Friday, October 26, 2012

Reflections of a (Recovering) Control Freak

Right now, I am completely out of control. About whether my son takes a nap, that is. He's at that age now where the midday snooze is becoming a cherished relic. For his tired, middle-aged parents, anyway--he couldn't care less. So, while he merrily chants the alphabet from a darkened room, I will dash off this blog post.

"Control" has been kind of a dirty word throughout my life, mostly because I misapplied it. For a long time I thought I could control my depression and anxiety through the power of positive thinking, or through distractions like eating and shopping. The first thing didn't work because a sick mind has only one use for "positive thinking": as a bludgeon of shame. ("Why aren't you happy yet, stupid?") The second thing didn't work because, of course, addictions create more problems than they solve.

I actually got well once I figured out that (a) I do need medication, probably forever; and (b)--the bigger deal--I can't control my feelings directly. No one can. What I can control is my response to them. When I feel depression or panic setting in, I can be kind to myself. I can strategize about ways to reduce stress or tackle a pressing problem before my mental health gets worse. I can remind myself that this, too, shall pass--all the faster if I don't pummel myself about it. I can steer myself away from the chocolate or the two-day sale, and toward exercise and an earlier bedtime. I may have no control over my innate personality or my genetic vulnerabilities, but I have a lot of control over my daily mental environment.

Well. In the time it took me to write that last paragraph, my son concluded that naps are so last month. I quickly checked my mental environment for pollutants like, "But WHY? He's so tired!" For my own sanity, I reminded myself that there is no sense fighting forces of nature, of which 2-year-olds are a prime example. The dude is awfully cute, at least. (And I have to hand it to him: "I'm poopy again!" is both something out of *his* control, and an excellent trump card.)

I brought my little ball of sunshine down to the basement, which is filled with his favorite diversions. I smiled when I saw the books, the dress-up clothes, and the plastic letters and shapes strewn wildly across the floor for the third time today. You see, I've recently decided that after the third cyclone, I'm done supervising cleanups for the day. The place can remain a sty. Hell, if I'm tired from working a night shift, my rule of three becomes a rule of one. Giving up control yet again.

What a wonderful peace has descended upon me from giving up the notion that the house (and its matriarch) has to look a certain way! This was a recent development in my life. I used to be the sort of person who dug individual cat hairs out of the carpet with a comb, and had 10 perfectly polished nails at all times. I was pretty anxious about things looking "right." You would think that marrying a relaxed, go-with-the-flow guy and having two kids would have knocked that clear out of me, but it's taken a while. What it's come down to is accepting I can't have it all. If I spend my time fretting over appearances, I'm not as available for the things that really enrich my life. Like climbing a jungle gym with my son, or playing "spelling bee" with my daughter, or reading blogs with my spouse. Or even--yes--just staring into space for a while. Hey, Einstein swore by it.

By the way, "appearances" also encompass the things I do to appease imaginary critics. Like putting colorful fruits and vegetables in every meal I serve my son, only to hear the familiar "Blucchy!" as they hit the floor. (I have decided jelly sandwiches are not the devil.) Or apologizing to the mother at the bus stop for my tousled hair and slippers, when she knows I work nights and is just glad to see me.

In the larger scheme, there is much about life that is scary--and maddening--for my inability to control it. I can't control who becomes President this election (and believe me, I wish I could). I can't control the fact that community mental health centers have closed, psychiatric hospital beds are harder to find, and the patients I see in the ER are suffering on both counts. I can't stop the aging process. I can't protect my kids from colds, stomachaches, bullies, or the various disappointments life brings. I can't control other people, or their reactions to me. The more comfortable I get with all this, the more freedom I have to focus on creating a good life for myself and others.

So much of the suffering caused by mental illness has to do with futile attempts at control. OCD and other anxiety disorders are about mastering life's unpredictability, but in the end they create a life of powerlessness and misery. Eating disorders elevate bodily control to such an extreme that everything else turns to chaos. Depression often results from trying to control anger by turning it inward, and in the process, losing the ability to advocate, be assertive, and work for real change in one's life.

On the other end, people suffering with mental illness often find that others try to control them-- pressuring them to get well on a certain timeline, to take meds, to get a job.

These efforts, though understandable, are usually futile and may even result in the person backsliding. I am seeing this on a grand scale as the cuts to public mental-health services continue--turns out (Captain Obvious alert!) access to services does not make people get well in a hurry, but instead forces them into crisis mode and into emergency rooms. Trying to control how much help someone needs, and how quickly they recover, means taking away their opportunities for greater self-sufficiency.

But again, I can't control our world. I can't even control the chips in my manicure. I'm okay with that--for today.

In peace,

Lisa Sniderman, LCSW received her M.S.W. from the University of Chicago in 2003 and has been a licensed clinical social worker since 2005. She is a past member of ETD's Mental Health Advisory Board as well as one of our storytellers. Click here to read more posts from Lisa.

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