One of the greatest myths that has existed around professional sports is that of the heroic athlete “playing hurt.” This image of the modern-day gladiator brushing off pain or crippling injury and continuing the game is one that we, especially us guys, have heard about, dreamed about, and admired for decades. But since our September 11th “wake-up call,” a professional football player getting 8 mil a year for a part-time job, taping up some broken fingers or sucking up a pulled hamstring, and going back for another 15-minute quarter doesn’t have the same glory for me as it used to. Watching those emergency workers and their families and even before that, living with MS and mental illness has taken some of the shine off that picture for me. I have been lucky enough to actually know some real-life heroes, though. And you may know heroes like them in your own lives, too.
My friend, Karen, gets up and goes to her job every day. It’s part-time at a factory, and it’s hard, mind-numbing labor that would have most “normal” people running for the door by the first coffee break. But Karen doesn’t. She’s stronger than that. Jobs aren’t so easy to get for someone who’s got a ten-year hole in her work history, partially created from a stay at Anoka State Hospital. The job doesn’t challenge her imagination, creativity, or humor, but her creative writing, her friends, her husband do that for her. But the job does challenge her endurance, her physical strength, her mental stamina. Her job is part-time, but her life, her loves, her bipolar disorder are full-time.
My friend, Stan, gets up every day and lives with serious schizophrenia. Since the State Home was closed 30 years ago, he lives in a residence. On good days, Stan gets up, gets dressed, watches TV, makes phone calls to his friends, and talks with the other residents and staff. On bad days, Stan gets dressed. And because Stan’s brain disorder is so severe and disabling, putting his socks on takes as much effort, stamina, and courage as someone “normal” might use running a marathon. And if Stan displayed the same moral and physical courage that he does in his everyday life with schizophrenia on a battle or athletic field, Stan would be a millionaire, be in People Magazine, be awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor or a gold medal at the Olympics.
But our society doesn’t recognize Stan and Karen’s type of bravery and their heroics; so only God knows of their courage, only God knows of their struggles.
People with mental illness get up every day… every day… every day… and they live their lives and as we all know, life itself can be pretty tough, pretty gritty. But they get up and deal, not just with life, but with a disease that is so terrible, so lonely, so soul-destroying, that it would kill a good horse in a matter of hours. And they get up and live, not just with life and their illness, but with the stigma and scorn that comes from a society that tells them that they are weak and lazy and stupid. That they don’t have a “real disease.” That they should stop whining and snap out of it and “pick themselves up by their bootstraps.” And they live every day with their own “inner tyrants,” the inner voices that repeat what the world says to them: “Maybe you are weak and lazy and stupid.”
People with mental illness and disabilities get up every day. There’s no applause at the end of their day, no one to say “Great play, Stan!,” no interviews on Entertainment Tonight, no huge paychecks. They don’t play hurt, they live hurt. There’s no halftime, no timeouts, no retiring with their fortunes when their athletic career is over or when they’ve just had enough. Illness and disabilities don’t recognize those things. Just like Paul Simon wrote: “Tomorrow’s going to be another working day, and I’m just trying to get some rest.”
They play hurt because they don’t like to give up what they love doing. They play hurt because they like to keep doing the things they used to do even when they aren’t able to do them the same anymore. Sometimes they play hurt because they have no other choice. But mostly they play hurt because they have courage, and love, and heroism, and humor, and creativity, and wonderful/terrible lives that most of us will never be able to imagine.
They’ll be out there again tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that, and forever into the future. They’ll be there, not lagging behind, but ahead of us: wise, strong, waiting for us to catch up. Waiting to inspire us if we will only open our eyes and see. Don’t worry, those real heroes, they’ll always be there for us. Because their hearts…they don’t ever quit.