I was fortunate to be sitting on a fairly deserted beach in France last week, watching the scene around me as my husband had wandered to the retreating tide so the children could dip their toes in and examine the shells that were scattered along the shore.
In those moments of solitude I became aware of a swathe of heavy, dark clouds passing with some pace across the sky. In the gaps that emerged between the grey masses I could see chinks of light streaming through and I began to recognise the profound parallels with our thought patterns.
During my experience of perinatal mental illness, and indeed any subsequent bouts of low mood or anxiety, a definite pattern of erroneous thinking exacerbated things and could turn mild discomfort to pain and, at the worst times, pain into suffering.
I am lucky enough to have experienced a shift in my mental perspective over time. Even therapy, while helpful in teaching me the rational emphasis on re-framing thought, didn’t prompt me at the time to see the bigger picture. It’s like when you stand too close to a painting and it makes no sense…and only when you take a few paces back do you see the whole scene and the wider context. So while I was creating new neural pathways to challenge my cognitive process, I had failed to actually consider the nature of thought itself and how this whole shizzle operates.
Thoughts are a constant ticker across the mental space in our heads. We might want to switch them off at times but the more we push, the harder they fight back – a bit like a wilful toddler who hasn’t learnt to share yet. So when I say to my two year old for example: “Violet, c’mon..you need to share your toys!” She’s likely to respond with “No mummy. Violet not like share.”
The first error we make is in thinking that thought is truth. It’s not. It’s merely a constant stream of mental activity. Like the ‘monkey mind’ we read about in textbooks, the theme changes frenetically and with momentum.
The thoughts themselves aren’t really the issue. What’s important is the attention we give them. When we focus particular attention on a recurring thought we energise it and it then appears to dominate our thinking. But the critical word here is APPEARS. I realise that the upper case letters are a bit like a shouty text message but it’s only for the purpose of highlighting the key point. Because appearance is reality when it comes to our minds. What we perceive becomes our reality…so the ticker tape of thoughts can completely commandeer the way we experience life if we allow them the attention they seek.
To return to the cloud analogy – when a low mood or repetitive ‘worry’ thought starts to emerge, so often our thinking veers into the territory of “Oh god, it’s back again. Here we go. Now I need to take action. I can’t let it get worse. I can’t believe I’m back in this place etc etc” until we find we’ve inadvertently accelerated the mood and it’s starting to feed our thoughts and feelings in a Machiavellian manner.
Having spent a few quiet moments watching the ominous clouds descend, hover and pass, I came to the realisation that the weather is not dissimilar to our state of mind. If we stay present and calm, we can observe our own thought patterns and have the perspective to simply witness them without getting all involved in analysis and resistance.
Another key realisation was that it’s OK for dark clouds to emerge from time to time. As human beings we’re not inherently designed to be happy all the time. Life isn’t one long euphoric experience, despite what the media and your Facebook timeline is trying to tell you. In fact, trying to relentlessly ‘pursue’ happiness is counterproductive…the more you ‘seek’ it, the less available it becomes. Instead, we are far healthier to accept and allow whatever metaphorical weather comes our way, knowing that it is transient and it will pass.
Even the darkest of times can bring immense insight and awareness. I still maintain that experiencing perinatal mental illness was a gift, in a weird kinda way. Hindsight has taught me that your biggest challenges can become your greatest teachers if you let them. Leonard Cohen makes the beautiful observation in his lyrics: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment