Thursday, September 15, 2011

The non-linear world of managing body and mind

I recently had the privilege of interviewing American political journalist James Fallows about his thoughts on Barack Obama. Since Fallows was a speech writer for President Jimmy Carter I was aware his opinion would probably be quite insightful. The first thing he said was that being a president involved having to monitor and respond to a thousand variables all at once. It struck me that this observation also applies to many of us who are less prominent, not least those who struggle with mental illness.

So far on my blog I have written about my own story of mental crisis, breakdown, recovery and ongoing life-management. While the overarching narrative has resembled this positive arc I want to today discuss how living with a mental condition is seldom a simple linear story. I think the picture of a president running a country is helpful in explaining what I mean by this. This is because despite the best thought out plans and strategies, I with my bipolar disorder and Obama with his presidency have to deal with things that are sometimes (or indeed often) out of our control.

Obama thinking
Crises have no respect for one's present circumstances. I remember in the early days of coming to terms with my diagnosis I wished I could press a pause button on the world around me while I got better (I think many can relate to this sentiment regardless of their mental circumstances). I imagine Obama has had this thought more than once as he has gone through having to deal with a series of troubles both natural and man-made.

I have learnt to deal with the "pause button" wish by picturing another helpful image - that of a school or dwelling place undergoing major reconstruction whilst having to continue operating at the same time. Most of us can relate to the challenges such a situation brings. We know what life was like before the interruptions began and want things to be comfortable and predictable again. Where are the students to have assembly while the main hall is out of action? What will become of my job as I struggle with this bout of depression?

Part of the answer to such questions is to square up with the reality of one's situation and then resolve to limit the amount of time you spend thinking "if only" this and "if only" that. The image of reconstruction is most helpful here: I may be inconvenienced now, but just wait until I reclaim that building. How much better will life be when I have dealt with that troubling memory that has tripped me up for so long, even if dealing with it hurt a little? 

I think many of us experiencing mental trouble could use a self-esteem boost. Going through mental trials can be every bit as difficult as managing an economy and a nation, so coming back to the president metaphor for a moment, why not consider oneself with the esteem we so readily give to heads of state?