I am currently involved in supporting a woman who is unwell with crippling anxiety and depression. Although the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual (the DSM), the principal authority for psychiatric diagnoses, tends to treat anxiety and depression as separate illnesses, for my purposes I will refer to them as one condition, anxiety/depression, as these experiences are so often comorbid with each other.
Today I went for a walk with her in the park and there were two main topics of conversation - aside from the obvious discussion about our chances of beating Italy in the final of the Euros on Sunday night.
I asked her if she felt she had enough support and the right type of support to help her in her recovery. The answer seemed to be ‘yes’. She has wisely managed to put in place several different types of support. She has professional therapeutic support from a psychotherapist with long experience of working with and helping clients with anxiety/depression. She also has biochemical support in the form of several different medications that are understood to control and ease the main symptoms of anxiety/depression and that have been prescribed by her psychiatrist. She is also lucky to have a network of loving, understanding and kind family and friends.
Is it enough? Hard to say. One of the cruellest symptoms of anxiety/depression is the sense of loneliness and alienation. The person who is unwell will often feel that they are alone in an uncaring universe, and that no one else can relate to what they are experiencing. This is why Sylvia Plath used the metaphor of being inside a Bell Jar to describe her experience of mental illness. It is, however, very clear to me that the right types of support are an absolutely necessary (though not necessarily sufficient) condition for retaining and recovering our wellbeing.
We also spoke about her process of being in ‘recovery’ from her illness – and the importance of honouring, acknowledging and accepting that process. Our bodies have their own timescales and can’t be rushed, no matter how impatient our minds might be. Anxiety/depression is an illness of the whole self and, just like any other serious illness, the mind-body-spirit entity that makes up each human being requires time to heal and to recover from trauma, be that a trauma that effects any or all of our minds, bodies and spirits. One of the challenges of recovery from anxiety/depression is that it is essentially a non-linear process. So, you don’t get a little bit better every day. Rather it can be like 2 steps forward and 1 step back or, sometimes rather frighteningly, 1 step forward and 2 steps back.
She asked me to reassure her that she would get better and that her illness would pass. She has been unwell with depression/anxiety previously in her life and has recovered several times. Armed with this knowledge I was able to confidently assert that she would get better and that what she is experiencing now will pass.
The understanding that all of our life experiences are impermanent and constantly in flux is one of the great teachings from our wisdom tradition, articulated most clearly in the biblical book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes).
I think it is good practice for us to check in once in a while, with ourselves and our loved ones, and to ask them (and ourselves): “do you have the support you need?”.