Thursday, August 14, 2014

7 Quick Takes: What I've Learned in Group Therapy


While recovering from mental illness (which means learning to manage it, as opposed to hunting for a non-existent cure), I'm attending group therapy 5 days a week. It's been awesome, and I highly recommend it, though most people would only do a once a week deal. Some of what we've learned is so obvious, and yet some of it goes against everything I used to think. For instance....

Self-esteem is a good thing. 

Self-esteem is one of those words that I used to mock. Only the feel-gooders, the liberals, the secularists wanted self-esteem. Self-esteem was what kids had when all participants got trophies. Self-esteem was what fueled adolescent rebellion and disrespect. In my fundy days, self-esteem was equated with arrogance. 

My Calvinist background was especially derisive. After all, we knew that all humans were scum, that our good works were "as filthy rags," and that God Himself could only stand to look at us dirtwads if Jesus' righteousness was covering us. Turns out that self-esteem is simply how one estimates one's worth. Turns out that a Calvinist background doesn't help you when you're predisposed to suicide. Other folks (I'm guessing) can hit that old depression monster in the teeth when he says you're worthless and need to die already. They can say naw man, I have worth as a human being, even with all my mistakes. Calvinism jerks that rug right out from under you. 

What I'm trying to learn is that simply by virtue of being a person, I have worth. It is hypocritical of me to tell others that they have worth and a right to life and then turn around and deny it of myself. Self-esteem says nope, you're human too, and being human is OK. 

You are not the depression 

Another "duh" statement that nevertheless eluded me. When you're depressed, it envelopes you, takes over your life, and before long you can't even find yourself in the mix. Your interests, hobbies, skills, energies, faith - poof! gone. It helps to personify the mental illness. Give it a name even. My depression is Bob Loblaw (from Arrested Development) and the PTSD is Nelly, as in Nervous Nelly. I'm Caroline, not Bob or Nelly. Bob may want to hide indoors all day looking at blogs, and Nelly may intensify that desire because it's "safe," but Caroline would rather go out tonight. 

Past, future, and "should have" are not reality

CS Lewis talked about eternity in one of his books (I apologize, I can't remember which). He describes living in the present as "dipping your toe into the river of eternity." That's the idea: eternity is real; the present is real. The past has already happened, can't nothing change that. The future isn't even here yet, and who even knows if you'll be living. "Should have" is the most insidious of all, the most deadening thought you can have. It's not real, so don't even entertain those thoughts and regrets. Speaking of the past.... 

What happened to me is not my fault, but my present is 100% my responsibility 

I didn't deserve the things that happened to me in the past. However, if I live in misery today it's no one's fault but my own. That may sound harsh, but what's the alternative? To give authority to people in my past? To hand over my soul to those who have hurt me? No thanks. 

I judge others based on my own past mistakes 

Thanks to my awesome group therapist, here's what I learned about myself this week. The reason why I fear abandonment so much is that in my past, I have poured myself into people that were needy. Then, when I got resentful (because I stopped taking care of myself) I dropped them like hot potatoes. Therefore, I go around expecting others to drop me the minute I get too needy, because I expect that others will similarly take care of me without taking care of themselves until they get sick of me. Boy did that explain a lot. 

I'm grateful for the PTSD

Not for the depression - I'm not quite there yet. But without the PTSD, without the panic attacks and irrationality and dissociating episodes, I wouldn't have gotten the help I need. I would just drag myself along with depression, existing but not really living. The depression alone didn't push me, didn't provide the consequences that the PTSD did. So thank you anxiety, you done good in spite of yourself. 

Have you been through mental illness or group therapy? What have you learned in the experience? 


  1. Re #4: Never did group therapy but went to a therapist for a while when dealing w/ PPD and various uncategorized issues. The therapist suggested I stop using phrases like "I need to" or "I should have" or "I have to." Instead, he said, say things like "I would like to". At first I was like "Wha?? I'm not a moral relativist! I believe in right and wrong!" Several years later, I still ponder this and work on it. There are some "musts" and "need tos" in life, but very few of them when you come down to it. Just changing my phraseology (or "self talk" if you will) really helps put life in perspective and cuts down on anxiety.

    1. Yes! It's not about morality as much as it's about all things that we "must" do or the world will fall apart - because clearly the fate of universe rests with us. That's when saying "I would like to" is so much better.