The Big Dipper and The Navy Yard

By September 20, 2013Blog

I stepped out my front door around 10:30 last night. The moon, not yet quite full, lit up the landscape overhead and at my feet. A covering of gauze clouds painted the sky with broad, light strokes except for a long oval where the Big Dipper, my favorite constellation, lay inside a cloud frame. I was overcome with emotion; how could this be? How could these particular stars, drawn so beautifully and the dipper that reminds me of cold water on the hot prairie, how could they now be framed like this if it weren’t for me, especially me? I decided to not question the gift, which is progress in itself.

I may not question the gift, but sometimes, when my courage fails me, I question myself and my life-choices.  There is no health without mental health, it has been said.  I know this yet there are still times I think about stopping my medication, buying a quart of vodka and staying up all night drinking.   I know, too, that alcohol can be used to self-medicate, dulling the suffering of mental illness and at the same time, it can exacerbate the symptoms.  At times, it feels easier to sink into mental illness or anesthetizing it than it does to stay within the bounds of mental health.

But what would become of me? Firstly, I’d be giving up 12 years of sobriety – the hard fought, hard won freedom from addiction and the all-important positive changes in my self-esteem and in my relationships with my friends and family.  My relationship with myself has changed as well; I can love myself and my life in the face of the suffering and uncertainties in a way I couldn’t when I was drinking.

I look into my heart for who I am, who I am not and guard myself at those times of failing courage. It isn’t my moods that are sinister –  they don’t lie in wait for me. It’s me who can be sinister to myself, that person who yells at me from inside my head to give up, give in. It’s seductive.  But I’m not willing to lose so much and it’s the willingness to remain healthy that turns to courage in all of us who deal with mental illness. We’re a tough and resilient crowd!

I ran into an old acquaintance the other day and told him about Bring Change 2 Mind and he said that he thinks we all deal with mental illness of some kind. He also revealed he hadn’t been out of his house for four days, struggling with his own demons.  {{{{JESSIE – WAS ALCOHOL AFFECTING HIM?}}}  I’m grateful I can leave my house these days and feel fortunate that my work with Bring Change 2 Mind has been so critical in helping me move out of my former isolation and pain into a community of people who are moving forward with their lives in positive ways – no matter what mental illness deals them.

I have met many who resist mental health. They are the people who don’t ‘believe’ in medication. I used to begin sinking when I spoke to one of them; I would find myself embarrassed that I was taking medication, I would allow myself to think badly of my treatment, as though these people knew what was best for me. But when I stop and think about the immense difference between how I was then and how I am now, the embarrassment dissolves.

I know I’ve made the right choices for myself around medication and I am secure in that now.  The lure of the bottle also fades with the recognition of all I’ve gained from leaving it behind.  The only “Big Dipper” I need is my favorite one – the life-oriented constellation that I enjoyed last night.

Friends, family, my new Bring Change 2 Mind community and even medication play a role in my ability to remain steadfast and focus on my health.  Alcoholics Anonymous has also helped me stay sober. In addition, I have attended Dual Diagnosis groups and found them inspiring. To sit in a room full of people who are not only alcoholic but who are mentally ill as well is at the same time awe-inspiring and sobering (quite literally!). I have broken down and sobbed in one of those meetings and the understanding I found there was powerful.

I know I would not have been properly diagnosed if I still drank. That in itself is a reason to stay sober, one day at a time. I’ve made the commitment to stay sober until midnight tonight. I make another commitment if I’m awake at midnight, another in the morning if I was asleep at midnight. Perhaps some day I won’t make that commitment… but some day isn’t here and I won’t worry about it.  I’m stronger than the tug toward dissolution and devastation.

The recent shooting in the Navy Yard has everyone talking about mental illness again, a conversation we make after each tragic shooting. I mourn and pray for the families left behind.

I heard, on the radio today, a military representative say that he doesn’t think mental illness should carry the stigma that it does, that if someone isn’t well they shouldn’t be afraid to get help.  I couldn’t agree more.

Yet we also know that people who are struggling with serious mental illness may not be able to reach out for help – may not even be aware they are ill, or get the help they so desperately need when they are in crisis.   Our fragmented complex mental health system has broken down.  People break down.  The answer is not prison and restraints.  We need to continue to drive the dialogue in our society about open access to weapons of destruction, about the need for community-based resources for those struggling with mental illness and for their families and the role medication and therapy can play in early intervention.

I tend to not think about whether a murderer is mentally ill or not; I like to think of all the millions of us who are doing what we need to do for ourselves, our loved ones, in the face of mental illness. I bless all of us who struggle with thoughts of suicide, all of us who find ourselves in a fetal position but who still make the huge effort to find help. Murder and mental illness are not synonymous. The great strides we’ve made treating the mentally ill can be celebrated.  Stigma, and the fact that mental illness is misunderstood is slowly eroding. We need to shout out our support of each other.
These are the thoughts that I think as I remember my evening with the Big Dipper, which reflects my connectedness with nature, family, friends and the beautiful community Bring Change 2 Mind is building.   It is the triumph of the spirit over suffering, of love over hate, of courage and resilience over fear that leads me to call everyone to Pledge to the Bring Change 2 Mind Principles, which Glenn and I created.  If you re-read the Principles, you will find the ways we can care for one another in moments when we are vulnerable or unable to help ourselves.

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