Sunday, March 7, 2010

Tenacity of Life

I love the question Kate posed to me in her comment; What would you say to someone who was schizoaffective, manic-depressive or schizophrenic if they were suicidal? In my last post I seemed to be on the verge of saying; watch out, it is only going to get worse. Catastrophic advice.

I wrote my post in a moment of weakness and I'm afraid that what I had to say was not life affirming. I talked about the horror stories I knew. They were all true, I didn't make anything up. I was in a state of horror myself, thus the choice of topic.

To someone who was suicidal I would have to say, choose life. Even if that life is one with a diagnosis of mental illness. Even if you must live a life that is outside of the norm, where you have a life that is full of pain, still, I would say, bear the pain and choose life. Because pain is transitional, it happens only in the moment and then it lifts. Because there are little things in life, like the warmth of the sun shine, or the feel of your body as you walk and tire it, that feed and nourish the soul.

Most of all I would say choose life because you are stepping through the fire of mental illness (the pain is transformative) and you are being purged, you are being cleansed, and you are being made anew into someone that God smiles upon. You will be the weak, the disenfranchised, the struggling, the imperfect, but most of all, - most beautiful of all is what the fire of the mind does to you; it makes you authentic.

The highest compliment I've ever received was from my sister. She said, "You are the most human person I know." She could not have said that about the person I was before the mental illness. No, that person she was a little afraid of and would probably have been called a bitch. It was what the mental illness did to me, fifteen years later, that made her think about the compliment. The mental illness changed the life path I was on, and as a result of this, I became a better person. I'll take being human as a high compliment.

I don't hear lies and falsity in the voice of most of the mentally ill I have known. I hear ringing clear and delightfully as the sound of a bell is a voice that tells it as it is. The mentally ill usually don't have the energy to construct elaborate masks and they can't play games with you. They are direct, they are candid, and they are refreshing. The one game I know that is played the most by the mentally ill is; hide. I see mentally ill people withdraw. Sometimes the illness brings a type of shyness. But mostly, instead of shyness, I would call it humility. Rarely have I met a mentally ill person puffed up with pride. The authentic person I can imagine would have humility instead of pride.

I am not a good one to council the suicidal. But I know enough to know that suicide is a mistake. Me, I cling to routine and to work to stay alive. I cling to the happy emotions of my husband. I cling to a type of searching that I find myself doing with books and with going to Church and with conversations with my husband- trying to find religion, trying to believe in a God that loves me and walks by my side. I do believe my mind is known, first to me, but maybe, first and foremost to a higher power.

There was a woman who existed before the mental illness and she was often dissatisfied with herself. I am so grateful that I've put some of her behind me; the second guessing what I say, the painful remembering of conversations where I wish I said something better, the bruising I gave myself for not being more socially popular.

But that woman was driven, and so am I. That women wished to excell, not for fame or money, but for the feeling of power given to ones who try their best and always work themselves to the bone. Both my parents work themselves to the bone. As I was growing up it my father who kept up a grueling schedule as a doctor, now it is my mother who in her later years hasn't a moment to spare because of her three businesses, one of which is a bed and breakfast. I've inherited a whip at my back that drives me. Oh yeah, I'll be the first to admit that I spend a lot of time in bed staring off into space. My life from the outside looks simple and carefree, except of course, for those two to three hours every morning when I write. But the reading of books, the watching of movies, the taking of long walks - it seems like I've got it good and easy.

I suppose there are times when I'm contemplative and rest and times when I'm on and creative. Because of the illness the times when I create are limited; I don't have the brain power that I used to have before the illness. But what power I have isn't wasted. It is all used to produce - creative product. I love my mind. Sometimes I hate my mind for its moments of mental weakness, but fess up, I love the power of the mind. I love that the power can take meaningless pieces; tubes of paint, or a cacophony of words - and create paintings or essays and books. I've got a paranoid schizophrenic friend who takes her mind, and a base guitar, and makes music. It is as close as taking nothing and making something when you are dealing with products of pure mind. The times I've faced a blank page and drawn a picture. The times I've faced a blank computer screen and found voices for my characters to say shocking things. I summon up from deep within me creative product and the result is contentment. On rare occasions joy. Using the power of pure mind you can go from being a penniless pauper to king. This is the journey of the artist.

I know a paranoid schizophrenic who loves playing ping pong. His face lights up when he talks about his games, keeping score, and analyzing how his opponent plays. He isn't an artist like me, but his life really does revolve around playing ping pong. And I've known him long enough to realize that he has a zest for life. He has heard me talk about suicide, and this was his response (in an astonished voice) - "Why would you want to kill yourself, life is fun!" He is one of the great success stories of mental illness. Not because he went back to work and got off social security. He has tried to work and found that he cannot do it. He is a success story because from his point of view, and I'm taking his words here, every day he wakes up, and he wonders with joy, "how will I spend my day?" His days are precious to him. His life is precious to him. By the strict view of society he is mostly dropped out of it, but he has just enough money to keep from being a homeless man, and he has the social skills to find people, and places, in which to play ping pong.

This particular man is conscientious, caring, and honest. Morally he is the tops. When his dying mother, who he had taken care of for many years, wished to leave her house and all her money to him he declined, and said that the inheritance should be split equally with his two brothers. He is a reformed alcoholic and besides ping pong, he life revolves around attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Externally the illness has left a mark on him. His face and demeanor is not normal. One Sunday he attended my church and I know that he did not blend into the congregation. He would be marked by the people in the congregation as perhaps a homeless man and someone to be afraid of. The illness has made him seem "other". He can't pretend to be a man with a lifestyle or mind like the majority of the population. He doesn't blend. But he seems utterly unconcerned with that fact. He isn't trying to be someone who he is not. He is perfectly authentic - happy with who he is. By society's standards he is a tiny fish swimming in a tiny pond. But I think he is buried gold.

This year I got his address and sent him a Christmas card. I see him every week Wednesday night. After I sent out my cards I asked him if he had received his in the mail. He said yes, but that he hadn't opened it. Why not? I asked. "Because I want something special to do on Christmas Day" he said to me. So he was saving my card for Christmas Day. Like it was a present. Which I guess it was. But how many people understand a Christmas card as being a present? It is taking what is small, and ordinary, and naming it large and precious. It is like a magician taking a lifeless white scarf and turning it into a flying dove. My friend transforms his simple days of ping pong and Alcoholics Anonymous and finds life affirming, deeply felt satisfaction in them. And his abilitiy to do this, in the face of having the worst type of mental illness named, that is I think the greatest success story I know of.

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