“Still tryin’ to fix my mind.”
-Damien Jurado, Cloudy Shoes
It is really important to take control of your sense of the scale of time in order to thrive with mental illness. What I mean is that pain skews our sense of time. Anyone with an infected tooth can attest to that. However, mental anguish has a characteristic that acts as a multiplier to the skewness of subjective time. The reason for this is because, for the most part, mental pain can’t be rationalized the way physical pain can be. Usually the lines of causality are pretty apparent with regard to physical pain. You stub your toe, so your toe hurts. In addition, the timeline of physical pain can usually be ascertained. If you have an infected tooth you know you will hurt until you get a root canal, after which point the pain will cease. That this timeline has an end in the near future allows us to endure our pain with more equanimity than we could otherwise. (Note: Chronic pain is a special case that is different from normal physical pain and mental pain. The causality of chronic pain can often be determined, but the timeline of the pain has no perceivable forward boundary.)
What makes mental illness especially malignant to the human spirit is its inability to be apprehended definitively by either timescale or causal stimulus. Once a mental illness manifests, one generally has a lifetime of symptoms to deal with to a sometimes greater/sometimes lesser degree. In addition, in the case of mood disorders, the manic or depressive episodes occur often without discernable prelude. Some anxiety attacks may have triggers, but many will not. These episodes are like internal weather systems; coming and going according to rules too complex to figure.
I mentioned earlier the importance of taking active control of your understanding of the passage of time in order to thrive with mental illness. Indeed, the perception of time-to-relief is the only variable we have some degree of control over, at least until advances in brain science better define the causal links in mood episodes. For achieving this control, let us prescribe a profound internalization of cliches. “Take it a day at a time.” “A little rain never hurt no one.” “Seasons pass,” and so on. Pick your cliche. The Japanese aesthetic principle of yugen notes the poignant beauty inherent in the basic impermanence of everything. Even depressive episodes are without permanence, though it may seem otherwise. It’s important to develop an accurate perception of your own internal weather systems. The brutal summer heat seems eternal until, suddenly, Halloween candy is on sale in Aisle 4.
Realizing the inherent truth of time-based cliches requires retraining your mind. The skewness of timescale in regard to suffering is a central characteristic of the human perception of pain. Personally speaking, my way of reimposing an accurate timescale on my mental anguish is by sleep and the separation of days. When I find myself in a day in which I’m more acutely suffering I end that day as soon as I am able. 9pm, 6pm, sometimes noon; it doesn’t matter. I lay down to sleep, and say to myself this mantra: “Shit day, try again tomorrow.” If I end my day prematurely three days in a row I know I’m in a depressive episode, and I call my psychiatrist to ask that my appointment to be moved up.
That’s my system. I’m not suggesting it would work for anyone. It’s possible that it wouldn’t work for anyone else. Obviously the ability to sleep on command isn’t a skill everyone has (though seroquel does help.) What I am suggesting, however, is that a person with a mental illness develop within themselves a close attention to the delimitation of time. The feeling that life is an unrelenting torrent of misery is a faulty perception, because even permanent conditions relent for periods. Nothing good lasts forever, but neither does anything bad in the grand scheme.