6 Unexpected Blessings of Mental Illness
Thirty years ago, panic episodes, anxiety disorders and Tourette's syndrome clouded my view. But now I see that though the fog was exceptionally dark, good things were developing; good things inside of me.
Conventional wisdom states that certain environments lend themselves to the formation of certain character traits. Team sports, for example, are credited with fostering cooperation and commitment. In exchange for service in our armed forces, soldiers learn the essence of duty, honor, sacrifice and discipline.
In recent years, we have expanded our understanding of formative experiences to include seasons of medical struggle. We honor cancer survivors for their dignity and strength, while young children living through childhood diseases receive recognition for their tenacity and resilience. And they should.
What we are really acknowledging is that during the intense and painful parts of life, some very good qualities are born, qualities that don't just occur on their own.
However, when we speak of mental illness, there is no talk of a formative experience. The identified mental disorders carried by many, myself included, are not credited with creating anything of value in us. Our lives exist under different headlines, where we are seen as weak and unfortunate, fragile and unpredictable. Granted, many of our behaviors are.
But when there is a call to count blessings, do not imagine for an instant that we have none to number. Within the mental health community, we too have discovered that our storms have silver linings. Our "weaknesses," like battlefields, create in us the realization that we can more than survive mental illness.
Mental illness has its blessings.
Think of the most generous friend you have. I will tell you what you already know: They are not proud or self-important. What they have, they can give because unlike the self-important person, they don't view their possessions and time as personal entitlements. Mental Illness shatters the altar of self. When minimal mental stability is hard to grasp, of what use is this item or that? Besides, when I give, for a little while, I control the direction of my world, and control is not something I often feel.
True spirituality begins with one of two desires. We are driven either by the longing for a transcendent experience or the desperate hope that someone greater than ourselves exists to meet our needs. Those struggling with mental illness rarely question that they are needy. Life makes this rather clear. This allows us to reach out our hands without reservation.
The phrase "hurting people hurt people" rings true. So does this corollary: "Those who know they need know when others need." The experience of helplessness is one of the most universal realities of the mentally ill, and meeting a perceived need in another is one of the most potent ways to feel empowered.
4. Accepting spirit
It becomes quite difficult to condemn when it is consistently obvious that my own life is not all together. Awareness of my own confusion allows me to accept you freely. Ironically, although I can accept you with ease, I don't show the same grace to myself. Here is where I need you to help.
Many formative experiences create courage. But few of them involve Herculean steps of courage before your feet hit the floor. Getting out of bed to begin the day can be a sweet victory, and strings of victories create confidence. Courage to wake. Courage to rest. Courage to live in between. It isn't a bad mantra.
There are societal norms for living. We call people who adhere to them "normal." I doubt the presence of normal actually exists; nonetheless, those of us who clearly live outside the lines find our square-peg existence in constant conflict with how the normal operate. Living, then, becomes an exercise in creativity. If the world walks from A to B, but my mind doesn't allow me to, it takes creativity to reach my destination.
If you could be guaranteed that your child would grow up to be a generous, spiritual, empathetic, accepting spirited, courageous, creative adult, if only you would consent to their experiencing this formation through mental illness, would you make the deal? I believe few would. But this I know: Those of us already on that road can be grateful for our blessings.