Sometimes living with mental illness feels like a life sentence in jail. You become a prisoner of your own mind, and you slowly lose your ability to function in the outside world. All you know is the four walls of your prison cell. Anything outside of that becomes foreign, distant, confusing, and even more worrisome than the stress of being incarcerated.
This experience has never been more real to me than during the seven years of my life I was enslaved by an eating disorder. Sure, overcoming it meant being set free from my bondage, but it also meant having to face a world that had become completely unfamiliar to me. The thought of it was terrifying.
Ryan picked up on this dynamic in December of 2007, back when I had just started emailing him for accountability as a step forward in my recovery process. He shared the following insight with me:
If you are a prisoner in a jail, tied down by chains, that is super tough and painful, but as far as the direction of your life/feelings/emotions/actions goes, the chains decide it for you and that is sometimes easier. For if you were to suddenly break free of the chains that you have grown so used to and walk out of the prison, you would walk out into a wide open, beautiful world. You would know it’s good for you, but now you have to carry the strength to decide your thoughts and actions, your feelings and your decisions. I find (at least with my life), it’s often easier to just allow the chains (which I am so used to) to maintain control and direction in my life. The responsibility to act in a way that I’m not used to, free of that which binds me, is huge and scary and tough. But in the end it is so worth it.
Though I hadn’t really thought of it this way before, I connected with his analogy so deeply. Here’s how I responded:
That prisoner analogy really makes a lot of sense. It is a lot easier to live within the confines of these chains—without having to feel, or believe, or trust. But it is also a completely hollow and unfulfilling existence. And while it feels safe and easy, I know that it is, in fact, destructive and dangerous. It’s a false reality that holds me back from living the life I was meant to live.
But you know, it’s fascinating, the things you can learn about yourself when you’re paying attention—when you ignore the voice that says “I can’t,” or “I don’t deserve,” or “I’m not good enough.” Until recently, I’d been looking at the last few years as nothing but a series of failed attempts at recovery. And it was beginning to look hopeless. I just felt like… no matter what I did, how well I did, how healthy I could get… my eating disorder would always catch up with me. It would always win in the end.
Now I see that it’s only because I was keeping it around as a back-up plan. I wasn’t dealing with it, I was just putting it on the shelf until later, in case I’d need it again. And, of course, I always did—because I was trying to do it alone. Without God. And in the past few days, God has made something remarkably clear to me. The only way I can do this is by giving up my “back-up plan,” and trusting that He’ll be there in its place.
Living in a prison—though technically safe and sheltered from the wild freedoms of the outside world—is truly no kind of life. I know. I have lived there. To some degree, I think I am still living there. My fears and anxiety have created a new kind of prison for me, shackling me to the chains of terror and trepidation.
But it’s time for me to break free once again. It’s time for me to give up the fears that I have been keeping around as a “back-up plan” and trust that God has something better in store for my life—a new kind of freedom that will blow my mind! I can feel it coming. And I can’t wait!
Do you ever feel like you are a prisoner of your own mind? Do you think you subconsciously allow yourself to remain a prisoner because of the safety and familiarity of your chains? What would it take for you to begin to break free?