We're all walking around with a stack of potential problems. The key is to keep the tower from toppling.
I was talking to some friends recently about my post for BlogHer, "Can You Prevent Your Child's Eating Disorder?". While researching that topic, I interviewed Dr. Ovidio Bermudez from the Eating Recovery Center. He told me mental illness is not as cut-and-dry as one might think. He said:
And, since the disease is biopsychosocial -- our culture and the way we live play a role. None of those components are determinants -- it's not like 100% of the time you're going to have it, like Down's Syndrome. If you have the genetic code for Down's Syndrome, you have it. Eating disorders are not like that. We inherit vulnerabilities and protective factors.
Ever since that conversation with Dr. Bermudez, I've been thinking about the idea of latent mental illness. One of the reasons I put parental cancer into my young adult novel about anorexia (The Obvious Game) is that people seem to need there to be a specific external trigger for an eating disorder. Much like people want there to be a specific cause for depression or loneliness -- it's scary to think these things could just be in us like a tower of blocks waiting for a push.
I have mental illness blocks that I carry around. There's the eating disorder block, the anxiety disorder block, the existential depression block, the intrusive thoughts block, the perfectionist block, the loneliness block. Those blocks are just there, they are in me, whether they were inherited or environmentally generated -- who knows? Who cares? They are there, and it's my job to -- as much as is humanly possible -- prevent them from toppling.
Credit Image: stevendepolo on Flickr
I think of them in a stack, brightly colored. Over the years, the block on top has rotated. It used to be perfectionism and eating disorders on top. When my daughter was born, intrusive thoughts and loneliness topped the stack. After Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill and Newtown, it was existential depression about the state of humanity. Right now, it's the anxiety disorder block. The one that's on top is the one that falls first and hits me and everyone around me as it clatters to the forefront of my daily life.
That's the bad news. The good news is that the blocks can be braced against struts over which I have control. I can get therapy. I can take my medication. I can get enough sleep. I can eat good food. I can drink enough water. I can breathe deeply once an hour. I can work out. When I feel one of the blocks falling, I can stop what I'm doing and take immediate action to reinforce the stack, or I can just swear and let it fall all over myself and my family and friends. It's not my fault I have mental illness, but I do think it's my job to make sure I'm not toppling my own stack.
Just as I can take steps to reinforce the stack, I can also try to jump too high while balancing it. I used to do that all the time -- at one point when my daughter was a baby, I was working full-time, teaching a college English class and writing articles for two different magazines as a freelancer. Then I would get overwhelmed and cry to my family, all of whom would shake their heads sadly and point out gently that mightn't this be a problem of my own creation? Maybe I could dial the perfectionism down a few notches and say no to a gig that sounded great simply because I didn't have time to do it?
The day I fully faced that I was creating an environment for myself that made it impossible not to topple my unique blocks was tough for me. I was pissed that I had the blocks in the first place. Why couldn't I just have one that I could tuck under my arm and jump over any barrier? Why must my life be so damn hard? IT'S NOT FAIR! RAWWWWRRRR!
I lived in The Place of Rawwr for many years. I find myself tempted to go back there all the time, and it's usually when I haven't been tending to my block scaffolding. Of course it's not fair my brain sometimes chooses to react to a traffic jam like I'm facing a firing squad! But it's also not fair I can hear when others can't. To be fair would mean living in the world of Harrison Bergeron, a short story in which the Handicapper General ties weights to the ballerinas so everything is fair. I don't want to live in a world of weighted ballerinas. Even though I can't dance like that, I want to watch those who can.
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