For the past year, I have been involved in some voluntary work. It’s a befriending service. Designed to help the most isolated in society to feel more connected. I would like to profess some kind of saintly reason for signing up but in every act of selflessness there lays some selfishness.
The lockdown was a trying time for many. Some more than others. And as a result of this, my mood took a turn for the worse. Previous experience has taught me that to alleviate my mood I have to take action. Altruism is my path out of depression. Helping others just has this magically effect of pulling me back from the edge. Plus, it benefits another. In my eyes, that’s a win-win situation.
By chance, the individual I was matched with was a recovering alcoholic. He has mental health problems beyond anything I have had to deal with. And I’ll be honest it made me feel grateful for the demons I have to fight. Some are battling the devil himself. Each day is a war. Each tiny accomplishment takes massive energy. It put things into perspective. It has made me realise what some folks have to go through just to get through the day. The medication. The anxiety. The depression. All of it combined. It isn’t a wonder why he drank so much. It helped. Until of course it didn’t. Just like taking morphine for a broken leg. It may remove the pain. But it doesn’t fix the problem.
It’s made me realise that no matter how much support is offered. How much encouragement. Our minds are so powerful that we see reality the way it wants. Pain and suffering, sometimes where there is none.
There are recurring themes in our discussions; self-inflicted pain, unnecessary pressure, expectation, guilt, shame and alcohol. Many of the points come from an internal pressure that I/he imagines comes from outside. An inner narrator that demands perfection and is disappointed with anything less. Unrealistic expectations and the feeling of hopelessness that comes with it. But there is none. It is him. It is me. The feelings are just that. There is nobody telling me I “should” have run further. Or that he “should” have gone for a walk. It kept coming up, this word “should.” So one day I asked, “Why should you?” There was a long pause… “Because I wrote it on my list of things to do!” Sounds obvious but I’ll admit I’ve done it. Made targets and then gave myself a hard time for not meeting them. So I asked him ” So you set the targets? And you give yourself a hard time for not achieving them?” “Yes!” Why don’t you lower the expectations you place on yourself?
Like many addicts, myself included, he has an all or nothing attitude. If everything isn’t done, then it is the same as nothing being done. If there is nothing to be proud of then there is nothing at all. I tried to explain, numerous times, that getting out of bed is an achievement some days. In the belly of depression. When the grey veil is on and my energy has been sapped, getting up and washing the pots is an achievement. On the days I’m good, I do what I can. On the days I’m bad I do what I can. I don’t compare the two. A sick man will be envious of a healthy man.
Talking to him made me notice that many of the traits he carries I have carried too. The thinking patterns. The unrealistic expectations. The self-inflicted mental punishment for things I “should” have done. Numerous days drunk, mulling over the life I “should” be living. But it is just an illusion. An inner narrative that can be changed. It isn’t easy but it can be done. And it won’t solve all my problems but it will help. I still have days of nothingness. Of uncertainty. A lack of motivation. Some days I force myself to exercise. Some would say ” hey that’s the symptoms of depression. Get some meds!” I think it’s just winter. But another month and the days get a little longer. It might get cold but the days get brighter. Also, I’ve slipped off my meditation practice. All the things I recommend to my befriender I have forgotten to do myself. The things that, time and time again, get me out of that hole. The simple actions of checking in, meditating, taking a walk, sharing with others. Simple human traits that have been lost in the pursuit of external fulfilment… But that inner pressure. That “SHOULD” tells makes me feel there is more. More trips. Social media displays images of happiness. Maybe if I did that I would be happy… Maybe. It’s strange. I sometimes feel guilty for feeling happy. Just walking along the beachfront. A coffee and a smile. I think there “should” be more. That happiness can’t be that simple.
It’s been humbling volunteering. It made me realise how difficult it is for friends and families of people with addiction and mental health issues. Trying to make them feel love for the individual when there is nothing but self-hatred. Completely unjustified self-hatred. Trying to point out the inner and outer beauty. Trying to point out that not everyone in the world is living a perfect life. That there are options. There are choices. That doing something, no matter how small is something. Some days it is a huge achievement. But it is difficult to make somebody believe, who only sees themself as a failure. The gratitude I have for the people who supported me through the dark times of my life has grown exponentially. I never realised how difficult it must have been. And is for the people out there, trying to shine the light in the darkness of others. It is a ceaseless endeavour but I am so happy the people helped me along the way.
I’m going to take my own advice from now on and drop the “should” from my narrative. It creates unnecessary pressure. Unless of cause, it’s valid. But judging what is and what isn’t? Now, that’s the difficult part.