On the Atlantic coast of west Africa lie the ruins of a Portuguese fort from the 15th century. You couldn’t tell it today by looking at the crumbling fragments of walls, but almost 600 years ago this was a major port and fortress for European explorers, the proverbial “point of no return.”
This desolate spot so near the equator, was, because of the curvature of the earth, the last place on the African coast where Polaris, the North Star, was still visible; a tiny pinprick of light touching the horizon. Navigation up until then was based entirely on this star, and you traveled beyond sight of land, or especially this star, at your own peril. So many ships never returned from venturing beyond these boundaries that cartographers put on their maps, “Here Be Dragons” to represent the unexplored areas and to express the danger and uncertainty that the unknown instilled.
After the truly daring explorations of the last centuries, many of today’s expeditions, equipped with topographic maps, GPS and constant radio connection with escort planes and ships, seem somehow cheap, more like “going over Niagara Falls in a barrel” stunts than real explorations. Every now and then, though, we get that cold chill when a space shuttle or submarine doesn’t return, and we are reminded that the vast majority of our universe is still filled with the dragons of the unknown.
Ideally, our lives are lifetime adventures, filled everyday with amazing and breathtaking exploration; discovering what we like and dislike, who we want to be with, what our strengths and weaknesses are, why we’ve been given this amazing heaven and hell of life. In my own life, what’s limited my adventures, what’s held me back and stopped me from exploring my own life was my mental illness, or more honestly, my belief that I was broken by it. I believed I was sick, fragile and weak, and all I should do, all I could do, was stay at home and protect myself.
At the best of times it’s hard to find maps in this mapless world, but the doubt and despair that mental illness brings can discolor your charts and throw off your guidance systems. Making poor choices, not seeing the risks, not seeing the opportunities, feeling broken and useless, all of these can make you cautious, timid, unable to take the chances necessary for a full life. When I was hit with depression as an adolescent, my family and the medical professionals I worked with all took my illness seriously, as they should have. But with so much fuss made, with the hospitalizations, the pills, the treatments and the therapies all day long, week after week, year after year, I came to believe that my mental illness was all I was, that I had no gifts, no strengths, no chance.
The “North Star” that my life revolved around, that mapped my world was my belief in my own limitations. I felt comfortable in certain situations doing certain things. Staying isolated, never finishing anything, not taking chances, not trusting other people, not trusting myself. There were so many boundaries, imaged or not, so many places that were dangerous or scary, that were beyond my point of reference, so that like a small child, I was afraid of crossing the street. My fear kept my boundaries miserly, cramped. Fear of failure, and the shame that would bring. Fear of success, and all the extra work and responsibility that would bring. Fear of trusting, because my heart would be broken. Fear that somehow something would go wrong, that I wouldn’t be able to handle what I’d be given. Even today so many of the people that care about me tell me to “stay home and take care of yourself.”
I did stay home. And it just about killed me. I think the answer for me, what got me up and out of the house, “when the wind catches your feet and sends you flying,” as Van Morrison sang, what made me cross the borders into “Dragon Country,” was doing what I love, what gave me passion. What I loved opened up my world. My love for motorcycles led me to be around other people that loved them, and hearing their stories gave me the courage and excitement to race and travel.
When I was hit with the depression and terrible insomnia, I stayed up nights reading thousands of books and plays, and this love of literature and drama got me back to school, back to college, to explore it more and work with other people who also had the same passions. That experience gave me confidence to take the next step and become a professional actor. When my MS knocked me off both the stage and my feet, I had the time to work on my drawing skills. I drew what I loved: classic motorcycles and aircraft, and that opened up another new profession and world for me, even letting me create art for the Motorcycle Mecca itself, Harley-Davidson.
Things went wrong, and I failed again and again. But strangely, each experience, even the failures, had a measure of success, because my boundaries, my map, my world got larger after each one. I met new, scary, wonderful, terrible people, and I loved and hated some of them, and some of them loved and hated me. And even though my heart has been broken a thousand times, it’s always, always been worth it.
There are more and more places I want to go, things I want to explore, people I want to meet. I haven’t been there and I haven’t done that, and my old doubts, my old “North Star” still tries to limit me. But I don’t have time to waste. There are new borders to cross, new people to love and new dragons to meet. A humble student from Florence devised a new way of mapping the world not reliant on the polar star. His first chart ended up in the hands of an Italian sea captain, and with it, Christopher Columbus discovered the New World.”