I have a bunch of theories about mental illness, and I was going to talk about Theory #87:
Many cases of “mental illness” are artificially created, and they’re self-fulfilling prophecies.
I was going to go on about how we live in a fragmented, disjointed world, that’s increasingly driven by professionals who need to recoup their investment of dollars and years in their chosen line of work. Those professionals create frameworks of understanding, based on their research and industry standards, and then they peddle them to the unsuspecting, fairly trusting general population, which is comprised of people who have been disenfranchised from most of what brings meaning and purpose to our lives — family, friends, community, and a connection with the natural world.
I was going to write about how, in order to feel some connection, some meaning and purpose, we turn to mental health professionals for help, and in order to help us, they have to 1) slot us into one of the many categories they use to understand their world, and2) establish for the authorities that we indeed need help, so they can get a billing code for the insurance company.
Then I was going to write about how in order to develop the connection with this new significant other person in our lives, we (patients) need to behave in a way that justifies our being there. And we have to skew the relationship with the professional in a way that makes us look genuinely ill — which eventually we may become, if we continue to behave as such. If we succeed, we develop a kind of bond that is a substitute for the bonds we can have with family, friends, community, and nature. But the bond is important to us — especially if we are very vulnerable and have done the whole regression/transference thing. Our “helper” becomes an essential part of our lives.
Then I was going to go into how, in order to continue our interactions with this essential part of our lives, we have to continue to behave in such-and-such a way, deepen the patterns we once hinted at, and before you know it, we’ve got a full-blown set of complexes, each with its own billing code, and each with a recommended “treatment” that sucks us even further into the cycles of artificial and (dare I say) contrived relating to this essential part.
We just can’t let go.
But when I thought about this whole subject, it just depressed me, and I decided not to invest more than 10 minutes today thinking about it. There, I’ve put in my 10 minutes. Now for something completely different.
While I was working out this morning, it occurred to me — yet again — that the best remedy I have for my issues is living my life to the fullest. Taking on the things that arise in my path, and confronting squarely the challenges that come up. I have had a truckload of unfortunate things happen to me. But you know what? I’m still here. And with the right attitude and a good sense of perspective, all those things amount to a whole lot of life experience, which is what interests me far more than any measurable “success” or “failure”.
Truly, it dawned on me the other day, that in the past 5 years since my last fall, I have been devoting an awful lot of my time and energy to avoiding experience. I guess it was because the experiences I was having were really not working out as planned, and I didn’t have the wherewithal to understand how I could work them out better. My distractability and agitation had gone through the roof, I had a truly nasty case of PTSD from all the sh*tstorms of my life, and I was in severe existential angst a good deal of the time. Even though on the surface people couldn’t see that I was struggling, the fact is, I was. Internally, on a fundamental level so deep that it was extremely well-hidden, even from me.
Especially from me.
And I realize how accustomed I had become to holding my breath. Not breathing. Not giving my parasympathetic nervous system a chance to kick in. Not giving my sympathetic nervous system a chance to take a break. Not letting my system unwind and rejuvenate and restore. I was running on fumes. Constantly. Without fail… till I failed. I wasn’t exercising, I wasn’t stretching — physically, mentally, or emotionally. I wasn’t taking care of myself, and I wasn’t taking care of my life. I was getting hung up in all sorts of sidelines and getting snagged in all sorts of distractions that truly served no one. Not me, not anyone else.
And it hasn’t just been this past 5 years, when this has been my regular practice. On and off, over the years, when I’ve had accidents or falls or other head injuries, I’ve done that same kind of thing — never stopped to catch my breath and see where I was at, give myself a chance to rest and rebuilt, but race back in, guns blazing, till I was cut down by the steady onslaught of problems, issues, conundrums, failures, confusions, distractions… until I was forced to withdraw completely from the playing field of life.
In retrospect, I have to say that if there’s anything that has made my TBI experiences worse, it’s that buildup of post traumatic stress, the post traumatic stress disorder (if I may go against my non-mental-illness focus of this post and use a mental health buzzword), which caused my body to wig out and get so wired, my brain couldn’t begin to recover properly.
In fact, if I had to pick one major contributing factor that’s made traumatic brain injury such a problem for me, it’s really been the body, rather than the brain, that’s complicated things. An overly wired, strung-out sympathetic nervous system, an underutilized parasympathetic nervous system, the knee-jerk reactivity and distractability and agitation that go hand-in-hand not only with TBI, but with PTSD, as well.
I hate to oversimplify things, and I hate to boil things down to the one thing that creates the tipping point, but the more I think about it, the more experience I have with my own recovery, and the more I learn, the more I’m convinced that the physiology of TBI and PTSD — the reactions of our bodies to the world around us — is what makes TBI such a bear to deal with.
The good news is, taking care of the body can go a long, long way to helping mellow out these issues, and restore the functionality I/we crave. TBI folks are often inveterate Type A personalities, and we love to GO-GO-GO and DO-DO-DO. There’s nothing wrong with that, within reason. But after TBI, if you want to get back to being yourself again, you have to do things differently and take special steps to support the systems that once worked on autopilot.
Autopilot is done. Finis. Kaputt. Time to get a new gig.
And so I have. Part of me would love to train for elite athletic competitions. Part of me would love to train for serious activities, like those 100-mile races an acquaintance of mine used to run, or even a triathlon — the Iron Man in Hawai’i, if course, not some mid-summer mini-triathlon in a seaside town. There’s a part of me that wants to prove how well I can do, how far I can push myself, and I thrive on the challenge. However, that’s not realistic, and I have too much at stake, to go mucking things up by overdoing it… which is exactly what I would do. Again, that’s my old autopilot self — my old overachiever, do-everything-and-then-some self — talking and trying to drive things.
My new gig is one of balance — careful balance — that preserves my resources for the long haul. My new gig is not the flameout routine I used to be on — work hard, play hard, and rest when I’m dead. My new gig is much more about staying fully present and aware of my surroundings, seeing the nuances, the fine details in things, and really, truly, fully experiencing everything that comes across my path for what it is — experience. Not a conspiracy to make my life difficult. Not a gift from a beneficent deity. Not an emotionally weighted good-or-bad vote of confidence or slam against my very core identity… just experience.
When I let things be, when I let life be what it is, and I devote some time to really delving into what is there for me to use to my benefit — even in the mist of the sh*tstorm, I can find some peace in the midst of chaos. When I embrace the chaos and let it be what it is, without judging it and getting all tied up in knots over it, and thinking that’s the last and final word on what my life is like and what I’m capable of doing… when I give myself some room to breathe and step back and reconsider my life along different lines… tell myself a different story about what’s happening around me… well, life takes on a whole new meaning, a whole new purpose. And it becomes my life, not some series of tasks I need to perform to satisfy the requirements of others.
Of course, it’s an imperfect process… I’m still working out the details on how to keep myself consciously breathing on a regular basis. And I’m still working with my daily routine to ensure I don’t end up exhausting myself with all my productivity. You may laugh, but that’s exactly what I do.
But at least I’m aware of what’s going on with me, and at least I can have a sense of humor about it. I’m not perfect. Why would I want to be? And I’m not mentally ill (and you probably aren’t either). Why should I burden myself with that crap? I’m alive, I’m human, and I am either an amalgamation of all the DSM-based billing codes on the planet, or I’m none of them at all.