An old Cherokee Indian Chief was teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside of me,” he said to his grandson. “It is a terrible fight between two wolves.”
“One is evil, angry, envious, sorrowful, regretful, greedy, arrogant, self-pitying, guilt-ridden, resentful, full of superiority and ego driven” then the Chief paused and said…..”The other wolf is joyful, peaceful, loving, hopeful, serene, humble, empathetic, generous, truthful, compassionate and faithful.”
“The same fight is going on inside of you, grandson, and in every other person.” said the Chief.
The grandson thought about this for a moment, turned to the Chief and said, “But grandfather, which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee turned to his grandson and replied “That depends upon the one that you feed.”
I started counselling this week. The counsellor picked up on some things that I’ve never seen for myself before and emailed me over several attachments that he felt related to me. This was one of them, and it is probably my favourite.
Once upon a time there was a girl who lived inside a box. Not any old box, no. This was a different and difficult kind of box. This was a box inside her mind.
It all began, as sometimes these things can, with a time one day, some day, any day, way back when, or even not so long ago at all, when a word, a gesture, a look, a hurt, a this, a that, a something somewhere at some time or other stopped the flow of living in wonder….a pause, a doubt, a creeping sense of darkness that took hold and didn’t let go. And the girl’s sense of things began to change, so that her map of what life was about shrank and contracted. And, as it shrank, so did her belief in her ability to do new and interesting things…
And gradually she explored less and less of the world that she had once so eagerly known. And as her map began to shrink away, so the walls of the box began to creep up around her – slowly at first but with quiet certainty until, before she knew, she was inside the box and felt quite stuck there.
Now, what are the walls of such a box made of? As with all boxes of this type, the walls were made of negative thoughts and feelings. Doubts and worries, fears and nightmares, shame and anger, guilt and grief, until, well, until it might well have been a tower of infinite height, for how could one escape such a prison, such a box as this?
And so it was that the girl lived out life from within the box, and everything that she experienced, whether big or small, grand or tiny, joyful or meaningful, had first to pass through the walls of the box, for this was the only way into the girl.
And the box worked its own process on upon all of life’s many and varied experiences and opportunities for learning and growing. The box acted almost as a filter, or some sort of computer program: it took the experiences of the world ‘out there’, and changed them – changed them so much so that they were barely recognisable.
Joy was coloured by doubt, fear and suspicion. ‘It cannot last; it isn’t real; it’ll all go wrong; just wait and see,’ whispered the box, the very voice of self-criticism that the girl heard every day.
Well, how do you think this made the girl feel? That’s right, pretty awful. And there wasn’t much that got past the walls of the box. Admittedly, for some unknown reason, the odd experience of happiness and laughter seemed to slip past unnoticed and, for those magical moments, there was hope or fun or laughter again, in and about the world. Except the box soon realised what was going on and put a form and decisive stop to all that nonsense. ‘Listen,’ it would whisper, in its best attempts at sounding caring and concerned, ‘Life just ain’t like that. What if you get hurt? What if it doesn’t wok out? Best to stick with me and I’ll keep you safe…’
Safe! That was it! You see the box hadn’t started out in life meaning to be such a stuck and sticky thing. It hadn’t planned to be such a limit on living. Oh no, the box simply sprang into life as a way of making the girl feel safe and happy at a time in her life when she hadn’t felt safe. And what is more honourable, more valuable and important than wanting to make someone feel safe and happy at a time when they’re hurting?
But hold on! What about all those negative thoughts and feelings? All that stuff about shame and guilt and anger? What’s that got to do with keeping someone safe and especially with helping them feel happy again?!
Well, the box was a solution to a problem that happened at a particular time. The box did its job for however long it was needed. But, then, well it just ended up staying. And then it stayed some more, until it became the very tower and prison that we heard about before in our tale.
So, you see, the box was a solution that turned into a problem. Instead of making her feel safe, it kind of made her feel afraid – of what was outside the box. Afraid of the scary things and monsters she began to imagine out there – the new situations and people, the taking chances, the taking risks that, before all this, the girl had been ok at.
And once the box made the girl feel afraid instead of safe, its walls began to attract other kinds of negative thoughts and feelings to it, and slowly everything began to be seen as a little bit harder, or more frightening, more worrying. But is that right? Is that fair? Is that how it ought to be? No!
And that is exactly what the girl began to feel.
Slowly and surely, a feeling began to grow and take hold. It was like some giant thing that had been hidden away that suddenly says, ‘Not anymore!’ and with a roar and a bellowing, breaks free! ‘Why should I feel stuck and trapped,’ asked the girl, ‘when what I want is freedom to see and hear and feel and say, to reach out for what I want, to take risks for myself, to live my life to the full, right now!’
Wow, and that was the start of something truly remarkable, for, with little steps (that with a little practice became huge and awesome leaps), the girl began to do just that.
She began to ask for what she wanted, begin to take a little risk here, a tiny gamble there. And, to be sure, it didn’t matter if what she tried didn’t always go to plan, because this told her something very important indeed – it told her what didn’t work! This was very useful information because why keep doing something if it doesn’t work? (Like living behind a wall, or inside a box?)
So instead of ‘failure’ she began thinking of ‘useful information’ and she simply began to do things differently…
And so the girl learned to step outside of the box and its walls began to shrink and loosen. In fact, she realised over time that the box only existed in her mind: it wasn’t an actual box of bricks and mortar, just thoughts, just feelings, and these she could change!
An intense, bright, close-up picture of something could be dimmed, sent far away or given the colours and look of pictures that made her feel happy. A cold and heavy feeling that sat uncomfortably still in her stomach could be warmed up, lightened and sent for a spin around her body and back again. And that critical inner voice could be changed to sound like someone funny, or even plain daft. How could you take it seriously then?
And once she knew that the box was only there in her mind she did something truly fantastical. She thanked the box – yes you heard it right. She thanked the box for what it had wanted for her when it first came to be. She thanked it for keeping her safe when she needed to be safe and then she asked the box if, instead of being a box, it could find its own new way of helping her feel strong and confident, as she got back out there, into life.
And the box was very touché by this, and very pleased to be able to help support her as it first wanted to. And so it gave her the greatest gift it felt it could give her. It gave her a map.
Being at university when you have mental health problems is a challenging situation and I don’t think you ever really realise just how hard it is when all you can see is all the things you’re not doing.
You focus on the one bad grade rather than all of the good ones. You focus on the fact last semester you struggled to attend rather than the fact you’re attending so much more now. You don’t realise that what is an achievement for many of the people around you, and what is an achievement for you, is sometimes very different.
Sometimes getting out of bed is difficult for me, and it is not because I went out the night before because I don’t go out and I don’t drink. On these days I don’t want to face the day. I don’t want to get dressed, I don’t want to follow my meal plan and get breakfast and I definitely don’t want to leave the house. Doing all of these things and getting myself into a lecture can be the equivalent of climbing mount Everest, but they’re hardly things I can put on my CV.
It’s hard when surviving is an achievement and I can’t help but find myself wondering how I’ll ever get a job when many of my achievements aren’t things that an employer will be thrilled about.
I forget that my personal achievements that battling with my mental health problems has led to actually also translates into positive attributes that an employer would want.
I’m determined (ok, this is more that I am stubborn but lets be positive here!), I work very hard and I always get through my problems. I also care deeply and I appreciate things that many don’t. All of these things are, to some degree, a result of having mental health problems. It changes you, and not always for the worst.
Last semester anything was an achievement. I focused on getting through each day and I spent more time in hospital than I did in lectures. That’s alright. I did what I could. This semester I’ve not ended up in hospital so far, and despite things being tough, I am functioning at a higher level. I was going to say I’m doing better but I don’t like seeing it like that. Struggling isn’t the same as doing bad.
It’s important to realise that where you are right now is ok. That what is an achievement varies all of the time and its ok if today the best you can do is survive. I promise it won’t always be that way.
Don’t compare yourself to others, and don’t even compare yourself against what you could do another day. Focus on today, focus on acceptance. Focus on doing what you can do.
learning to use yours words
instead of your silence.”
– Part One.