I’m 63 years old which makes mine a long story so instead of telling it I’d like to write my take on it, or my take-away. I hope this could ring a chord of recognition for someone else even if it is a bit quirky and specific. I think life is a mental health ‘challenge.’ Mental illness is a special subset but it is not all one thing and not a scattering of entirely different things. It can be a fine line or a huge chasm. There are always factors - chemical, hormonal, biographical, historical - they intersect and overlap. Those factors are important but today what I really wish to share is a reminiscence, a happy one which stands the test of time, of the beginning of my recovery.
I didn’t have just one thing. I had some of a bunch of things. From childhood, I heard a low-grade din of background chatter and commentary. I had serious depression. I had paranoid thoughts and episodes. I had a touch of OCD, some ADD (which I don’t think had a name back then), mood swings, insomnia and some cousin of dyslexia. I don’t know what personality or character disorders are but I might have been sporting a trace of one or two of those also. I spent my time trying to hide it all or make it seem reasonable somehow.
The first time I saw a psychiatrist I was nineteen. He did not speak at all and I left after half an hour. Nightmares and paranoid imaginings coaxed me to a new psychiatrist. He was nice, he talked. I felt better after a few sessions. I felt better but I wasn’t exactly doing better.
When I was twenty-five I went to a psychologist. In one session she read off words, asking me to say the first thing that came to mind as I heard each one. She got to the word “responsibility” and I said “self-esteem.” That’s what I always remember from the list read to me close to forty years ago. I did not even have a self-esteem problem though. I could not locate my self. And I didn’t want to be someone who had mental health problems. I worked, I embraced activity, nutrition, music, art, love, friendship, love for animals and nature, reading, participatory involvement, therapy, anti-depressant, counsel, ministry, personal resolve, self expression. None of it addressed the Problems. I was not better and I feared I didn’t have the substance to succeed in life.
There’s an old joke: How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb, and the answer is: Only one but the light bulb has to really want to change. I wanted to be different but I wouldn’t have known what change to make. I wished things would change. I wanted to have been born someone else.
A few years later I was hiding from my worst impulses in the psychiatric unit of a hospital. I was already seeing the psychologist plus a third psychiatrist but neither of them practiced at this hospital, so a colleague of theirs agreed to see me. I don’t recall how many meetings we had during my two and a half week hiatus but they were just suited for me to begin to see for myself simple changes I could make. One of those became evident in what seems like such an everyday moment to turn out to be so momentous: I saw how I reacted to something said. I saw the impact of my responses. I also saw his responses - direct, dignified, compassionate. I saw their impact. I wasn’t able to take responsibility for my knee-jerk reactions in those moments but I realized that I wished I had.
So that was me - my self - regretful but found. I had thought I needed self-esteem to be a responsible person. But it was understanding I already had a responsibility to be met that made me feel like everyone else after all. With that came a great sense of relief and a basic foundation of generic self-esteem upon which I could build (or not) by my own actions. I arrived at this not all at once, but it began in the talking environment that doctor had created, like benevolent mental daylight. There were a few other enlightening moments I still remember from those two and a half weeks. They serve as a reliable compass.
Lately, because of mental health awareness initiatives there have been many testimonials about illness and distress and the creative spirit of overcoming in life. I admire them. I worry, though, about the dazzling accomplishments often reported. I remember the hospital psychiatrist sometimes had a way not unlike a physical therapist rehabbing an injury patient. He reinforced the tiniest bit of forward progress. Not that either of us thought there wasn’t farther to go, but that was all I could muster right then. Every gain is a victory. With a few of those under your belt you may, but you do not have to, end up running in a marathon or turn out to be a genius in order to pilot your own ship, value life, and find positive ways of being in the world.
My way around the things I couldn’t change was the sudden recognition that it’s not just me affected by what I do, even if it’s just the way I listen and respond to people when they talk to me. Whatever my complaints or limitations were, they couldn’t stop me from taking a beat to consider the ramifications of my own words.
Here is an unexpected, at least by me, consequence of that simple theme. As I worked toward this one change I could make, my distress and disturbances started to fade. It didn’t happen overnight and I must include that at this same time I started a different kind of medication which I took for several years. I’m not qualified to say, but I believe it was also significant help. I don’t know if I would have gotten better without it. I do know it was those gently but well ‘lit’ conversations that made me want to learn to how to steer away from irreparable collision, from sinking or running aground. That was enough for a start. I was a long way from reportable achievements and even now the only testimonials to my taking life by the tail might be from some four-legged types for making sure no one grabbed them by theirs.
I’m not perfect. Occasionally a knee will still jerk. But I have been waking up into my life every day for a long time now. I’m not Bill Gates or Anna Briggs or Chrissie Hynde - I greatly admire the wonderful things they and so many others do. But I wouldn’t trade my life. I treasure it and I’m grateful for the light in it. It takes a little grit and humility to get on top of the problems we have. Over time that grows into strength and peace of mind.
The personal bit of learning I’ve shared here, and the resultant identification of self, hadn’t happened in my preceding thirty years. Until I met the psychiatrist in the hospital I always had an impression that my words never reached ears, or that the responses of others were a ruse of some kind. That speaks to the difference one person can make in another’s life. It’s a motivation to tend to our own health and mental health - for those moments when we could be the one whose unique understanding, or inspiring presence, or safe and calming company will make the difference for another voyageur.