Category Archives: Seeing through mental illness

Finding ways to look outward and see the world, and understand it, through the lens of having mental illness. We can find significant ways to contribute. Most importantly, there is happiness and peace even for those of us with the demons inside. We are stronger than the demons.

Apathy vs. Anger. Why is feeling so hard?

I remember a trip to California several years ago with my family. We hadn’t been together in a while and wanted to make a memorable experience for all.

We took some time and went to Disneyland and the California theme park. Ann and I saw the roller coaster and thought it looked like fun. It was quite an experience: the anticipation of waiting while in long lines; watching people disembark the ride and seeing the looks on their faces; getting locked in our seats and feeling the car begin to move.

SWOOSH! It felt like G-force power as we were pinned against the seat back. We rocketed up and over and then back down again, side to side, high rises and dramatic drops.

We loved it! We made sure to ride it several more times that day. It was clearly my favorite ride of the whole park.

I’ve thought a lot about that as our life has taken its own roller coaster ride. Lots of ups and downs.

The understanding that there is “opposition in all things” is very precious to me. As the pendulum swings, it makes the good really, really incredible.

Of course, when the pendulum swings back the other way, it can get pretty rough.

Many of you have shared that you too have experience with mental illness, whether it is through a close family member or through intimate, personal understanding.

It’s quite a roller coaster ride, isn’t it?

The “ups” are pretty wonderful. I love feeling clear and focused and alive and able to do anything I put my mind to. Confident. Excited. Strong.

For me the problem is how to make it through the “lows”, because sometimes they get pretty low.

It’s strange how the littlest thing somehow sets off a raging bull inside my head. I am instantly angry.

No, I am instantly ANGRY!!!

Angry at everything, and yet really at nothing.

I work to just keep my mouth shut and stay away from others. I may not be able to stop the bull from charging inside, but I can stop it before it erupts from my mouth or my hands.

Being angry, though, is exhausting. It takes a lot of work to be furious. So I find that after a few days, I lapse into an apathetic truce.

Because when feeling hurts so much, it is much easier to just not feel at all.

Whoa. Did I really just say that?

Yes, I guess I did.

On what I call “survival” days, days when it is my job to make sure I am still alive when it is time for bed, I have found it easier to just get through and not really care about anything around me. I just kind of exist.

But that’s a pretty dangerous place to retreat into.

Long ago I learned that the opposite of love is not hate, it is apathy.

Love is feeling intensely the will to make things better for either ourselves or others around us, to improve and grow and become.

The opposite of that would be to not feel at all. To feel nothing. To do nothing. To just exist.

Yikes, been there, done that.

So, how to swing that pendulum back the other way to the positive and building emotions that do so much good? How can I choose what I really FEEL?

Every human being has certain needs, certain things that must be included in this experience we call life.

Food. Water. Exercise. Knowledge.

But perhaps most important would be the need to be needed.

Each of us must know that there are other human beings on this planet who rely on us to fulfill some part of their day, no matter how small or insignificant.

We’ve all experienced that deep discouragement and almost hopelessness, only to find that the kind word and smile of someone brought us to tears – and let us FEEL.

So, on those days when something in my head pushes the angry button, or the confused button, or the can’t-stop-crying button, or the fear button, or the self-destruct button, instead of retreating into myself and not feeling at all – perhaps it is the time to look outward and find someone else who may just need a kind smile.

Sure, my smile may look more like a leer on those days, but at least it helps me start to see what is going on around me. Others are struggling. Others are discouraged. Others are fighting their demons as well.

And you know what is really great?

When the person you smile at, smiles back.

Now we are both on our way to feeling again.

And that’s a good place to be.

What does it mean to have mental illness?

Kind of a scary question – everyone is certain that this is something that definitely happens to others but NOT to them. No one really ever wants to admit that they have a mental illness problem. Because, that means that I am, well you know, nuts, right? No, I’m not nuts, nope not me.

And yet, the truth is: I am.

It took me many years to finally understand and recognize that all these things that have always been different about me are actually things happening in my brain that aren’t necessarily happening in other’s brains. It took even longer to accept it (actually, I think I am still on that journey). Some days I continue to fall in the trap of “if I just push really hard through it I can be like others”. Yet, at the end of the day I know deep inside that I’m not like the other people around me.

That can be really discouraging. And lonely.

The truth is that with mental illness, a person has to expend so much more energy to just do things that many others can do instinctively and reflexively. It takes focus to not hurl hateful statements at others; it takes work to keep the tears from falling for no reason; it takes effort to reach out and pick up that dish or push that vacuum.

Others will say things like “Oh, I know just what you mean, I have days that I am so tired I couldn’t do a thing” or “We all feel like that from time to time”. I know that they mean well. Their heart is in the right place. They are trying to just “buck us up”.

But there really is a difference. I KNOW the difference.

I know what it is like to be pretty tired from a long day at work and feel like “Man, I’d rather do anything than get up and do the dishes”. It is a completely different universe from “I really wish the house would catch fire right now and I could just close my eyes and let it take me because I don’t have any energy left to do what needs to be done.” There is something very real, very physical happening that is fighting our every move and effort.

It’s not fair that others can do things without thought, things that takes planning and focus on my part to attempt, without any guarantee of success.

Does that mean that I don’t have to try? Do I get a pass?

Life isn’t fair. And that’s okay.

I know that every other person has things that are so hard for them, things that I probably don’t really struggle with. I will never be an alcoholic. I will never be addicted to gambling. I’m simply not wired that way. Others are. Everyone struggles and everyone has the responsibility to overcome the best they can.

Maybe that’s worth repeating: Everyone struggles and everyone has the responsibility to overcome the best they can.

My problems are my problems and my responsibility. But mental illness is its own special brand of hell and has the potential to reach out and cause pain to others. The news has ample illustrations of this. So in that way my problem becomes everyone’s problem.

That isn’t fair either. Not to you, not to me.

We can continue to shake our heads and express horror at the tragedies that surround us because of it. Or, we can take a step towards each other and try to see things from the other’s perspective.

What would be a good place to start? What if each of us really tried to understand what THE OTHER PERSON needed (not necessarily what we think they need)?

Here are just a few ideas:

I think that you need me to recognize that I have a problem. You need me to acknowledge that I need help in dealing with it, and then get that help and keep fighting every day. You need me to accept that my life will forever be different than what I had originally planned it to be. And I need to find peace with that.

I think that I need you to pay closer attention to me and little signals that I may send. I need you to let me know with love when things are getting out of control and give me a chance to catch it before things get ugly. I need you to let me know that it is okay that I am trying so hard to keep up, and that my best is good enough in your eyes. I need you to still treat me like I’m still one of you – I just have a unique set of quirks. I need to know that you don’t find my differences distasteful.

Everyone struggles and everyone has the responsibility to overcome the best they can.

Having mental illness doesn’t need to be a life sentence that segregates us from the rest of society. With effort from each side of the aisle we could meet in the middle. Who knows, we may even find that we like being around each other!

So, how about I look outside of myself enough to help you in your personal struggle to overcome things that are hard for you?

Please know that I am so very, very grateful for all the help and acceptance I get from you.

If we choose to stop and really look at those around us, take a moment to see if there isn’t something simple that we could do that would make their day just a little easier, then pretty soon each of us will find that we aren’t dancing alone.

If this is all there is, is it enough?

Years and years and years ago there was a commercial on TV that we used to tease my mom about. The commercial showed a harried housewife working hard to get through all of the demands on her day and then at the end we see her running a hot bath, pouring in Calgon bath soap. As she slid blissfully down into the tub, the caption read “Calgon, take me away.”

bathtub2We would sometimes joke with my mom and ask her if she was having a Calgon-take-me-away kind of a day. More often than not, she would tell us that in fact she was.

I think the discrepancy actually came though when her day hardly ever ended in that sought for Calgon moment in a hot bath. It usually just ended with more work to be done.

My guess is that many, if not most of us, can close our eyes right now and place ourselves squarely in this same position – more to do than there is time in the day: our job, work at home, service opportunities, when-will-I-cram-that-yoga-time in moment (which more often than not ends up instead at the freezer door with a large spoon headed for the chocolate ice cream).

And as we close our eyes after leaning against the closed freezer door, we realize that waiting for us in just a few hours is the need to get up tomorrow and do it all again.


Ever stop and wonder: Is this all there is?

Continue reading If this is all there is, is it enough?