Being in the grips of a mental illness can feel utterly desperate. It can feel like you are the victim of a tormenting force which relentlessly batters your self-esteem, saps your energy and plays havoc with your relationships and experience of the world. I have spent many hours with clients who question the point of carrying on, and who feel like there is no hope of escape from the battle wounds their mental illness inflicts.
And struggling with mental health is indeed exhausting, infuriating, depressing even. It is hard to feel hopeful when your inner world, and sometimes outer world too, look so bleak. But my experience, both personally and professionally, is that even in the darkest of places we can find beauty; and when we do, that is when we begin our journey to recovery.
We might fear that we will never be good enough or feel anxious at the idea of real closeness with another. We might rage in a way that feels utterly misplaced for the moment in hand. We can be ashamed of our bodies, our minds and our experiences. We might have been hurt or indeed been the one to hurt another. We might feel afraid all of the time and not know why. We might be plagued by guilt for letting others or ourselves down.
When we get close to these felt and lived experiences it can feel too much. The world around us, both micro and macro, has taught us that they are shameful, unacceptable and not to be shared. We dismiss, deny and distort these parts of ourselves just as they were dismissed, denied and distorted by others in the past. And so, we collude in and are trapped by our patterns of behaviour and ways of thinking that get in the way of us living our lives the way we want to live them and enjoying relationships the way we want to enjoy them. We do not dare let others see what we ourselves find so ugly or unpalatable.
But if we can be brave. If we can be curious about those parts of us. If we can look at them and allow another to look with us – to be respectful, loving and non-judgemental towards ourselves and towards others – it is astounding how, little by little, things that were once so forbidden and so shameful can become beautiful, valuable and precious.
For when we look with kindness, what we find is not ugliness but innocence and fragility. We find an attempt to get through life; whatever that life has thrown at us. And that is part of living. That is courageous and inspiring and enriching. If we can know and love all the messed up, muddled up complexities of our bodies and minds, we in turn allow others to love them with us. And finding that sort of connection to ourselves and others is something that is always beautiful to me.