If you read about mental health, wellbeing and/or self-improvement, you have probably read a lot about ‘choice’. A lot of the information is true and basic common sense: our choices do determine our lives, no matter what has happened to us. We can choose how to react to life events, including mental illness. However, what the rhetoric often misses out is that making these choices is bloody hard.
For a start, you might not realise you have a choice. Mental illness makes you believe you are powerless. Depression, anxiety and other conditions change your thought patterns. You think you are useless, worthless, hopeless. You think your life is pointless. These thoughts often spiral out of control so all you can see is the negative fog of your illness.
I have certainly felt like this – I still do, during bad days or weeks. In the past, this mindset has lasted for months on end – perhaps years – and I truly believed there was no way out. I didn’t know I had a choice, even when I made choices like going to the doctor and taking my medication. I did those things because my parents said I should, not because I thought I could be helped.
Any discussion of ‘choice’ should acknowledge the vital roles of opportunity and support.
If you have no support, making choices is more difficult. You have no reassurance that you are doing the right thing – assuming it’s possible to identity ‘the right thing’. There is always an element of risk in making different choices, because results are never guaranteed. Without support, this risk often feels too high and you are too afraid to change, because you don’t know whether anyone will have your back if you fail.
Professional support, from doctors, counsellors and/or therapists, is very valuable. Sometimes, it feels like they are the only ones who have a degree or understanding and want you to get better, as opposed to wishing you would keep the status quo even if it’s painful for you. However, professional support works best when it is complemented by support in your personal life, from family and friends. If you have little support from those who are closest to you, it is more challenging to make decisions which might have long term benefits but cause discomfort (or even pain) in the short term.
Having support in other aspects of your life makes a difference, too. At work, for instance, you have more options when you have a supportive employers, managers and colleagues. They have the scope to offer opportunities which unsupportive people will not, such as training and mentorship. It also helps if you know you can have time off when you need it, without worrying that you will face a formal warning when you return to work (which happened to me, when I was employed by a certain supermarket).
Other sources of support could be accessed through education, hobbies and groups. Unfortunately, mental illness tends to narrow your life and makes you withdraw from these potential sources of support, which means it can take a great deal of effort to continue pursuing an interest or attending a class. During my worst episodes, I feel unable to do the things which help me feel supported and purposeful.
All potential choices may seem undesirable.
How do you make choices when all of the options have massive drawbacks? Sure, at least one choice probably has the potential to lead you in the direction of long term success, fulfilment and/or happiness, but it may also have huge risks involved. For example, I used to be too scared to walk my dog on my own. I had walked the route thousands of times over the years, often on my own, yet the idea of walking out of the house alone terrified me. Why? Walking on my own had numerous potential benefits, including enjoying the countryside and improving my mood, but it also carried the risk that I would have (another) panic attack in public.
Every time I have had a panic attack in public, I have experienced humiliation on top of the dread and discomfort which every other panic attack brings. It had an impact on my mood and other symptoms for weeks afterwards (sometimes months) and led to more restrictions in my life, such as not going out at all when I had previously been fine with my friends or family members. It also affected my confidence, meaning I would avoid doing anything which might result in failure.
So my options were: go for a walk alone and risk a panic attack which would have a devastating impact on my mental health, or stay at home and risk nothing other than living the rest of my life feeling bad but not as bad as I might feel after a panic attack. Neither option was desirable. Especially during times when I was experiencing a lot of panic attacks, so the chance of having one in public was greatly increased.
I was only able to make the choice to go for a walk on my own after receiving a lot of treatment and support, including medication, therapy and counselling. I also had people in my life who understood enough to help me, instead of forcing me to make certain choices before I was ready.
It’s hard to keep making choices without seeing results.
Many of the choices we make do not have instant effects. Some do not reveal their full effects for months or years. This makes it difficult to choose certain courses of action and to keep going after you have made the initial decision.
Often, I only realise the effects of my choices in hindsight. Something reminds me of how life used to be and when I compare it to my present, I can see which choices have led to the difference. Several years ago, I was extremely unfit. I was at university full time and prioritised my studies over everything, because I believed I had something to prove after assuming I would never have the opportunity to pursue a degree. I walked less, especially after I passed my driving test just before starting the second year, and did no other exercise. Walking to and from the car park was a challenge because I had become so unfit.
Nowadays, I am pretty fit: I walk every day, go to three gym classes a week and try to run at least twice a week. This did not happen overnight. The first choice I made was to buy a treadmill, so I could walk inside (as previously mentioned, I could not walk outside alone at this time). I started walking very slowly and for short periods of time. It felt pathetic, being challenged by an activity I used to find easy, but I gradually built up my speed and distance. Looking back, those first walks on the treadmill represented some of the best choices I have made. But at the time, they were painful and frustrating because my progress seemed slow. Choosing to keep walking was difficult and if I did not have the treadmill, I doubt I would have persevered.
I could only make the choice(s) to continue walking because I was in the right headspace and had the right opportunity (access to credit so I could buy the treadmill). When you don’t have the right mindset, support and opportunities, it is extremely difficult to keep going.
You may not see the full impact of your choices for a long time.
Related to the previous point is the fact that the consequences of your choices, good and bad, might not be apparent for years. Looking back, I realise that I made a lot of mistakes. Every time I stayed at home because I felt too anxious to go out, my world got a little smaller and darker. Each time I struggled on my own instead of asking for help, I became more anxious and depressed. Would I have made different decisions if I knew the full effects? Maybe, but I did the best I could in the circumstances.
It is important not to blame yourself or other people for past actions taken in good faith. While the choices made might have led to an undesirable situation, most of us believe we are doing the right thing when we take those decisions. Every time I stayed at home, I thought I was sparing my friends and family the embarrassment of my anxiety symptoms. Each time I refused to ask for help, I believed I was sparing people from my causing them trouble or inconvenience. We are all experts with hindsight, but we should never forget how it feels when you make poor decisions because you think they are for the best.
Your choices may have unexpected consequences.
Your choices may have unforeseen effects, whether positive or negative, which can be difficult to cope with or understand. When you are trying your best to make positive changes in life, it’s difficult to respond to one of your choices backfiring.
Sometimes, your choices create problems because other people don’t understand your perspective. They may think you are causing unnecessary stress for yourself by choosing to pursue a certain goal. They may accuse you of being selfish for spending your time and money on your own priorities, instead of the things they think should be prioritised. When considering people’s reactions, it is important to remember that they have their own issues and sets of beliefs. Their responses say more about them than you.
Dealing with the unexpected can be hard. When you make choices, you often assume they will have specific consequences and unforeseen effects can make you question everything. The fear of unexpected consequences may cause indecision for some people: it may seem illogical, if you believe they can improve their lives through making a certain choice, but they may feel more comfortable sticking with what they know, even if it is making them unhappy. Their behaviour might not make sense to you, but trying to understand rather than berating them is more likely to enable them to change. People in this situation need support, not judgement.
Making the ‘wrong’ choices doesn’t make you less worthy of love, support or respect.
Some people talk about others making a ‘choice’ to do something which has negative effects, without considering whether they had any support or opportunities to make a different choice. It’s easy to judge and, unfortunately, many people who judge have experienced difficulties themselves and believe others should be able to overcome their problems simply because they themselves did. Their attitude is ‘I managed to cope, so why can’t you?’
There are, of course, a number of potential answers to this question. Different people have different life skills, coping abilities, levels of self-esteem, supportive factors in their lives, etc. Often, these differences cannot be appreciated by those on the outside. Someone who seems to have everything going for them, such as a good job and family, may have very low self-esteem and believe they are unworthy of the positive changes they can make. Somebody who appears to have supportive parents may actually be undermined by them at home, when nobody is there to witness it.
If you have helped yourself by making good choices, please don’t judge those who are not ready (and might never be ready) to do the same. You are not superior to them.
If you have made and/or continue to make poor choices, try not to judge yourself. You deserve support. You deserve a better life.
The bottom line is, making choices can be difficult and many people feel unable to choose courses of action which will help them in the long term. Judging and punishing people in this situation helps nobody. It is unlikely to persuade them to change their behaviour; in my experience, it makes them feel more wretched and more likely to make poor decisions. We all have a choice, but we might not feel able to choose.