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Sunday, February 22, 2009

"Useless, Useless"

...the title above is what Lincoln's assassin John Wilkes Booth muttered to himself, near death, while looking at his hands. I always wondered just what he was thinking about at that moment, and will I, near death, be thinking something similar?

In point of fact, I think we all feel "useless" from time to time. I know I do.

There is a terrific but not so well known song written by David Gates titled "Been Too Long On The Road" that has as it's first lines:

Always look so good on the outside
when you get to believin' it's true
Then you know that you're on your way

Heady stuff coming from a guy who once wrote a song with the opening line "If a picture paints a thousand words, then why can't I paint you?" ("If"). Anyway, so just what is the connection between John Wilkes Booth and a song by Bread? Well for starters, both seems to be different angles on one of the biggest challenges I've faced and face in my life, mainly that of people in my family who suffer from chronic mental illness.

I know, I know, unlike AIDS or Cancer, "mental" illness is not a trendy diseases that you can rally around and get Regis to support. There's no telethon for Mental Illness and in fact you're not supposed to even talk about it. But in the immortal words of many-a 70's comic, "Funk That".

Now at the risk of sounding defensive, while I've had my share of mental health challenges in life...I think we all have...and God know's I'm not model for anything (well maybe for Portly-Sized Boxers) own mental health has actually been okay. That's the blessing part of this rant. While a few members of my family have struggled (and do struggle) tremendously with depression and other related problems, by and large my experiences with them them haven't made me less mentally fact, I think they've done the opposite. The more I've needed to deal with family members who have trouble dealing with the realities of living, the better I've been able to deal with them myself. In fact, I can look back 20 & 30 years ago and see for myself just how much I've grown as a person.

Anyway, one of the problems in dealing with people close to you who suffer from mental illness is the feeling of "useless". No matter how much you try, no matter what you see as being the "obvious" solution, no matter how you try and express yourself, the fact remains that you are more or less powerless. It's no different than any other illness: I can't, by extension, offer up my immune system to help a young child fighting cancer, no matter how much sympathy I feel. Sure, you can try and be supportive, but in my experience this is one illness where that may make you feel worse after the effort. That's just a minor cruelty in a sea of them when it comes to this sort of thing.

Now from the outside, you may look at someone like me and think "okay, he's a bit pudgy, but he seems reasonably successful and appears to have his act together" and I couldn't argue with you. I'm working on the pudgy part by the way. Like most things from the outside though, the view is ever so skewed. Like the song goes though, I can't myself believe that it's true, because if I did, I'd surely be on my way. No, the view from the inside is one of always trying to balance my own sense of self and my own mental health so that I'm overwhelmed by the waves of illness that seem to crash on me all too frequently. It's not easy, but no one ever said that life was.

Finally, I suppose someone could read this and think "Well boo freak'n hoo Steve! Stop your complaining and self-loathing", and that's their prerogative. They would be wrong though. Far from self-loathing, I'm actually okay within my own skin, thank you very much. I have found though that writing about how I feel, even about painful subjects like this, is probably one of the best ways to prevent myself from "believin' it's true". I've not done a lot of writing about these kinds of things here, but over the years I've actually done a lot of it via other venues. I write about this because it helps me understand these things better; the fact that this is a public venue is all the better: public venues make you all the more careful and thoughtful about what you say; they maybe also send a signal that it's okay to talk about something as shunned as Mental Illness. As for complaining, I'm not better or worse off than anyone else, and in fact I think that the things I may struggle with in fact pale in comparison to those of others. That doesn't mean that I don't feel what I feel though.

In the end, what matters is that you be able to look at yourself in the mirror...pudginess aside...and be reasonably comfortable with that you see. That's the gift I think I have that some close to me seem to lack. For that I will always be grateful.

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