It’s like being in a log jam, pinned down, in knot, or bogged down in the mire. That stuck position feels helpless and hopeless, like there is no way through. We don’t have an arial view to see the possibilities of getting out of that position; thus sometimes we stop trying, give up, or reject the possibilities when presented to us. Recovery, and many life challenges are not quick and easy fixes.
Parable of the Flood
There is a little story that tells of a flood rising in a neighborhood. A homeowner was getting quite concerned as the water was seeping into his house. The man mustered up some faith and said “God, I know you will save me from this flood.” Shortly a neighbor came by and said, “Get in the truck while you still can and I’ll take you to safety. “Oh no, that’s okay. God is going to rescue me.” The neighbor departed to save others. Soon the man was up on the second story because the floods had nearly covered his house. A rescue boat arrived and offered to row him to safety. He hollered down, “No thank you, God is going to rescue me.” Finally, he was up on the roof as his house was covered from the flood. A rescue helicopter sent down a line to save him. He hollered up “No thanks, God is going to save me.” Of course the man drowned and went to heaven. When he met God he said, “God, why didn’t you rescue me? I had so much faith in you.” The good Lord said, “I sent you a truck, a boat and a helicopter, but you didn’t use them.”
This story illustrates that sometimes we are given ways, means, and tools to help us move forward to wellness and recovery and decline to use them, figuring someone will fix or save us without any effort on our part; an effort that seems daunting.
Learned helplessness is not an uncommon problem amongst those with mental health challenges. Learned helplessness is a conditioned behavior discovered in experiements (this link offers a simulation of the experiment) by psychologists Martin Seligman and Steve Maier with dogs in the 1960’s. The experiments showed that the animals became so conditioned to not being able to prevent or stop the shocks that even when eventual situations were presented where they could have control or avoid the shocks, they continued their helpless behavior. They couldn’t see the possibilities.
In further experiments the doctors by chance discovered that this conditioned response of behavior is also found in humans suffering from depression and other mental disorders.
Like the dogs in the experiments, people who experience learned helplessness believe they have no control over their problems or life; that they are helpless to overcome because of past experience and the intensity of their current suffering; and that there are no viable options for recovery.
Story of Learned Helplessness
Let’s look at our fictional friend, Donovan, who was prone to panic attacks, generalized anxiety, and had a very serious phobia of heights. He was in therapy and in a group to help him deal with his problems. It was suggested that he try a gradual exposure therapy with the help of a trusted friend in the group to overcome the phobia, and was given many tools to deal with his general anxiety and panic attacks. He never quite got around to these things because he felt it was just not possible, no matter what. He’d suffered for years, and nothing seemed to help.
One day Donovan was offered a new job, one he desperately needed to support his family. To get to this prospective new job he would have to drive over the Narrows Bridge twice a day; a terrifying undertaking for Donovan. Although he needed the job desperately, he felt there was no way to overcome this fear. He turned the job down. Donovan told his therapist, group, and family “What’s the use? I’ll never be able to overcome this fear.”
Donovan was caught in the sticky web of learned helplessness. It was easier to play it safe than try. For those of us who have been there we can empathize. But the tools and options we are given can often do what we fear it won’t.
Safety and Comfort vs. Change and Risk
Most people balk at the “C” word (change), even when they are in a rut and in desperate need to get out. We all love our comfort zones, don’t we? For many it’s fear of the unknown. For those of us who struggle with mental health issues our comfort zones are not really so comfortable at all; but it’s what we know, what we’re used to. It’s safe from the “R” word (risk). Risk, even a positive risk, can be terrifying. The prospect feels like free falling off of a cliff. There are times we discover, though, that in reality, it’s not a free fall off a cliff, but a leap of a few feet or yards, and if we land on our rumps, we can get up and try something different until we find what works.
When I was unwilling to take the risk of doing something toward my recovery, someone asked, “What would be the worst case scenario?” My answer was “failure.” With their encouragement and support I took the risk. They told me if it didn’t work out I would learn what doesn’t work, and have the opportunity to try something new, or modify the thing I tried in some way. By taking baby steps out of my comfort zone, I soon learned about resilience and to expect bumps in the road. It didn’t have to mean I had to start over from the very beginning. Setbacks, bumps, or hurdles are a part of life, and appear in any recovery situation. The way is rarely straight and narrow, but possible – absolutely.
How to Get Unstuck
Everyone is an individual and not everything works for every person. I got unstuck in one way, and others I know got unstuck using other means, or a combination of both. Here are some things that may be of help:
- Embrace the dignity of risk – The risk is of failing. The dignity comes in making the choice to take the risk, and learn from any result that occurs, positive or negative.
- Focus on your strengths not your weaknesses – Human beings are masters at looking at their weaknesses. Looking at our strengths is not our default position. If we have spent most of our life focusing on our weaknesses then looking for strengths may be challenging. Finding a trusted support person and talking it out will get you over the hump.
- Practice caring for yourself – Give yourself permission to do things that bring you pleasure, that are needful to your health and recovery, and to keep your stress level down (this may include saying no to yourself or others who make demands on you). Make a list of things you can do that fit this category. Soon you will feel better about yourself.
- Spiritual life – Spiritual disciplines and finding strength, hope, and comfort from God is a powerful help in recovery.
- Practice gratitude – In the throes of anxiety or depression we may not feel that there is anything to be grateful for. But there is always something. I used to make lists and share them on my blog or with a support person. In the beginning, I only listed one to three things. Soon it was up to ten. It is so uplifting, and motivating, and hope producing. It is a most powerful and effective thing to do towards recovery.
- Know your early warning signs and have a game plan – This will go far in preventing crises and part of caring for yourself. You can end up putting it on your gratitude list.
- Surround yourself with positive supporters – This includes formal supports (counselor, doctor, case workers, peer counselors etc.), and informal supports (safe, trusted friends, family, church, community activities) in which people demonstrate care by being positive, supportive, and encouraging.
- Wants and aspirations – Not goals. Give yourself permission to want and aspire to things. They don’t have to be lofty and they don’t have to be about a vocation; anything at all that you want for yourself (that is positive). Work with a good support person who can help you discover the possibilities.
- Focus on what you know for sure, not what you fear the most. Bag and toss the “what if’s” and “yeah, but’s.” They drag you down and often are not accurate.
- Listen to other recovery stories – This can bring hope. You’d be surprised at what people have overcome. Engage in conversation with these people, ask questions, share your story and take hold of their encouragement. Remember, their stories are fact, not fiction.
- Find formal supports that focus on recovery, not maintenance. Formal supports refers to doctors, therapists, case workers, peer support specialists and the like. Find ones that focus on recovery, not maintenance and management. (In the Tacoma area TACID offers a recovery oriented programs, groups, and classes).
Grab Hold and Use What’s Been Offered
Mental illness has many challenges, and no recovery is without struggle. But if you’ve been thrown a life ring, a toolbox, and viable options to move forward in recovery, grab hold and use them. Like the man in the flood and our friend Donovan, the alternative is grim. Recovery can be long road with twists and turns, bumps and hills; but it’s a road, a road that leads to quality living. Embrace positive supporters who come along side you (not in front of), root you on, and offer help along the way. Lone ranger recovery is not real effective. Grab hold, use what’s being offered, and discover the possibilities.
For more information on recovery oriented mental health programs, clinics, and services, contact Optum Health RSN at 253-292-4200.