Taking the Long View: On Recovery and Motivation

Recovery from a mental illness is a rough gig. I’ve written many times before about how I wish people would be more honest about just how difficult it is and what that difficulty looks like. Right now, my motivation is low. I want to be done with this stupid, frustrating, painful process. I want people to just leave me alone to wallow and make bad decisions. I want to be allowed to feel bad.

This is basically how I feel all the time right now

This is basically how I feel all the time right now

Now in the traditional narrative of recovery, this means that I’m slipping. It means the “eating disorder voice” or the depression is getting louder. It means that what I really need to do is double down and fight harder. It’s part of the “roller coaster ride” of recovery. If I don’t nip it in the bud though, then I’ll have given up, I’ll have wasted my progress. I’ll be back to square one, fallen harder than I did the first time and it’s all because I didn’t have “the proper motivation” or I didn’t “fight hard enough”. So if I’m slipping I need to keep my eye on the prize of recovery, think about how great I’ll feel, post a few affirmations around my house, and remind myself once again that I can’t live my life the way I have been living it (because who wants to live in the hell of an eating disorder if you can have recovery, amirite?)

If I was telling the story of my eating disorder, that would be the expectation of how I’d frame this. But that is not the reality. Here is the reality.

Recovery sucks. By most basic cost/benefit analysis standards, it’s a really risky, difficult, long venture. It takes flipping forever, and the time that you put into treatment is not fun. In fact it’s more than not fun: most of the time you feel even worse during treatment than you did when you were happily living out your delusion that starvation was the way to a great life. Things have suddenly gotten a whole hell of a lot more complicated and you can’t just rely on rules anymore. So say you’ve been trucking along in your mental illness and then treatment comes and hits you like a ton of bricks. You spend the next 2/3/4/5/forever years working through mountains of crap. And those years SUCK.

And the more you realize that they suck, the more you realize that a lot of the suckiness will still be there even if you do “recover” because life isn’t easy and being healthy isn’t easy and it’s hard work to enforce your boundaries and balance your needs with the needs of others and fight against sexist and damaging media and somehow put together a clear and cohesive identity that can stand up to the trials of life. So you get this picture that in the long run you’re going through a whole hell ton of suffering right now to maybe feel like you can cope with the fact that life is really hard later.

Now pile on the fact that it often looks as if you’ve made no progress whatsoever. Seriously. I’ve been at this for about 3 years (with the same therapist), through intensive programs, groups, dieticians and many, many, many hours of therapy, and a lot of commitment. Three years is a long time to be spending at least 2 hours every week in therapy and most of the time in between wrestling with all the hard questions. And yet when I think about the things that really get in the way of feeling content or grounded, I see no change. Perfectionism still drives me. I still feel unlovable. I still cannot accept praise and focus exclusively on the negative. I can still be flattened emotionally by one negative comment. I still personalize, I still tend towards black and white thinking, I still feel anxiety for no reason, I am still afraid of social interactions…

Logically, it makes sense to be a little low on motivation when there is little evidence of how far you’ve come, much evidence of the pain you’ve suffered and will continue to suffer, and no guarantee that things will be a whole lot better if you continue to work (for another 3/4/5 years?). Part of recovery is trying to make sense of what is worth it and what isn’t, what life can or can’t be like. This isn’t some sort of slip, this isn’t an indication that I just need to fight harder. This is coming to grips with reality.

But there’s another truth and it’s one that I’ve had a really hard time accepting. It’s about the long view. I spent the better part of 20 years developing these really bad coping strategies. It will take me a long time to change them, nearly certainly more than 3 years. For many things that I care about I am willing to invest huge amounts of time (schooling as an example), often because I can see that the end goal is worth it. And many times I can make these investments on faith (when someone tells me that I’ll get a diploma at the end as an example). With nearly everything else in my life, I can take the long view; I am willing to put up with the pain of the now to get something in the future, even when that something isn’t happiness or a perfect life. Why does the pay off for treatment have to be held to a different standard?

Now there are very real differences here. I like school, the pain that I’ve experienced while in treatment far outstrips anything else I’ve ever felt, and the evidence I have of the benefits of recovery aren’t as strong as the evidence I have of many other things (that, for example, a higher degree would make my life a lot easier). Recovery is harder than anything else I have done in my life because when I look at it logically I can’t guarantee that I’m making the right choice to pursue it. But if I look at the long haul, I can see that I can’t come to the conclusion that it’s failed yet. The experiment has to continue. And I do believe that when people are waning in their motivation, it’s because they are re-analyzing the long view and that view is scary.

But I hope others can join me in realizing that it has to be long, but we are capable.

 

 

 

Rumplestiltskin and Regina: Gender and Villains

Over the weekend I was at CONvergence, a delightful convention about sci fi and fantasy. While I was there I sat on a panel about Once Upon a Time, and an interesting question came up: Rumplestiltskin is far more compelling, relatable, and interesting than Regina. Many people found that in the second season they just got sick of Regina who spent the whole season flip flopping between good and evil. These observations ring true to me: Regina is a less interesting, engaging, and compassionate character than Rumple, and in general people don’t seem to root for her the way they do Rumple. She’s often written awkwardly and unbelievably, particularly in the second season in her relationship with her mother. The question that was asked was whether this could be related to gender: are the writers better at making Rumple a good character because they’re better at writing men?

At first I felt at gut level that this was wrong. The show has so many varieties of women written both strong and weak, good and evil, many of them extremely compelling and interesting. How could the writers have fallen down on gender lines here? And I think that there are a few elements that differentiate Rumple from Regina that are not about gender that make him a much stronger character:

1.Rumple has a clear core, a clear motivation, and a clear path to redemption. We have known what drives Rumple from the very beginning: he does not want to be weak and magic is his way out of being weak. His motivation has always been to regain Baelfire. Of course the introduction of Belle complicates this, but she becomes his path to redemption to regain Bael. His character is clearly set out and he doesn’t deviate from these motivations.

2.Regina’s motivation is always shaky. While the core of her character has always been betrayal of trust (when Snow told her mother about Daniel), she hasn’t had a clear path since then: the writers haven’t made her WANT anything except for Snow’s death, and that they’ve gone back and forth on. It makes her shaky and unclear. In addition, they’ve introduced smaller desires along the way that have muddled things up: Henry, her mother, her father, and the kingdom.

3. Rumple grows while Regina flips back and forth. Rumple moves clearly forward. He has a progression from weak to powerful to crazy to compassionate (and then back to crazy after he loses Belle). Regina is innocent then evil then more evil then psych maybe good no evil haha you think you know what’s going on.

4.Regina seems to be trying to figure out who she is, and this is reflected in the way she’s written. She is very human in this regard: people don’t go through nice clear narrative arcs in real life. They do flip flop and make mistakes and change their minds back and forth.

So Rumple has been written in a very clear way that gives his character strength, whereas Regina has a lot stacked against her. However I do wonder if gender plays a role in how these two characters were written. Rumple’s character was written around his self-image and the kind of person he wanted to be. This is the kind of motivation or struggle that can keep going and make sense no matter what the setting: it makes you the hero of your own story. Men in media tend to get stories like this: who am I and how strong am I and how do I fit in the world? They are the protagonists. Regina on the other hand started out as a love story. Her motivation was centered on another person, and that person was removed from her story early on. She is not the hero of her story. In fact she was set up in such a way that there is no story without the man, all there is is a lost, floundering woman with nothing to love.

This is what seems horribly unrealistic to me about Regina’s character and where I think the writers fall down in their presentation of different genders. When Rumple loses his wife his struggle is about himself, not about her. When Regina loses her love, the struggle is not about her and her personality, it’s about a loss and nothing else. Regina doesn’t stand on her own. In reality, it seems unlikely to me that Regina would have blamed Snow and cut herself off from the people who were trying to care for her. If we were to look at Regina’s original character, she was kind and clearly looked past class and expectations to pay attention to people’s personalities. She would have doubled down on her ability to do that: she would have looked to where she could find friends. She would have known that her mother was the reason Daniel was gone.

This seems to be another instance of “hysteria” stereotyping and female infighting presented by the media. Women cannot be angry, fierce, or terrifying without being bitchy. Even Snow never gets angry: she just “does what’s right”. And so when Regina was placed in a situation where anger was justified, the writers warped it into something wrong and ugly. This does seem to be gendered to me, and it’s one of the reasons why female villains often get written as more shallow than male villains. I do think that men are allowed to be “bad” in more realistic ways than women are. Women are stereotyped as bitches or whores when they’re “bad”, whereas men can be jerks or assholes or dicks or just mean. Men can be tragic, fallen heroes. Women don’t get these options.

It also makes me wonder whether writers have a hard time imagining what a woman would be motivated by unless it’s love or petty jealousy. We know that women are more complex than that and have just as many motivations as men, but unfortunately even in a show as good as this one, these are the motivations given to a woman who is “bad”, while the “bad” man has a deep and complex range of emotions.┬áIt seems clear to me that the writers are working very hard to give Regina more of a backstory and make her a more believable character, but it does look like they may have fallen prey to some subtle stereotypes about what could make a woman mean.

I dearly hope that in season 3 they clean it up.