It’s funny that I can accept the mysteries of physical illness so much more easily than mental illness. Why do some people’s bodies malfunction? Sure there are the influences of genetics and environment, but somehow, when things go awry physically, there is less judgement, less of a sense of failure or inadequacy (although I’m not discounting that these feelings can accompany a physical illness). But, socially, culturally, when something goes awry with your head there is a different response – these mysteries are somehow tainted with a sense of the unacceptable, badness, wrongness. We hold our minds in such high esteem that if there is something awry there, in the sifting and sorting process of life, we are firmly established on the unacceptable side of the divide. I see it in my mind as two big buckets. There are a whole range of life experiences that can float around in that big bucket of the acceptable (some more towards the centre than others). But, there are plenty, that like refuse, find their way into that big bucket of the unacceptable thus making them extremely challenging to navigate for anyone that finds themselves in their grip.
I’ve lived this. At the tender age of 20 I found myself clinically depressed and suicidal. That this was in response to the death of my first love gave it an element of the acceptable, at least to some of my friends and family. But not to me! I could not function, there was no joy, my brain just didn’t work like it used to. I just wanted to hide, I didn’t want to be here. Working was not an option, socialising stopped, there was no hope, all was lost. I understand now the fear that drove many of my friends out of my life at the time. But being in the unacceptable bucket is a lonely place indeed. I believe that the greatest pain that a human can endure is the sense of not belonging, not being acceptable to the tribe. I consider it to be one of our most significant drivers, being responsible for both incredibly constructive and destructive behavior.
In fact, when my first bout of depression miraculously lifted all I wanted to do was to get as far away from ‘it’ as I could, and prove to the world that I belonged in the acceptable bucket! Running away from ‘it’ drove me for a good 20 years. It’s been a long journey to make peace with that part of me that failed, that dropped out, that stopped participating in life.
In my second bout of depression at the age of 25, I had a beautiful two year old and everything to live for. This beautiful soul had come to the planet in my care and was totally dependent on me. I took this responsibility very seriously. I loved him beyond words. But, still the darkness came.
I was fortunate enough to have a loving family who scooped me up, took care of me and my son, and kept things in place while I wasn’t functioning. The pain was palpable, but I couldn’t help it. The pattern was clear, when life became too challenging for me, some sort of overwhelm happened in my system and I just couldn’t cope. The shame of this was crushing.
It’s been 30 years since my last bout of dysfunctional depression. And, while there has been lots of joy since then, the journey hasn’t always been easy. But I now have in place the tools I need to avoid the overwhelm, predominately yoga and meditation, and I have turned towards the shame and started to make peace with that very vulnerable part of myself. To slowly forgive myself. I’m beginning to understand that depression has always been a part of my life, that it is a tendency that I have, a mystery that presents in my life that I don’t understand. But, that speaks to me, that informs me. When I look back at the episodes of depression in my life they have all been times of the greatest growth and transformation. Perhaps they are like stages in a cycle of growth – a stage of serious discomfort that serves to realign me to my higher truth rather than a failure to be avoided at all costs.
All mental illness is a valid human experience. It must be, because it happens, to humans. Psychosis and mania have not been a part of my experience. But my experience is enough to recognize the value in questioning and challenging my fears and judgements about these illnesses. To recognise that I impose a limit on people’s potential when I see these as unacceptable experiences rather than challenging experiences that needs to be navigated with great care and understanding.
Removing the judgement that is so pervasive around mental illness would be very useful in addressing the current epidemic. To understand that mental illness is not a personal failure but an indicator that care and assistance are required. That a member of the tribe needs support and to be embraced, not isolated and rejected. I’m not denying the pain. I’m wanting to recognise the incredible value in the pain. As Eckhart Tolle says “suffering is necessary until it isn’t”. Perhaps if we see mental illness as an opportunity for growth and transformation, remembering as Patanjali reminds us in sutra 2:16: Heyam Dukham Anagatam, that with attention, future suffering can be avoided!