I talked to a long-time friend this week: He’s shut in his house with raging OCD. All of his friends have gradually drifted away. His final remaining friend jumped ship on him this week because he failed to bring his kid to baseball practice…again (their kids are on the same team). Well, that’s easy enough for someone who doesn’t have contamination obsessions to say, but when everything you touch, every smell that wafts into your nose, every germ that might be floating in the air brings the sort of fear that most people only experience for a total of about ten seconds in their lives – when the plane really might seem to be actually, for real, no joke, crashing – it’s a lot harder to take the kid out into public than it might seem. YOU try taking your kid to the baseball park…or anywhere…knowing it’s going to make you feel like you are, by choice, stepping into the crossfire of a gang shootout.
What is my friend’s reaction to his own internal struggle? He berates himself for his “weakness”; he takes the blame when his friend tells him “maybe you shouldn’t have any more kids”; he sees himself through the lens of stigma: “Maybe I should just wear a shirt around that says, ‘Don’t befriend me; I have OCD; you’ll regret it, and you won’t understand,’” he thinks. “I am a failure.”
Then there’s my other “friend”…and by “friend” I mean me. God, what a failure I feel like so much of the time. When I left the first job, I could tell myself, “It was time to go for lots of reasons, not just depression.” I could tell myself that my friend had just died, and anyone would need some time to recoup. Then I got another job…one that seemed much more manageable, even though it was only half the pay and three times the students, I told myself it was do-able; it was the right thing. I made it through a semester and a half and then, once again, failed, failed, failed. I couldn’t walk back through the door, answer another student’s question, fake it through another lecture, or grade another paper. Adios, second job. Hello, additional evidence of my worthlessness. Now what? Who’s going to pay the bills? What will my kids think of me? How long till my wife kicks me out? Then what? Live with my parents? Hmmm, sounds like a winner of a plan, you failure.
You hear the word “stigma” associated with mental illness quite a bit. Most people would agree that there’s at least some degree of stigma associated with being handicapped by a mental illness. Many of those same people will say they believe mental illness is as real as a physical illness, yet they don’t necessarily act on those beliefs. Secretly (or not), they think, “he’s got some stuff to work through” rather than “gosh, he’s really sick!”
Tragically, many of us view ourselves the same exact way – as “weak” or “a faker” who just doesn’t have enough will power to get life together. We berate ourselves for our not getting better despite all of the counseling we’ve invested in and all of the medicines we’ve tried. We compare ourselves to our happiest, most stable, most successful friends and wish we just had the balls to face the day head on – to make lemonade out of lemons, like they seem to do so easily.
I’ll use myself as exhibit A (and if you’re observant, you’ll want to point out that I lack an exhibit B…sorry): I’ve lived my whole life with OCD, and I have plenty of evidence that mental illness has a tangible impact on my ability to see the world clearly. I can trace its powerful control over my brain back to age five. Long before I knew anything about mental illnesses, I can point out specifically how my brain was operating differently than everyone else’s. Sure every kid is scared his parents might leave him somewhere; but not every kid constructs every second of every day around making sure his parents are within arms length (literally and figuratively) so he doesn’t get abandoned. Not every kid walks out of the movie theater with a soaking wet shirt because he’s been spitting out the germs he has to have been inhaling in that dirty theater…and he spits them into his shirt because it would be a sin to defile the theater by spitting on the ground. And not every kid tells a story about something that happened on the playground that day but then remembers that he left out a small, unimportant detail and believes he has actually told a lie because of the omission. He then finds some awkward way to bring the story back up so he can fill in the missing details and correct his sinful lie. There’s something haywire in there, right?!
Yet when my obsessions take on a new shape, my first thought isn’t, “my brain is acting up again.” It’s, “Tim, you idiot. Get over it!” By contrast, I seem to have developed chronic tendonitis in my elbow. It hurts bad enough that even lifting the remote control can be quite painful. And yet, I have never once told my elbow what a piece of sh*t it is or wondered why I’m not more able to overcome my “weak” tendon. No, I work around it. In fact, I baby my poor wittle weft ewbow because it hurtsies. I put stinky rub-on medicines on it to make it numb, and one of these days, I might even break down and go for yet another cortisone shot. Another way of framing it might be that I forgive myself for having a faulty elbow.
Recently I was recounting to my therapist what a terrible job I was doing at certain aspects of my life. I was going on and on about how bad it was, and she stopped me and said, “Just stop, Tim. You need to forgive yourself.” It wasn’t the first time I had come across this idea, but it was the first time another person had said it to me. It reminded me, once again, how powerful that concept is. If you’re reading this, there’s a decent chance that you, too, fight a daily, hourly, second by second battle against the very thing that controls your entire being – your brain. It’s a wild horse that won’t be controlled yet you beat yourself up for that fact. I promise you this, though: If you start practicing self-forgiveness, it won’t fix your mental illness, but it will change your relationship to it.
Self-forgiveness takes practice. I mean like actual, you-have-to-work-at-this practice. Like, you need to put a post-it note on your mirror, teach your parrot to say, “give yourself grace, Billy, you’re doing your best,” or set a reminder on your phone. Without the practice, at least for me, my brain’s default self-talk setting seems to involve words like “loser”, “failure”, and “piece of stinky poopoo”. However, if I speak to myself like I’m a small child who’s trying hard but struggling at something new – “It’s okay; settle down; I’ve got you; don’t worry; shhhh; it will be okay…”, my pain doesn’t go away but it becomes something I can tolerate having inside of me. It’s like putting 3-D glasses on in a 3-D movie. Sure, you can watch it without the glasses, but putting the glasses on radically changes your relationship to the movie. The next 2 hours will be a completely different experience thanks to the glasses.
I hope you’ll give this a try, no matter what you tend to beat yourself up about. Life tends to beat the hell out of most of us one way or another…wouldn’t it be nice to have an attitude toward your own suffering that didn’t, in fact, make that suffering ten times worse? (That’s rhetorical…the answer is that yes, it would be nice and maybe even life-changing.)
PS. A few updates on the endeavor to start a non-profit:
1. The ball is rolling and I’m excited…I’ve taken steps to begin doing some speaking and to get some of the official non-profity stuff rolling as well.
2. Podcast #1 is recorded but there are all sorts of technological hoops I’m learning how to jump through before it’s officially a podcast that you can download on iTunes. It should be out next week (I know you’ve been dying to get your hands on it like it’s Harry Potter or something, but be patient. Perfection takes time.)
3. As always, I want to ask you to join in the fight against loneliness and isolation by letting someone know they are not alone…somehow…anyhow.
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