Reading About Healing Isn't Healing (and how I learned the difference)
"I mostly read about getting better, but I never did the real work of actually getting better."
Mental health journeys can be more complicated than treatments for physical ailments because, in many cases, the path to healing in mental health seems less prescribed. Within that ‘less prescribed’ space are endless opportunities for distraction, confusion and misdirection. In my experience, there’s also a stronger sense of ‘DIY’ in mental health treatment. I’m not sure why it exists. Stigma is certainly part of the problem, but I also think it’s because our minds are so intensely personal. Who, but ourselves, can know our thoughts as well as we do, and who, by extension, can “fix” them?
I can still recall this kind of self-determined mindset from when I first recognized what would later be diagnosed as chronic OCD symptoms. I couldn’t explain what was wrong, but I knew something was wrong, and it was up to me to fix it. I was determined to make things better, but unsure of how to proceed, so I did what I think a lot of people do - I gave it my best shot. I read generalized self-help books, I haphazardly attempted meditation, I occasionally journaled, and yes, I even consulted Dr. Google ad nauseam.
Unsurprisingly, my ‘DIY’ approach failed miserably. Looking back, it’s equal parts funny, painful and embarrassing that I didn’t see the correlation between my loosely defined sense of what was wrong, and my correspondingly fragmented, inefficient attempts at self-help. Thankfully, I eventually landed in the office of a qualified psychologist who quickly diagnosed me, referred me to some good books and started a treatment program with me that later became the basis for my entire healing journey (read more about it here). I read books about OCD, I journaled, and I conducted more online research. This time, it worked.
But wait, you might say - those steps are the same ones you took before. What’s the difference? Excellent question, I say in return, and the difference is simple: targeted, intentional actions with expert support. Here's what that meant to me back then, and what it means to me now:
When I first attempted to treat myself, I mostly read about getting better, but I never did the real work of actually getting better. I knew all about the ‘what’ and the ‘why’, but I neglected the ‘how’. I consumed endless platitudes about how I would feel after I was better, I read endlessly and theorized incessantly about what good mental health should look like, but I never actually articulated my symptoms, defined the problematic elements, and created solutions.
So, what does this new mindset look like in practice? Let me give you an example:
I’ve dabbled in meditation since I was 18. I’ve read about meditation, I’ve watched countless videos about it, I’ve purchased incense and singing bowls, and I’ve even been to a handful of events. For all those efforts, however, my meditation practice is still in an emergent stage. Why? Because I’ve spent far more time reading about meditation than actually meditating. I have more knowledge of meditation than experience. That’s something I’ve come to recognize in myself, and I’m working to correct that imbalance each day.
How am I making those changes, you might ask? Well, to start with, I’m actually meditating, plain and simple. I’m doing the thing I used to read about. Second, I’m looking for a good teacher. I’m reaching out to meditation centers in my community, I’m looking for forums to join, and I’m looking for an established meditation method to follow so that I can build structure and consistency into my practice. Most importantly, I’m defining what ‘good meditator’ means to me, and to the experts, and I’m finding a personalized version of that definition through intentional practice.
I think that’s the difference between healing and reading about healing: using experts to help establish a clear goal, and taking consistent steps towards achieving it. For some, that might look like one therapy session and one ERP exposure per week. For others, it might mean therapy and a first-ever attempt at starting meds. For others, still, it might simply mean journaling out intrusive thoughts and sharing them with a support group. In all cases, the components of healing are the same: start a working relationship with a good expert, consistently practice effective healing habits, and connect with others who have the same goal. I dare say that’s a good model for solving just about any problem you might face.