A■ By Dave Porter / Contributed
ll my working life, I’ve tried to shed light—whether that’s combating corruption in government, trying to explain complicated issues, correcting an injustice, improving a law or just sharing some insight, perhaps lightheartedly.
But there is a darkness that some people live in that baffles me. I can’t explain it because I don’t understand it. I can’t fix it, and that frustrates the hell out of me. There is still a stigma attached to mental illness that keeps people living in the dark—ashamed, fearful, intimidated.
We talk about it categorically and condescendingly—not unlike the way we talk about minorities, homosexuality, religions other than our own and anything else that is outside of our own experience. Anything beyond our own normalcy or our own aspirations is treated as a weakness.
I’m getting a little off-track but it’s to make the point that many of us have strong opinions about things with which we have no experience, limited understanding and precious little empathy. If you think I’m berating you, know that I put myself in this same category. It’s human nature to believe that since we’re OK, everyone else would be OK if they only thought the same way we think. Our tolerance is like a dial with us in the middle and the needle extending about as far as our arms.
We act like poverty, intelligence, mental and physical health are all based on choices that people make. There’s no doubt that a lot of people make poor choices, but they may not have the wherewithal or willpower to make better choices. Simply brushing off a problem as a poor choice ignores the underlying genetic, cultural and economic causes.
Empathy for others grows exponentially when we’re personally confronted with uncomfortable issues. Maybe your son is gay. Maybe your daughter marries a Muslim. Maybe you have a grandchild who is six shades darker than you are. It changes your perspective.
My daughter is mentally ill.
I’m not seeking your empathy and certainly not your pity. I’m just doing what I have done all my life: Trying to shine a light in a dark place.
Before going into the dark crevices, let me review the bright spots. Laura is intelligent, attractive, religious and one of the most caring people you could ever meet. Her most recent project is helping disadvantaged women with their resumes and interviewing skills so they can find employment. She does this for free; gives presentations to homeless women and advocates for them.
She’s also happily married to a young man who has the patience of Job. Her illness is not hers alone as he battles alongside her every day. They have two beautiful children, probably the smartest children on the planet, but I’m not biased.
She was raised by both parents. She is surrounded by people who love her. She and her husband own their own home, a great, old four-square in an historic neighborhood. They have a dog. Normal, just like you and me, and maybe not the picture you think of when you think “mental illness.”
She’s functional most of the time, and she sees several doctors regularly including a psychiatrist. She’s well aware of her condition and doing what she can to treat it. In the past year, though, her medication either hasn’t worked or has worked against her as her bipolar condition led her back into those dark crevices and she was hospitalized several times for having strong suicidal thoughts.
There’s a pattern that happens when a young person, mid-20s, is hospitalized. It usually comes with a pink slip. When you lose your job, you lose your insurance. These days, it’s often cost-prohibitive to go on your spouse’s insurance, if your spouse even has family care available. I know—it would cost $750 a month for me to go on my wife’s insurance. When you’re in your mid-20s, earning what 20-somethings earn, and trying to feed two kids and make your mortgage, you can’t afford $750 a month for insurance.
We talk about it categorically and condescendingly—not unlike the way we talk about minorities, homosexuality, religions other than our own and anything else that is outside of our own experience.”
But, Laura is no quitter. After every setback, she seems more determined to fight the demons in her head, finds a new, better job and starts all over again. A couple of months ago, it was no different. After adjusting her meds and returning home, she landed a job making nearly 50 percent more than her husband. And it had great benefits for her and her kids. It even had special benefits for mental illness.
Then, the dark curtain came crashing down again. Some of her doctors believe that her latest episode was caused by a medical error. Two of her medications combined to make her both depressed and manic, which robbed her of the ability to comprehend consequences. The little devil on the left took advantage of the manic angel on the right. She gathered up all the meds in her purse and swallowed them. They were not potentially fatal, but she thought they were, which is why she took them.
Another hospital stay. Another job loss. Another insurance dilemma.
As she and I have discussed, she still has her husband, still has her children, still has her home, still has people who love her, so it didn’t kick out all the supports from beneath her, but it took out quite a few. How do people fight mental illness when being mentally ill causes you to lose the financial support that you need in order to fight the mental illness?
It’s not just mental illness. Any chronic illness. Accidents. Cancer. Heart disease.
We treat healthcare like it’s not society’s problem. I wonder if you would feel that way if confronted with a similar situation.
I didn’t intend to make this about healthcare. Believe it or not, I didn’t even intend to make it about mental illness beyond affirming that no one is immune and that good, decent people are as susceptible as anyone else; and if you’re dealing with mental illness, you are not alone.
What I intended to make this about is attitude.
This country has become so insular. If you could do me one favor, if you take anything away from this at all, it’s this: Be kind.
Be helpful. Judge less and budge more. Nobody gets out of this world alive, so could we make the short time we’re here a little more bearable for each other?
I’m not saying you should lay down your principles. I’m not saying you shouldn’t express opinions or fight for what you think is right. Do what you must do, but do it with love in your heart, without disdain for others.
Respect. Whatever happened to that?
Copyright 2017 by David Porter who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.