Mental Wellness or Illness are States of Being, not Identities

Last week, I had the pleasure of getting a complimentary coaching session, and was advised to write my life story.  And while I was flattered by this advice, something within me just shrugged in response.  And the worst thing to launch a creative venture is – indifference.  It would be like slapping a rubber chicken against the hull of a ship for it’s virgin voyage, rather than the smashing of a bottle of champagne.

It isn’t that I don’t have an interesting story to tell, but rather, that I haven’t quite wrapped up the main plot line. That is – how does one build a highly functioning life, following nearly 40 years of emotional/mental health challenges?  I managed to hide my disability through living an unconventional life, yet – the unconventional life has left its own legacy.Mental Illness not Identity - 1

It wasn’t until my mid-30’s that I discovered that I could qualify for a diagnosis for a mental illness/emotional disorder.  Thing is – I was born and bred as an anti-authoritarian.  I was making basic every day life decisions by the time I was 6 years of age, because for much of the day I was alone, when I wasn’t in school.  My mom treated me like a mini-adult, so she expected me to take care of business, without her guidance, when she was at work, or elsewhere.  This is the difficult choice she needed to make being a single mom, with no financial support from anyone, least of all from my father.  She was too proud, smart and ambitious to go the welfare route, so the way she saw it – the most reliable childcare would be me.  She made sure I knew what I needed to know, and encouraged my independence in every way she could.

Growing up as my own boss, from childhood on, gave me the experience of a certain kind of freedom to pursue life as I chose, and a deep distaste of anything that confined me to a particular reality.  I have challenged the concept of “identity” in past posts, because I KNOW from personal experience that any identity we claim for ourselves can become a straightjacket, that limits us from responding spontaneously to the present.  We have these ideas of who we are according to a particular identity that either we have crafted for ourselves or family, culture, society, and so forth has forced upon us … and then our life is no longer a discovery and an adventure, but rather a pre-planned tour where we are STUCK ON THE BUS with no flexibility to explore beyond a set agenda.

I have always been something of a skeptic when it came to what society thought was good for everybody, poking holes in the premises of proper and accepted. Part of it was the intellectual rebel within, but another part was the frustrating secret I struggled with – the secret that drove my whole life’s trajectory from the age of 10.  I just wanted to be happy, or rather, I didn’t want to be miserable.  Miserable?

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I was miserable at least 50 per cent of my waking hours.  I won’t say depressed, because that has become a meaningless catch phrase.  And it has also been adopted as an identity, by many, who have chosen, or have been convinced, or coerced into taking drugs for the rest of their lives because they are a “Chronically Depressed Person.”  I didn’t and have never really identified as being a depressive, but I did know from a very young age that I was experiencing life differently than others.

These were my long-time observations of being outside of the norm –

  • It was not normal to wake up nearly every day of my life, feeling as if my heart was broken and to go through the day as if someone had attached bricks to my limbs every morning..
  • It was not normal to feel this sense of swirling alienation when I had to be alone – as if gravity had no will to hold me to the flesh of the earth.
  • It was not normal to want to spend weeks each month in my bed weeping or sleeping or losing myself in whatever fantasy world would hold me.
  • It was not normal to throw myself obsessively into relationships – to plunge so deep in order to lose myself in the narcotic effect of romance and then acting out in rage/despair when the relationship started to lose its love-drug effect.
  • It was not normal to choose to avoid eating, rather than have to deal with the agony of “doing” anything – making a sandwich becoming a monumental task.
  • And most of all, it was not normal to suffer so – when in my rational mind – I KNEW that I had so much to be thankful for … People in my life were generally kind to me; I may have had money challenges, because it was difficult for me to have a regular job – but I usually could pay my bills;  I was often living an interesting life; I was healthy physically;  I was usually successful at things I was able to finish or consistently pursue.
  • It was not normal NOT to be able to control my consciousness to the degree that I couldn’t work full-time, that I had to hide-out from friends when the darkness decended; that I didn’t trust myself to finish or follow through on any project that would last more than a week or two.

The torture wasn’t my life circumstances, but rather my inner circumstances.  It was a decades long mystery that I couldn’t solve.  And to this day, I am not entirely sure why approximately 40 years of my life were filled with at least 50 per cent misery.  What I have concluded is that … if I had ever whole-heartedly adopted the identity of “Chronic Depressive” or Bi-polar II, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Even though,  the majority of my life was formed by inexplicable misery and the redemptive mania …. they were not the TOTAL shapers of my reality.  I knew that the other half of my life was peaceful, calm, so-so, content.  I knew that I was generally an optimistic person in my unaddled state.   And I knew that taking drugs, really of any kind, because I am not a fan of indulging in drinking or other substances, just made things more confusing for me.  Because I was on such a wild ride of emotions, I really relished “normality” – the eyes of my storms.

Below is an inspiring video – from Jason Silva’s – Shots of Awe series: He discusses how artists have used their mental illness as tools to inspire creativity.

I have been questioning how I have been living my life these last two years.  Two years following having to drop out of graduate school for fear of losing my mental/emotional health or perhaps life entirely.  I have not lived up to my grand dreams of building a successful business; or ending my decade plus singlehood; or really becoming gainfully employed; or moving away from the family homesteads; or establishing community ties; or starting some significant creative project.  All of these dreams have been fluttering around in my consciousness, yet until December of last year, I have felt an over-riding need to pull within and ponder, and to experience my life quietly on the scale of small and simple.

It is as if, I entered the equivalent of a womb-like state of consciousness.  I was incubating a new self, a new way of being.  Prior to going to graduate school – I had discovered a path to balance, but lost it when I started the arduous path of a design education.  The demands of academic life had me making the Russian Roulette choice of  “do well in school” or “live a healthy life.”  It was hard enough on mild-mannered folks, but for me, who had always been juggling the demands of my high-maintenance psyche, I risked drowning while swimming upstream.  When I left school, I had left as a diagnosed Bi-polar II.  And this is what the identity did for me, it freed me from academic obligations, but it was deeply shameful.  I grieved for a year, having to abandon a dream that had cost 5 years and many thousands of dollars.

But truthfully, the system I left, was and is sicker than I was.  Because I KNEW I was out of balance, but the system did not and does not.   And this is why I refuse to permanently identify with mental illness/emotional disorder – because if I did, or do – I have no option but to remain handicapped/disabled/disturbed/crazy or go through the anguish of losing my identity, while creating a new one.

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I knew that I could get back to balance, if I was able to take control of my life and make healthy choices.  If I took the responsibility to write my own story in harmony with my life, rather than fighting against life reality because of the demands that a unyielding system placed upon me.  Healing a mind, or a consciousness is different from healing broken bones, in that we have to consciously choose to participate in the healing.  We have to be open to restructuring our perceptions and the stories we tell and accept for ourselves.  For a time, we need to be vigilant and push into our fears and even terrors.  To challenge one’s own psyche is the closest one can get to death, as well as rebirth.

It is not a simple thing.  And understanding this, I need to give myself a break.  I arrived at two years of chronic mental HEALTH by making the most difficult choice of my life, and also by laying low and getting to know the me being stable, and calm and collected … for the most part – I still can feel great depths or elations, but they do not hold me captive.  I am finally able to  freely experience life as it comes, and that after 40 years of being held hostage by one’s own psyche – one doesn’t just take over the world once liberated.


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