Tag: humanism in mental health

The Discomfort of Vulnerability

A colleague of mine recently asked me for some help.  He was wondering how best to handle a difficult situation at work.  As he reached out, he half-apologized, wondering whether he might be unfairly imposing on my time.  It didn’t feel like it was an imposition at all, quite the opposite.  He’s such a good guy and so respectful that it’s always a pleasure to share my opinion with him and offer my advice.  As he asked, I noticed something: his reaching out made me feel good even before we conversed about his work.  I wondered why that was the case.  After thinking about it, I figured it out.  He was showing me his vulnerability.

Quote by Brene Brown: Vulnerability is not weakness: It's our greatest measure of courage

Leaning into discomfort

His words didn’t make me think something; his words made me feel something.  This expression of human vulnerability allowed for a connection between us, a moment of closeness.  I know that it likely wasn’t so easy for him to ask but here’s the thing: it’s always uncomfortable to show our truest vulnerable selves.  We have a saying in psychiatry that we grow only when we lean into discomfort.  I believe this is true.  By definition, growth is a journey where we enter an unknown world, whether we are stumbling to learn a new language or falling off our bike as a kid.  Leaning into the discomfort of showing another our tender core is as challenging as it is rewarding.  

Embracing discomfort

Ironically, it is only through embracing this discomfort that we can find comfort.  We can’t have it both ways.  We either live behind thick walls, protecting ourselves, feeling alone, or we open up to the joy and pain in life by feeling uneasily vulnerable.  When we say “I love you” first, when we stand at an AA meeting and say “I am an alcoholic” or when we say “I need your help”, we are extending our hands and opening our hearts.  We humans are hard-wired to connect and being openly vulnerable is the only pathway to true intimacy and well being.

I’m going to do my very best to help my colleague.  I’m quite sure he is unaware that he has moved me.  I respect him for doing so.  And perhaps in return, I will navigate through my own vulnerability, open myself up and let him know how grateful I am for this gift that he has bestowed upon me.  

Swinging and Missing

A few days ago, I sent two well-meaning emails to colleagues.  As I read them after I had pushed the “send” button, I regretted that they were hurtling through cyberspace and landing in the inbox of these two recipients.  It’s not that they had an angry tone but they were too long, divulged too much information and were a bit tone-deaf to the sensitive matters that were at hand.  I know I’m not the only one who has sent emails they wish they hadn’t, but it’s not so common that I do so.  It was a swing and a miss.

mispelling on the word mistakes in a sign that says we all make mistakes

We can take big and little swings

I don’t like swinging and missing, but that is what we humans do. Sometimes, I wish I were a baseball player who has permission to swing and miss two thirds of the time and still be seen as a superstar.  Failed swings of much greater magnitude can leave me feeling quite bad. Sometimes, shame can rear it’s head as I berate myself for doing what I have done.

Guilt I can handle because it educates me. Perhaps next time, I’ll wait a day before pushing the send button. Unlike guilt, though, shame is corrosive, telling me that I am unworthy.  These two emails rose to the level of brief guilt, not shame, I’m relieved to say.

Living with bipolar disorder has caused me to have the biggest swings and misses of my life.  For me, there simply hasn’t been anything worse than hurting those around me. I refused to accept that I had bipolar disorder and for many years didn’t get treatment.  Despite efforts to spare those good souls pain by hiding my secret life away (the swing), I hurt them even more by doing so (the miss).

We can ease the angst of missing the ball

I have found two ways to ease the angst of sending emails I wished I hadn’t and causing pain to those I love.  First, I use the “war crimes” yardstick.  I ask myself: “Did I commit a war crime?”  Since I didn’t, it helps put my deeds in a kinder perspective.  The things I did likely may not have risen to the level that I feel they did.  Almost always the case. A gentler perspective helps.

Second, I try hard to identify the impulses that drove me to take the action in the first place.  The genesis is rarely to be intentionally hurtful.  Most often, it’s an attempt to protect someone else; it’s an attempt to protect myself; it’s an attempt to be closer to someone; it’s a cry for help; it’s an expression of fear; it’s an attempt to receive admiration; it’s an attempt to be noticed.

Recognizing all this allows me to quickly ease my feelings of guilt.  Do I expect myself to go through life without ever erring?  Sure, sometimes I do.  But at those times, I reflect upon what drove me to do things I did.  I travel on the path of humanness just like everyone else.  Sometimes that’s a bit humbling, but sometimes it allows me to feel that I have a world of fellow travelers and innumerable kindred souls.  In this regard, I don’t feel so alone.  And while I can disappoint myself and others, I know that my average of falling short of my high expectations is a lot better than two thirds. It’s OK to keep taking swings and realize my humanity when I miss. Immersed in a life of guilt and shame? No, thanks. Living in a world of humanness? Yes, please.

The Unimaginable gifts from bipolar disorder

I’m a sucker for Disney movies and I must admit that I recently had a brief love affair with Frozen’s Elsa.  Here we have a princess most definitely at odds with herself, kicking up an eternal snowstorm and freezing everyone out along the way.  Brrr…

Picture of woman holding gift box in her cupped hands
Photo by Kim Stiver on Pexels.com

The gifts of belonging

Bipolar disorder nearly snuffed out my soul.  So it might sound surprising, but I have come to see that this psychiatric illness has bestowed meaningful gifts upon me.  If I were still symptomatic, I’m sure I’d feel differently but I have the lucky luxury now of living in a stable space.  Having bipolar disorder allowed me to become a member of a psychiatric club (though I did pay my entrance fees with some mood swings).  I now have kindred spirits who help ease my loneliness and lessen my sense of isolation.  These connections affirm what I already learned long ago as a psychiatrist: we humans can only be our healthiest and truest selves by engaging with each other.  We simply can’t do it alone.  At some point you’re going to need to come down from that mountaintop, Elsa.

The gifts of navigating through adversity

I now know that i can navigate my way through diversity, because of my bipolar disorder. I forced myself to get out of bed when I thought I couldn’t. There were many impulses to harm myself and I resisted those. I functioned when it might have been understandable for me to collapse.  It’s clear to me now that I see a person in the mirror that I admire and this self-affirmation has been a much-needed antidote for my feelings of shame. 

The gifts of love

Most important, bipolar disorder allows me to experience the larger and deeper things that matter the most in my life: decency, honesty, compassion, forgiveness and humanity. I have the love of others and I love others in ways that I never have before. This is the most precious gift of all. I am truly blessed.  Bipolar disorder has become integral and essential to who I am.  It changed my identity by revealing my best and truest self.  And what about that older me?  I “Let it Go”.

Has living with a mental illness been a blessing? a curse? both?

Read more about the other gifts I have learned from patients by clicking here.