Stockholm syndrome

As I’ve written here before, I am using the Headspace app to do guided meditations. There is a course called Appreciation which aims to help you “[d]iscover a renewed sense of gratefulness for life”.

Cropped screenshot of the Headspace app showing a description of the Appreciation course.

I was in my twenties before I discovered that there were genuinely people who were grateful for and enjoyed life. I’m not talking about making the best of things or finding moments of joy or moments of peace that pass and then you remember them fondly. I know those things exist as I’ve experienced them myself. But these people’s overall assessment of life was that it was something to be thoroughly appreciated. Appreciated as something precious, even.

Blame it on my rural Scottish Calvinist upbringing that teaches and rigidly enforces the idea that seeking pleasure is wrong, a sin. Definitely letting the side down anyway. Or blame it on my decades of mental illness. Not the fluffy, milder variants that are suitable for awareness campaigns but the version that means I’m sitting here typing this with a black eye and two broken ribs. (So there won’t be any jokes for a while because it’s going to hurt to laugh for the next month.)

Screenshot of The Void in Minecraft from Minecraft Wiki

Life is not something to be grateful for. Life is something to endure, a trial, an ordeal, something to suffer before you return back to the darkness and the silence. Maybe there’s a point to it. I don’t know but I think there isn’t. Thinking you should be grateful for this is just fucking Stockholm syndrome.

Self-esteem meditation

I started meditating in June using the Headspace app on my phone. I signed up and did the free meditations for the first few (four? ten?) days and then bought a subscription.

Meditating has made an astonishing difference to my depersonalization. It is literally the only technique that has made a significant difference though, to be fair, I have felt so hopeless about finding anything that helped that I don’t think I made a serious and sustained attempt at any technique. This wee app made a difference right from the early days. Never in a way that was too much of a shocking, painful change (snapping into hyper-reality from being very dissociated is profoundly fucking terrifying) but a feeling of control like if I push that particular part of my mind that the app targets and calls mindfulness, that particular part of my awareness, then the depersonalization recedes back. If I lift off that particular part of my mind then the depersonalization will drift back in. It might sound mind-boggling for it to be important to me that I can get the depersonalization back if I want it but it is important as it has helped me get through things that I don’t think I could have survived another way. Well, maybe. Maybe not. It’s mine though and I want to be able to send it away and call it back as I chose. That might not be possible and might require far too high a price but it’s what I want just now. The depersonalization is not my master these days, well, not all the time, and I am grateful to the meditation for that.

The Headspace app has has a huge library of meditations on topics from grief to sleep to productivity. There is a thirty episode course on self-esteem. Here is the introduction to episode 4 of the first ‘Learn’ ten episodes:

Now after a lifetime of thinking that we are not good enough: maybe we don’t like the way we look or the way we are or the way we feel or the way we think. Maybe we don’t like the way we think other people think we are. Low self-esteem can affect us in so many different ways. But it’s always looking for more fuel because all of these internal storylines that we have, it doesn’t matter if it’s low self-esteem or something else, they all require fuel and that fuel is thinking. So it’s quite normal when we come to an exercise, to learning something new, that we fuel it with whatever is most common in the mind. So for someone who gets very anxious when they’re learning a new exercise like this they might be very anxious about the exercise. Someone with low self-esteem learning a new exercise will probably think that they’re no good at it or that they wish that they could do it better or they wish that things were changing faster. And that’s just the nature of that storyline playing out. Again we don’t need to give it more attention and more credence than it deserves. It’s simply recognising that’s the habitual pattern of thought that has built up over time. It’s not who we are. The less we identify with it the less important, believable almost, it becomes in our life. So just something to bear in mind as you’re doing this each day. Coming to the exercise completely fresh, leaving behind any preconceived ideas as to whether you are good at it or bad at it, whether it’s going to work quickly or not. Simply watching the process. Being present with it as it unfolds.

Introduction to a Headspace self-esteem meditation episode 4

I think that is a fascinating way to think about self-esteem. I was expecting some nonsense about self-compassion (which isn’t nonsense; I just can’t get it to work for me) being the better way to consider or judge the self. But this idea of thinking just being fuel in an unwanted fire undercuts this and made me pause and really look at my assumptions. I don’t fully understand it yet but I will keep thinking about it and finish the course. Things that I thought were self-evident, obvious, solid premises might actually not be true or even just actually not that useful. It’s so lovely to come across something new that gives me some hope that things might be different. Of course, I am a psychiatric patient of twenty-five years standing so I know that hope is heady stuff except heads aren’t often involved (to paraphrase Terry Pratchett) and I’m not going to call myself cured quite just yet. Put a button in front of me and say “press this and you’ll never have existed” and the only delay to me pressing it is my formerly middle class upbringing that will make me pause to say “thank you”. I’m almost entirely convinced that I don’t deserve good self-esteem. That things are bad because that is they way they should be. I really don’t know what makes me keep trying things like meditation. It’s certainly not logical. Well, that tangent went a bit dark. Aren’t you glad you are wasting your life reading this blog?

‘Self Esteem’ by Betsy Cook

It’s just so fluffy… meditation, mindfulness. How can you take such simple concepts seriously? Dissociation is so huge and complex. Abnormal mood is so huge and complex. How can something as beyond basic as focusing on your breath help such severe, profound, overwhelming symptoms? A huge and complex problem needs a huge and complex solution, right? Turns out that that assumption has done me a lot of harm over the years. Here’s an analogy: you spend six hours making a hugely complex and fantastic meal. It should have a rich interplay of exquisite tastes and textures. But it’s just bland and flat and sits in the mouth like stale bread. Less interesting than stale bread, even. You’re fucked, right? Nothing simple is going to save this meal, all this work, you’re going to have to start again. Wrong. Turns out the very simple addition of half a teaspoon of salt brings these flavours to life. Sometimes something simple is all that is needed. I’ll add to that though: sometimes a series of simple things is all that is needed.

The other reason I resisted mindfulness and meditation is that is so goddamn fashionable and pushed on us psychiatric patients. Another simple concept: what works for one person’s problem might or might not work for another person’s apparently similar problem. Don’t we get to chose where to spend our (very limited) energies? I came to meditation of my own volition. I kind of fell into it naturally, first through a real life friend and then by enjoying how well written the app was and then by being astonished by the results. It has just happened. Just happened because of lots of little choices that I made. So it feels like it is mine. I told my current psychiatrist recently that I had started meditating and he said “good on you” but didn’t push. I felt pleased. Going by twitter, a lot of people have bad experiences of psychiatric services almost insisting that they spend chunks of their time and using up chunks of their energy on techniques that were, at best, useless and, at worst, actively harmful. So that put me off too.

This feeling of being able to make choices and make good things happen in my life is valuable and precious to me. Not quite as much as the relief in my symptoms but it has been an unexpected bonus. That’s unexpectedly boosted my self-esteem as well. I can do something! I’m not 100% hopeless! (Just 95% replies my brain.) Did the people who wrote the app mean for that to happen? Who knows, but it’s good anyway.