18 June 2013

Ruminations on Progress in Recovery (or, How to Eat an Elephant)

During my many inpatient psychiatric hospitalizations for Depression and suicide (both ideation and attempts) after my car accident, I was suffering from not only a loss of social status (adjusting to living on SSD income) but a loss of physical and mental capacities (Depression really does a number on one's cognitive abilities).

I've since overcome many of these feelings, and even some of the physical and mental debilitations (although not all of them, unfortunately). I've had to learn how to live with a "new me" if you will, and learn that I have new limitations, in addition to discovering what previous limitations I've always had.

It wasn't the doctors who helped me with the profound sense of loss and feelings of inadequacy. They're just there for pharmacological stabilization--"let's get him stabilized on pharmaceuticals and shove him out the door" is the mantra of most psychiatrists these days.

It certainly wasn't my friends, most of whom abandoned me in my time of need. The few friends that have remained a part of my life to this very day, I can count on one hand. But I know they are true blue and will always be there for me.

It wasn't the nurses, or nursing staff. They were always too busy chatting amongst themselves, gossipping, talking with the pretty patients, and letting maybe one person per shift do all of the work. They rest were otherwise doing everything but their jobs -- except when a crisis arose (which wasn't that often, as I was usually placed on the more "stable" and "less disruptive" units).

It wasn't the therapy sessions -- individual therapy was nonexistent. Group therapy was usually monopolized by other patients, and at the time, I didn't feel comfortable revealing what I was dealing with to the others because, quite frankly, I either found it more interesting to work on their problems, didn't feel I was worthy of their support, or was placed in a room with a bunch of morons.

Rather, the one person who assisted me was -- of all people -- the hospital's nutritionist. She's the one who took the time to talk with the patients (including myself) each day. She's the one who made it a point to find, and speak with me, on a daily basis. And slowly, over multiple hospitalizations and countless discussions, she provided a gem of wisdom that turned a switch on in my brain.

Before my car accident, I was somebody who could launch into a situation, attack a problem, and provide a resolution (or complete a task) in short time. After my accident, I didn't expect things to change, and when I realized that they had, and that I had permanent physical damage, it sent my dysthymia into a tailspin, throwing multiple episodes of major depression on top of it.

During one of our discussions one day, the nutritionist -- the only employee of the hospital to spend a significant amount of time providing talk therapy with me (even though she wasn't licensed to do so but hey, she's the one who actually helped me out the most) -- asked me a simple question:

How do you eat an elephant?

I was stumped, and this goes to show how off my thinking was. I was guessing at answers, throwing everything in the book at her, except the (now) obvious answer. With a fork? A spoon? A knife? A saw? 

Smoked? Stewed? Spiced? Baked? Fried? Fire-pit roasted?

Over a period of days? Weeks? Months? Years? Decades?

My answers to the question revealed two things about me: I tend to overcomplicate things, and I think too damned much about things.

The correct answer, of course, is something I never thought of:

One bite at a time.

That revelation blew my mind away. I spent the next week reflecting upon its simplicity, and veracity.

I realized, and began to analogize, my struggles with recovering from my accident to eating an elephant. I began to see that even miniscule amounts of progress were significant -- moving from a wheelchair to crutches. Moving from crutches to a cane.

Being able to read a paragraph in a book -- being able to read a simple sentence in a book. Things I had taken for granted for years and couldn't do (because of the Depression's impact on my cognitive functions). Being able to recognize a word and recall its meaning. 

I began to see these accomplishments as tiny bites in my elephantine meal, instead of overlooking them.

I began to celebrate every little extra thing that I could once again do, instead of dismissing or ignoring them, as I had been doing.

By celebrating each of these accomplishments -- by recognizing that I could once again accomplish something, no matter how small that something was, I began to pull out of the black hole I had existed in for quite a number of years.

I stopped looking at all of the things I couldn't do (which I still do from time to time) and began focussing, and concentrating, on all of the things that I could do.

The nutritionist actually suggested I make a list of what I could do. The first day after she gave me this task, I presented a blank list to her. She corrected me, in a loving and supportive way: I could breathe. I could see, I could taste, I could touch, I could feel. I chortled.

But those items, and the nutritionist, got me to thinking. There are people in the world who can't do some of those things. So in a way, perhaps she was right.

And she was.

I began adding to the list. It took a fair amount of time but I eventually had an entire page of things that I could still do--accomplishments I could celebrate.

And with that, my road to recovery began. I've had to build that road from scratch, just as all roads to recovery must be built. But I learned that I could do it, and the feelings of accomplishment, of being able to celebrate each victory--no matter how small--are what propelled me into being able to take on the enormous task I undertook last summer.

Despite often feeling overwhelmed and that I'm not up to the task or the challenge of building a new LGBTQ community services center for one of NYC's more populous boroughs, I've been able to get a great deal accomplished. The most important of those is, of course, assembling a group of caring, loving, supportive, amazing, talented, and wonderful individuals who really care about the community, and building this new center.

So for all of those doubters, nay-sayers, and obstructionists out there, as well as all of those who are facing their own road to recovery, I say this: Start eating your own elephant, one bite at a time. And when you've finished your first, come join us in a great big pot-luck elephantine dinner, and help us tackle this huge pile of elephants.

Once you've discovered your individual ability to eat an elephant, joining in an elephantine feast becomes a piece of cake. Speaking of which, I'm going to go hunt down a nice piece of black forest cake this week! ;)

Note: No elephants were actually harmed in the making of this post. FFS people, it's an analogy! SMDH