In widespread belief within the shamanic view, mental illness signals “the birth of a healer”.
I have read closely similar notions tied to indigenous groups that identify traits linked with mental illness as higher expressions and earthly gifts that are bestowed upon the affected to bring them to a place of greater understanding, empathy, and ultimately -- carve out a much greater capacity for forgiveness, compassion, and love.
When I sit down to think of what there could possibly be to share from my life that could serve the greatest good in helping others it is to offer the condensed story of my mother. While those that are closest to me already know it well (and this story hasn’t changed much in the last 12 years), the understandings that I am able to gain grow with each passing year.
When I doubt it existed, I revisit the proof of my mom as “happy” as it is immortalized in her photos. My favorites are from her early twenties - she is surrounded almost constantly by her best male friends, caught mid-laughter,ridiculously deep summer tan (she loved the sun) and overall, the ultimate,beautiful picture of feminine youth and physical, mental health. Then thereare the photos a few years later of when she met my dad, when you wouldn’t think she could look any happier until a little later with the arrival and birth of myself, and then my brother. Scattered throughout even her happiest photos include the sprinkling of innocent beers in hand lounging on the beach in Mexico, late night house parties with our old neighbors, celebratory holiday work functions, etc. When I look back through them now I can’t help but wonder, where was the flip of the switch? When did something she enjoyed socially change to something that her body required in order to function, to the extent of her own demise? Was she only ever always with friends because being alone made her scared to turn inward? Was her smile even genuine? Of course, I think, for the most part it was genuine and she was truly happy at least for the first half of her life, because I have since learned to recognize the difference even through photos. But it sure would be nice to just ask her pointedly-- what did it feel like when “it” began? Are we and will we be affected the same? Or is the worst of it just around the corner for me? Mom was the key to these answers that can now only be unlocked by time and comparison.
Fast forward past a 20-plus year span of history that I would rather skip to the point that my mom was at her lowest in every definition of the word. These were the times that scared me the most--to witness a woman that was supposed to be my support and not in need of it herself like the vulnerable, helpless being that she regressed back to--so utterly defeated and paralyzed by depression and the weight of her inability to acknowledge anything outside of it. When she was lucid enough and not obliterated from drinking all day, she would express her state in the clearest way she knew how: “I’m falling down the hole again and I can’t get out”. I never knew what she meant until time passed and I was introduced to a hole of my own adult innerworkings. Mom slurring this dreaded line through her sobs was the most accurate and painful portrayal of what severe depression and mental illness feels like that I have been acquainted with, along with identifying just how it creeps up on you. You don’t realize that you’ve fallen in until you’re at the bottom scratching to get out but the more you try the more you’re stuck.
At this point in my life, I have taken a myriad of precautions to be proactive in lessening the fateful patterns of falling in step with my maternal line (yes, my mother’s mother too)--never drink alone, never drink when I’m not in a good headspace, and most importantly: to recognize and acknowledge feelings and emotions but not necessarily root down into them and allow them to hold me captive. I don’t identify emotions or shifting states of being as my enemy to “battle” or to “fight”. They are a part of me and my human experience and I want to listen, not react. I want to grow, not shrink. Much of this revelation is still a huge work in progress and has come through meditation and spiritual teachers for whom I am eternally grateful for. Depression and its friend anxiety still very much grab ahold (often following a day of feeling exceptionally “on top”), but for the most part I feel more in tune with recognizing my personal telltale signs of darkness approaching and then guiding myself through my personal self-care list to tick off the subsequent check marks. Of course I have my days when I feel crippled from the state of our world and human consciousness, feel incapable of getting off the couch, incapable of filling up my senses with anything other than utter garbage and distraction, and stubbornly denying myself my talents, abilities, and practicing the thoughts and actions that I know could lift me higher. That is the inevitable reality of this thing called Life as we are experiencing it in these things called bodies, but I know that it is not my permanent reality and so I try and allow it to pass as all things do.
Luckily the topic of depression and mental illness has gained a lot more visibility, acceptance, and conversation over time from our collective voices but there are still heavy stigmas and common assumptions. I think the biggest thing to remember is that we all experience mental illness differently. In as much of a way that we might label individuals as “high functioning alcoholics”, we have to remember that there are multiples faces and levels of functioning within mental illness.
I can recognize that while I may face the dispositions of depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder interwoven into my genetic makeup, it is what path I choose to take or reroute that determines my fate. I talk with so many of my friends that feel so disheartened that they can’t “beat” or overcome their depression or anxiety and don’t understand why they can’t be stronger, better, louder than the voices that tell them they aren’t Enough. I challenge those friends (and constantly myself) to consider a different perspective. Consider that we could all be experiencing these leanings that we clinically identify as ‘mental illnesses’, on a universal wavelength, as extremely important and pertinent forms of communication--communication that we are one, that we are the essence of love, and that when we emit energetic vibrational frequencies of extreme highs and lows--we are all affected. Consider mental illness as a possible wake up call for us to evolve as human beings and that we are only shown what powerlessness feels like to recognize and remember our true power. Consider mental illness a personalized, visceral message that we are each individually and collectively responsible to raise one another up in quality of life and quality of well being.
If the life that my mother lived taught me anything it is not to lose yourself to your demons. I read this perfectly relevant quote the other day by Andres Fernandez: “‘Do not just slay your demons; dissect them and find what they’ve been feeding on.” If the fears born into our nightmares are only subconscious projections of our deepest selves, then the only way to render them powerless is to face them, not run from them. This is the trick of it--to know ourselves--the good, the bad, and the ugly. It does not serve us to numb ourselves to anything that we can’t identify as “happy” if we are to embrace and believe that with suffering comes enlightenment. This is one of the most basic underlying themes throughout philosophy, religion and spirituality as we know it and in my personal life experiences so far, there has been nothing closer to the truth. We are bound to repeat the patterns we do not break and I believe that until we as a human body ultimately figure this out, there will always be suffering to serve as our ever patient but relentless teacher.