Early on in my marriage to Amy, we were dealing with the Type 1 Diabetes she’d been living with since age 8, and its progressive complications. We’d been dealing with the emotional insecurity that comes with accelerated wear and tear on the nervous system and the side effects of nearly a dozen prescription medications. She had recently moved from injecting 4 different types of insulin every day to a new mode of self-treatment – the insulin pump. I considered her a warrior, battling diabetes every day. Similarly I envisioned her battling depression.
At the time, I wrote the song “My Gentle Warrior” with my observations of her showing up every day to fight these battles.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that the battle metaphor proved to do as much harm as good. When the perception is that you live in a constant state of battle, it sets up a wider sense of hostility within oneself and among loved ones. And it’s exhausting for the person living with the condition and for that person’s immediate circle – call it shell shock, battle fatigue or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Amy and I have been faithfully going to couples therapy for about 4 years at the time of this writing and, along the way, we’ve learned that in our case, these feelings aren’t defeated with a battle. Their power grows in a battle. Instead, these feelings are mitigated with self compassion, mutual compassion.
We learn “contrary action” – the skill to do exactly the opposite of what depression or rage is telling us to do. Depression says stay in bed, contrary action says get up and sit in front of the bright light – or hop on the treadmill. Rage says to tell your spouse off. Contrary action says to hold hands with your spouse, look him/her in the eyes and make an emotional connection.
Depression and rage tell us mental health is a battle. Contrary action tells us mental health is a humanitarian mission – to ourselves and to our loved ones.
In this light I more recently thought about “My Gentle Warrior” and wrote its sequel: “Battle.” The line that keeps coming back in reflection in the new lyric is “I thought this was a battle.”
I can’t speak for everyone; I believe there are people whose mental health is better suited to thrive in a battle; I’ve learned from experience and counseling that Amy and I are not among those people. So, what will you choose in creating and maintaining your mental health: a battle or a humanitarian mission? Feel free to comment below.