A Moment

Oftentimes I don’t know what to say about the world I find myself in. On the one hand each day flows into the next as regular as tides. On the other hand everything, at its most basic and elemental, is so unnervingly surreal in a way that’s difficult to articulate. The texture of a hand towel, the way traffic lights are designed, a baby emerging bloody and perfect from a womb, the smell of an old book: the experience of life caught up in a hundred small artifacts and events. A person can go their entire right portion of moments without perceiving the singularity of each one. There is some blessing in this. After all, it would be difficult to live aquiver at every sight. But to live entirely oblivious to wonder is to not live at all.

Everything precious is fleeting because of its impermanence. To perceive beauty is a death of sorts, in that beauty is a denomination of time. Your daughter’s hair bounces in the late evening sunlight as she runs, and a clock clockhand moves. Breath is caught and released. You live a lifetime within that closed loop; life in a moment.

Bad Days

Cloudy Shoes

“Still tryin’ to fix my mind.”

-Damien Jurado, Cloudy Shoes

It is really important to take control of your sense of the scale of time in order to thrive with mental illness. What I mean is that pain skews our sense of time. Anyone with an infected tooth can attest to that. However, mental anguish has a characteristic that acts as a multiplier to the skewness of subjective time. The reason for this is because, for the most part, mental pain can’t be rationalized the way physical pain can be. Usually the lines of causality are pretty apparent with regard to physical pain. You stub your toe, so your toe hurts. In addition, the timeline of physical pain can usually be ascertained. If you have an infected tooth you know you will hurt until you get a root canal, after which point the pain will cease. That this timeline has an end in the near future allows us to endure our pain with more equanimity than we could otherwise. (Note: Chronic pain is a special case that is different from normal physical pain and mental pain. The causality of chronic pain can often be determined, but the timeline of the pain has no perceivable forward boundary.)

What makes mental illness especially malignant to the human spirit is its inability to be apprehended definitively by either timescale or causal stimulus. Once a mental illness manifests, one generally has a lifetime of symptoms to deal with to a sometimes greater/sometimes lesser degree. In addition, in the case of mood disorders, the manic or depressive episodes occur often without discernable prelude. Some anxiety attacks may have triggers, but many will not. These episodes are like internal weather systems; coming and going according to rules too complex to figure.

I mentioned earlier the importance of taking active control of your understanding of the passage of time in order to thrive with mental illness. Indeed, the perception of time-to-relief is the only variable we have some degree of control over, at least until advances in brain science better define the causal links in mood episodes. For achieving this control, let us prescribe a profound internalization of cliches. “Take it a day at a time.” “A little rain never hurt no one.” “Seasons pass,” and so on. Pick your cliche. The Japanese aesthetic principle of yugen notes the poignant beauty inherent in the basic impermanence of everything. Even depressive episodes are without permanence, though it may seem otherwise. It’s important to develop an accurate perception of your own internal weather systems. The brutal summer heat seems eternal until, suddenly, Halloween candy is on sale in Aisle 4.

Realizing the inherent truth of time-based cliches requires retraining your mind. The skewness of timescale in regard to suffering is a central characteristic of the human perception of pain. Personally speaking, my way of reimposing an accurate timescale on my mental anguish is by sleep and the separation of days. When I find myself in a day in which I’m more acutely suffering I end that day as soon as I am able. 9pm, 6pm, sometimes noon; it doesn’t matter. I lay down to sleep, and say to myself this mantra: “Shit day, try again tomorrow.” If I end my day prematurely three days in a row I know I’m in a depressive episode, and I call my psychiatrist to ask that my appointment to be moved up.

That’s my system. I’m not suggesting it would work for anyone. It’s possible that it wouldn’t work for anyone else. Obviously the ability to sleep on command isn’t a skill everyone has (though seroquel does help.) What I am suggesting, however, is that a person with a mental illness develop within themselves a close attention to the delimitation of time. The feeling that life is an unrelenting torrent of misery is a faulty perception, because even permanent conditions relent for periods. Nothing good lasts forever, but neither does anything bad in the grand scheme.

Conferences and Advocacy

I’ve just returned from Mental Health America’s annual conference in Washington D.C. One of the things I enjoy the most about MHA as an organization is their genuine commitment to including people with mental illness in their leadership. As someone who both works with the mentally ill and also has a mental illness I appreciated spending a conference week of being talked with rather than being talked to.

The thing is, the job of advocacy has almost always fallen to those with lived experience; either those who are mentally ill themselves or people who love them. Psychology does not have a particularly deep history of self-reform (and I say this as someone studying to be a psychologist.)

Advocacy by those with lived experience, however, is the most powerful form of advocacy. This power has both an external and an internal manifestation. Externally, because nothing has the resonance like the authenticity of experience. Data drives the search for answers, but anecdote drives the conversation. We ignore either at our peril.

It is imperative, though, that we with our hard-won lived experience become cognizant of the internal power of advocacy. This kind of power is perhaps more profound than any of the coping strategies or therapeutic methods we encounter on our journey. The internal power of advocacy is the power to turn illness into strength used for the benefit of others. When we advocate, we take control of our own narrative; we harness it and create from it a tool we can wield for the good of our brothers and sisters. Such a practice is inherently therapeutic, as it takes back control over a domain of our lives we may have thought we lost control over forever.

Use your story to speak out on behalf of others. When you speak on their behalf you speak out for yourself. When you try to better the lives of others with mental illness you enrich your own life as well. When you join your voice to the chorus of advocacy you join a community that knows you more intensely than many of your closest intimates.

Speak and be heard.