This is the first post in response to people letting me know what they want me to write about. It is an excerpt from my first book, “In Pursuit of Joy”. I wrote that book in the hope that telling my recovery story would help others with their own recovery.
I am still taking requests for blog post topics, by the way. You can leave a comment or contact me in other ways–check out my contact page.
People love a good story. They love to hear a good story, and above all they love to tell a good story. For what it is worth, this is my story. I believe that all human beings are more alike than they are different. By looking beyond the differences, you can often find the commonality. So in that context, I hope you will see that my story is your story too.
I am an alcoholic. I say this not to impress, or to gain sympathy, or to excuse bad behavior. I say it as a simple statement of fact. It has been at various times the central fact of my life and has had a profound effect on my development as a human being. I also have a serious and persistent mental illness. That illness is depression. These two conditions interact and feed off each other. Sometimes it is hard to tell where one condition begins and the other ends. None of this is particularly unique. There are many people, not only in this country but worldwide, with similar issues. I have been sober for more than fifteen years, and the depression is mostly a thing of the past. I will tell you right now that recovery is hard, scary work. I did not make it alone. In fact, I have never met anyone who was successful in recovery (any kind of recovery) without help. I am writing this book in the hope that it is helpful to someone. It is my effort to give back what was given to me.
I have worked these last fifteen or so years in the field of mental health. In this work I have noticed several things. When I was in college, I noticed that every time you told someone you were studying psychology, people would invariably say something like, “I’d better be careful what I say.” It was as if you were going to pull a stamp out of your pocket and stamp “Insane” on their foreheads if they said the wrong thing.
While it was always said in a joking manner, it happened so frequently that it gave me the impression that many people have some real insecurities about the state of their mental health. This phenomenon and my experience of working with many families and first-time users of the mental health system have led me to believe that most people are woefully misinformed on the topic of mental health. I think this is unfortunate.
I think that everyone with a mind should be concerned about mental health. Certainly we are all concerned with other people’s behavior—things like crime, war, that troublesome clerk at the shoe store, or that guy that cut us off on the freeway. We don’t generally think of these things as mental health issues, but they really are. Yes, we are all concerned with behavior, and when viewed in that context it is easy to see that mental health is everybody’s business.
However, when it comes to looking at ourselves, people like Freud have us thinking that we all might have some demons lurking in the dark, nether regions of our minds that must be kept hidden or we will surely be banished from the company of civilized men. An exaggeration? Perhaps, but I think that there is enough truth in that statement to make a couple of points. First, when people express concern about mental health, they are usually referring to other people. Second, most people are a bit nervous about discussing or even thinking about the state of their own mental health. Yet, Socrates tells us that the unexamined life is not worth living. I think it is as true today as it was when he said it over two thousand years ago.
I believe that every human being on the planet goes through a natural growth process throughout their entire life spans. What we generally call mental illness happens when, for various reasons, people get stuck in this growth process. The reasons range from trauma to some unfortunate genetic time bomb going off to a combination of these factors. In any case the plain and simple fact is that mental illness can and does strike people at any time or place in their lives, from the richest (think Howard Hughes) to the poorest and everyone in between.
Another way to describe the process of becoming mentally ill would be to say that a person gets lost in a tangle of their own emotions, attitudes, and beliefs, precipitating bizarre, erratic, or dangerous behavior. The good news here is that if a person can be lost, generally they can be found. I say this in large part because of my own experience of recovery but also because of watching hundreds of my clients over the years struggling with their own issues.
I have come to think of the recovery process as similar to finding your way out of a maze. You choose to go one way or another; some choices lead you closer to the exit, and some get you even more lost. People can and do recover their lives after a period of being lost to mental illness.
An interesting thing that I noticed as my recovery progressed was that the character of things changed. It became not so much a way to lessen my discomfort but more a quest for joy.