Before Commitment/After Diagnosis

We each keep time in different ways, with our own personal clocks and calendars. Measuring the days and years, remembering […]

We each keep time in different ways, with our own personal clocks and calendars. Measuring the days and years, remembering or forgetting, keeping track of our histories.

My friends, Jim and Erin, measure their lives by their baby’s birth, her first steps, first words. As Fiona experiences everything for the first time, Jim and Erin are also rediscovering the wonder of simply living.

My friend Chris is a Navy aviator. His life changes as he moves from base to base, ship to ship, as he rises in rank and responsibility. His calendar is connected with actions, orders and the oaths he’s taken.

Some of us measure the time by our relationships, our jobs, our travels. Athletes and fans go by games, seasons and championships. Some judge the time by political and historical situations, by fluctuations in the stock market, by what they buy, what car they drive or where they live.

As Einstein taught us, time is relative–it isn’t perceived the same by everyone. It moves and shifts. His example of a minute spent sitting on a hot stove versus one spent looking at Marilyn Monroe is especially graphic. Time spent in pain, loneliness or despair can have its own speed–as can time spent lying on a beach in the Caribbean, or sitting in the backseat with your older sister on a two-hour car ride to visit relatives. “Are we there yet?”

The defining factor for how I’ve measured my time and life has been my struggle with major depression. Understandably, it’s colored my perspective on the world, controlled the radar of how I look at my life.

I’ve mapped my life by my hospitalizations (hospitable or not), by medications prescribed (and sometimes even taken), by therapy, treatment and groups. DBT, ECT, SSRIs, CATs, PETs, MRIs, and “pick yourself up by your bootstraps.” The first hospital I was in as a teenager was the Adolescent Psychiatric Unit of the Mayo Clinic. In my own historical time line, there’s B.C. (Before Commitment) or A.D. (After Diagnosis). It was at The Unit that I was told that I was mentally ill, where I mistakenly began to believe myself to be somehow different, broken, one of the damned.

Broken relationships, fights with my family, lost jobs, missed opportunities–these were the benchmarks and calendars of my life. Disappointments, sadness, regrets. And time never healed those wounds.

For me it was people, friendship, love. Somehow, through all of the pain that I believed made up 99 percent of my world, special people came to my rescue. Friends, family, sometimes total strangers: mental health professionals, doctors’ receptionists, the guy that bagged my groceries. People would smile, tell jokes, make some small connection. Little moments of kindness and aid that started to add up. Small, enormous things that would “wake me up,” for a minute or two. I’d seen the world as such a tough, cold place that it took a while for my heart to thaw, to reawaken and readjust that radar. As I became aware of the kind people around me, I started experimenting, almost scientifically, and discovered that my shame made me drop my eyes and my pain made me close my ears–sometimes in fear, but sometimes in feeling I wasn’t deserving of kindness. When I’d look people in the eyes and actually listen to what they said, be in the moment with them–whether it was a four-hour date or the five seconds it took for the cashier to give me my change–it was a different world. I started seeing that everyone was hurting or cautious in some way, and needed a kind word or moment. I could truly identify with that and perhaps I had something to offer, too.

Ken Keyes Jr. said: “A loving person lives in a loving world. A hostile person lives in a hostile world. Everyone you meet is your mirror.” It’s taken some time, but my mirror on the world is changing. My “inner tyrant” still tries to sabotage me, but I’m able to look at the stars and wonder again. I can go into a store and talk to strangers. I can visit friends and family and spend time with them, staying in the moment–not going into the past, future or some fantasy world. I can be with myself and not be overwhelmed with sadness or loneliness. I can measure my life and days in new ways: the friends, the new people I get to meet, the places I go. I still deal with my mental illness and multiple sclerosis every day. But it isn’t what totally defines and measures my days.

As I wake up and exist in the moment, my days seem fuller and don’t rush past with such a terrible, empty pace. There seem to be so many more positive minutes to outweigh the painful ones, and that gives me the hope and courage to keep trying. Paying attention to living changed everything, and woke me up–my disabilities hadn’t ruined my life, but enriched it, helping me to value friendships and experience over money. To know appearance for the illusion it is. To remember that I am the choices I make. That my life is precious and unique, and that the gifts of kindness I can give to others and myself are what will ultimately measure my life.