When I think of mental health, somehow my inner voice switches the last word to” illness.” It’s used so interchangeably that we shouldn’t be surprised about the stigma and aversion that grows around the topic. Health is never really a concern to us until it becomes an illness that needs attention. Yet, physical health devolving into physical illness is easier and more acceptable to talk about than mental health dissolving into mental illness.
The other difficulty is that wellness and illness are set up as polar opposites. It’s as if they are mutually exclusive and one is a preferred state. The radical view is that they are not even a continuum. Each arises out of a set of causes and conditions in our life. Take away one of those causes and conditions (or some of them) and our mental state will change.
Going through graduate school in psychology, I struggled with the training as it opened me up to many past experiences that I didn’t even know had caused pain and suffering. I was a child immigrant in the 60’s when being an immigrant was an unusual state and support was minimal. Where I grew up, I had been exposed various forms of violence and lived in a state of constant threat. As I progressed through my training, many emotions began to surface, which I now recognize as trauma-related. Then, however, in supervision and interactions with my classmates what was only evident was that my emotions were all over the place. I remember feeling deeply ashamed and angry, frustrated and confused. It seemed like everything I did was viewed terribly different from what I intended. I seemed like everything I said or tried to communicate came out wrong or with an inflection that was unintended. And yet, I was successful as a student, getting praise from my internship clinical supervisors, good grades, and guarded respect from professors who appeared not to be turned off by how I was.
I sought help in therapy for what I thought was Borderline Personality Disorder. Self-diagnosis an occupational hazard of being a clinical student. In my first session, I told my therapist I was there because I was “so BPD!” Even then I felt the stab of how I was stigmatizing myself and name-calling my suffering. We worked together for five years; it was a roller coaster process. His only message was that I needed to stop denigrating myself, stop buying into the propaganda in my head (and from the world around me). I didn’t “have” BPD because it’s not a virus. I wasn’t bad because I believed I was an angry person because it’s not a character flaw. (My actions were unskillful, no doubt, but that’s not part of my character; it’s a learned repretoire .)
Over time, I began to value the idea that under some conditions, I can be quite skillful. And that skillfulness ranges depending on my fatigue, awareness of my limits, and most especially on how I treat myself. Slowly I began to understand and lean with compassion towards the residue of the various traumas in my life. Depression, anxiety, perfectionism, the dark thoughts and shame about them became my friends and we sat down to tea everyday.
I’ve learned through my personal practice of mindfulness which began in the 1970’s and grew more deliberate over the years that there are storms in everyone’s life. No one is immune to pain and suffering, joy and love. Our work is to learn how to be steady in the wild winds, to bend and be flexible so as not to break, to trust the heartwood of who we are. Mindfulness teaches us that steadiness in the face of joy and woe. Self-compassion gives us flexibility so our harsh criticisms don’t leave us rigid and vulnerable.
And community. A supportive group of people who see us as valued members of a larger net is indispensable. We cannot walk these dark paths alone. We should not have to. Wellness and illness are not polar opposites. They arise out of the inner and outer landscape we travel across. And companionship helps. Immensely.
Mary Oliver, in her poem Wild Geese, writes: “Tell me about despair, yours. And I will tell you mine.” To become better at being who we truly are, we must give voice to our fears and struggles. We must gather as companions and travel with confidence through the light and dark of our lives.
Happy Thanksgiving and may we all walk together with wisdom and compassion.