Deciding To Hope

To hope or not to hope?

In one week my immediate family and I are leaving for a holiday on Heron Island. That was a difficult sentence to commit to. Not the sentence, just one word.

‘Are’

The certainty inherent in those three letters. Articulating it feels like I am going to jinx it, like I will alter the course of history, even though I know that’s impossible.

This is our third attempt at this holiday. The first was over Easter 2021. I almost needn’t follow that up with any explanation. To use a recently much reworked cliché -everyone was in the same boat…or in our case not in the boat bound for our holiday destination.

It was a time of global holiday cancellations. We were all still invigorated by the adrenaline of the early days of a pandemic many believed could be conquered and left behind.

We rebooked our holiday for Easter this year. But in a twist of acutely painful timing our city was locked down. Ironically only for 3 days. But they were the exact 3 days we were meant to travel to Heron Island.

By the time that little lockdown ended, everyone else was off to enjoy their Easter camping trips. We were left feeling slapped, as though we had been singled out by the universe to miss out on our holiday.

But we rebooked again. For next week. Knowing it might not eventuate this time either.

And about three weeks ago doom crept into the family. We began to censor ourselves and each other. Snapping ‘If it happens!’ if anyone dared mention anything to do with the holiday. We shot each other down with sarcasm and repressed feelings as though expressing any plans, hope or joy associated with this holiday would save us the disappointment if it had to be cancelled again.

So, just under three weeks ago our family decided – that instead of clenching everything, and white knuckling it through this will-we-wont-we time, we would allow ourselves to feel the joyful anticipation of this holiday.

We began to talk about what snacks we’d take on the car trip. What we were looking forward to most. We wondered if we would see clown fish. We started making packing lists.

Don’t misunderstand me. This is not about mindlessly Pollyanna-ing the reality we live in. All four of us are abundantly aware that things can look like they are going ahead one day only to have them snatched away in a minute.

While it is true that right now we have no control over whether our holidays or special events will be cancelled at the last minute – it is also true that we never did, we just weren’t as acutely aware of it.

But we can choose how we feel in the lead up to planned events. We can choose to anticipate disappointment or anticipate joy. Whether it ends up being disappointment or joy is almost irrelevant because it isn’t about the eventual outcome. It is about how we feel right now.

We can choose to scrunch ourselves into a ball of anxious negativity. But for what? Being able to say ‘See I told you it would be cancelled’ if it is cancelled? Like a sort of sick Schadenfreude directed at ourselves.

Or we can choose a more relaxed, positive attitude that coexists with the knowledge that it may be cancelled, but that the anticipation is pleasant. If the holiday goes ahead we will have had a much nicer lead up to it, than having to spend the first few days unclenching from the negativity.

If it doesn’t happen, we’ll be disappointed, but we won’t have wrecked the preceding few weeks with dread.

Choosing to have low expectations in an attempt to avoid disappointment is not only flawed, but in these times of immense uncertainty it doesn’t serve us well. It robs us of joy. The brave thing to do is hope in the face of uncertainty regardless of whether that hope ever grows into reality.

That said, I have two disclaimers for the hope approach.

The first is that the ability to conjure hope relies on reasonable mental health. Someone experiencing symptoms of mental illness, especially those featuring depression or anxiety will no more be able to think themselves into hope than a diabetic can think their blood glucose levels into the correct range. They will need the right treatment for them before hope can become a choice again.

The second is that if you are attempting this with children, they need to be old enough/emotionally mature enough to understand that the hope does not guarantee the holiday.

For today, everyone in my family is well enough to hope that by mid next week we will get to see those clown fish and soak in the endless blues of the sky and the ocean surrounding our tiny Island destination.

You may also like to check out:

On Uncertainty

Covid Year 2: Timing Your Perspective

Razor Blades In Mud: Laziness Or Depression?

On Uncertainty

Written for QLD Mental Health Week 2020

How does uncertainty make you feel?

I ask because uncertainty is having a moment right now. It galloped in with the Covid-19 pandemic, and the further we get into it the more it seems to be digging itself into our awareness.

I used to be deeply uncomfortable with the pebble of uncertainty in the shoe of my life. I liked to know what was ahead. It gave me a (false) sense of control and the misguided belief that just because I couldn’t see uncertainty in my life, it didn’t exist. I deluded myself for decades that when there were no clouds on the horizon, the course of my life was somehow more certain than if I could see trouble ahead.

Then all the certainty in my life was put through a paper shredder within five days of my first baby’s birth.

I got my new baby experience with a side of florid postnatal psychosis severe enough to warrant admission to the locked Special Care Unit of a psychiatric hospital. My sense of certainty and control over my life went down the toilet.

After I’d recovered from this psychotic episode I felt entitled to some certainty. I wanted to know this nightmare was over. And I wanted a guarantee it would never happen again.

So when my psychiatrist mentioned ‘a possible underlying Bipolar Disorder’ and that it would ‘take three to five years to know for sure’, the inside of my head threw a combination of a tantrum and a pity party.

When I got sick again after three years, after seven years, and after nine years and my diagnosis of Bipolar 1 Disorder was confirmed, I still felt entitled. Entitled because: ‘hadn’t I suffered enough yet?’ Entitled to not have to tiptoe through my life with everything clenched, waiting for the next time this thing pounced.

I have only recently acquired some degree of acceptance of the uncertainty this illness introduced into my life. I didn’t enjoy the last two episodes in 2018 and early 2020, but I also didn’t waste energy resisting them. In the same way I no longer spend any of my resources anxiously wondering when it will happen next and how bad it will be, because without wanting to sound nauseatingly Zen, the truth is: It will be what it will be when it will be.

Uncertainty exists in everyone’s life every day. But instead of it floating along in the background, right now it is constantly being rammed down our throats. It’s like having a nasty little gremlin on your shoulder whispering over and over again:

‘You do realise bad things could happen to you at any minute’, when the true risk of something bad happening to you is probably not that different to pre-Covid times.

For our mental health to survive this pandemic we have to learn to live with uncertainty, because the end of it is nowhere in sight. And just like my psychiatrist couldn’t give me any certainty when I first got sick, the smartest scientists in the world aren’t able to accurately answer this question about Covid-19: Will it ever be over, and if so when?

Uncertainty is an uninvited, kicking, snoring bedfellow. So how do we get comfortable with it?

First we tease out what about this situation we can control and what we can’t. For example, we can’t control the flow of information that feeds our uncertainties rushing over us every day, but we can control how much of it we absorb.

And once we’ve done what is in our control to help ourselves, we have to try and unclench from the need to know what is going to happen next. We need to stop trying to know and plan for a future that is like a spiderweb in a storm. Here’s what I mean:

During one of my admissions to hospital I sat staring out of the window of my room feeling as though there was no point in doing the work to rebuild myself because my future was too uncertain, my illness could tear me apart again anytime.

Over a couple of days of intermittent staring I noticed a spider in its web just outside my window. Every night it stormed. Rain, wind, a couple of times hail tore chunks out of the web, at times almost destroying it.

That spider showed me the way out of my tangled thoughts, by not only rebuilding every time after its pristine web was wrecked, but doing so in the face of the risk of the same thing happening again, whether the next day or in a year.

The sword of an uncertain future has hung over every single one of us since the day we were born. Nothing has changed there. It is just up to us whether we choose to battle with uncertainty and lose, or whether we accept that being alive will always mean living with uncertainty, pandemic or no pandemic.

You may also like to check out:

Lessons For A Control Freak

The Other Curve Being Flattened

When Covid-19 And Bipolar Recovery Collide With Unexpected Results

Tokenism In Mental Health Awareness