On Distraction and Ableism

There’s an attitude– and it’s a subtle one– that mentally ill people are doing something wrong. Even among otherwise understanding professionals and loved ones, there’s an idea that if mentally ill people would just learn to think correctly, like everyone else, they wouldn’t be mentally ill anymore.

This idea has its basis in the benefits of skills training. Of course, practicing self-care skills, good habits, and programs like DBT can lead to more resilience. I’m not arguing that there’s nothing that mentally ill people can do to improve. The issue is that people who aren’t mentally ill think that the same things will work for everyone.

The example I’ve encountered recently is the matter of distraction. Neurotypical professionals recommend this highly as a temporary strategy for halting a spiral, not understanding that sometimes it’s impossible. For mentally ill people, our feelings don’t necessarily have anything to do with our external circumstances– for neurotypicals, they usually do. Therefore, a spiral can continue even if our external circumstances are removed from the original trigger. When you’re mentally ill, your feelings are deeper and last much longer.

I know this because I am now (more or less) properly medicated. Things work now that didn’t before, because my chemicals are on a more even keel. I was amazed to find that now, I don’t have crises that last for weeks because of a thought that I had. Instead, my feelings are reactions to my environment and nothing more. While sometimes a bad mood can last a few hours or something can make me deeply uncomfortable, it lifts within a day or two. This was not true, and not possible, before my brain was more straightened out.

My emetophobia was triggered twice in one day recently, and because of all the work I’ve done managing my brain and stabilizing my chemicals, distraction finally worked for the first time. I gently redirected my focus and felt much calmer. I was amazed at how easy it was. Of course, it wasn’t that I had never tried distraction before, or had been doing it ineffectively– the difference was that my brain chemicals were much more cooperative than they had been.

I find this is often the case with breathing techniques and meditation as well. Obviously they work for some mentally ill people, but if they don’t, it’s not because someone is doing something wrong or not trying. It’s just not the right technique, or it’s not effective enough.

I want every other mentally ill person to know that if your brain isn’t working like you want it to, it isn’t your fault. It isn’t a personal failing. It’s just broken, like your leg can be broken, and while there are actions you can take to heal yourself, it’s not a matter of willing yourself into health.

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