Years ago I ran screaming from Corporate America after a scene eerily similar to that moment in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls when Ace walks into the room with all of the taxidermied animals on the wall and commences to freaking out before he utters, “…this is a lovely room of death.” I kid you not, I left my corporate job over “a lovely room of death.” (You can read the fuller story here, lest you think I jest.)
I moped around for a couple of years before I walked into a government mental health agency one day and asked for a job. It was strange. I had no qualifications in social work and yet somehow I was led down the hall to speak to the guy in charge and, in a fit of transparency, I told him I really needed a job, that I was whip smart, could learn anything, and that I would love to work for their organization and make a difference in the world. I explained that corporate life was not for me and I wanted to be of service. We discussed my background and after a few quiet moments he said, “You know, we’ve been considering hiring a Representative Payee and it sounds like you’d be the perfect fit.” Voila! I had a job in the mental health arena.
A Representative Payee (also known as a Protective Payee) is someone who manages the finances of those who receive Social Security Disability (SSD) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and have difficulty managing their money. I was to work with those clients who were chronically mentally ill and lived on site at one of our assisted living centers. I was stoked.
On my first day I donned my khakis, tucked in my polo shirt, slipped on my loafers, grabbed my briefcase (I don’t even want to hear it, thanks…) and drove the six miles to meet with my first client, we’ll call her Joan.
Me: “Hi, Joan, it’s great to meet you.”
[We both sit down at the gray specked formica table in a drafty kitchen of sorts.]
Joan: “I’m Pocahontas.”
I froze. I didn’t know what to say. I had no experience in dealing with this. Should I acknowledge that she is indeed Pocahontas or should I remind her that she is Joan? If I made the wrong choice would I set back her mental health? Quickly I decided that if she believed she was Pocahontas then I needed to let her be Pocahontas. It didn’t really matter in the end, because in that 1/2 hour conversation she was also Janis Joplin and some dude named Bob.
As I drove home in my pickup that day I remember, very strongly, having the feeling that perhaps Joan, and all the others I met that day, were somehow more connected than I; that the veil was just thinner for them and they had direct access to something I couldn’t even glean.
I worked for that mental health agency for seven years, went to school for two years for psychology, and Joan was many, many different people over the years (my personal favorite was Dorothy Gale.) I always maintained that theory and feeling that I had on the first day – that those clients were special and that they had more direct access than most of us.
Fast forward to today and I’m in the throes of dealing with mental illness right here at home. Anxiety, depression and PTSD have their deep claws in my boyfriend and I no longer have the distance, the khakis or the briefcase to buffer between the two of us.
His is not my story to share but, with his permission, I can share how this is affecting me.
Namely, I’m scared shitless and I loathe not being able to help. I’m a life coach, for hell’s sake, with all of these amazing tools in my bag and I can’t use a single one. Mainly due to the fact that I’m too close to this situation, but also because this is a job for therapists and I know the difference between life coaching and therapy. My guy is sick and our life has taken a big blow, one that I believe will heal, but that is still mighty painful and yellowing from the bruise.
What I know more than anything is that this is not my process. I can’t experience this for him. I have to let him feel what he feels and navigate his process, but let me tell you – when it’s someone you love this is excruciating. Sure, I can hold space, offer support, give my opinion, offer unconditional love, but I can’t change this or speed it up or make it go away. And mostly I’m okay with that fact. In the main, I feel calm and peaceful knowing that this is not my journey and though I’m walking alongside, I’m not walking through the storm itself, as he is. I have to say that does feel a lot more empowering than sobbing, beating my thighs and screaming, “Why us?”
I remember when I was suffering from pretty severe depression ten plus years ago. I think folks thought I should just suck it up and get out of bed. In fact, if memory serves, a few did utter words close to those. I would just look at them with droopy eyelids, rub my pasty cheeks and lie back down. I think we believe that mental illness isn’t a physical ailment. No one told me to get my ass out of bed post hysterectomy. In fact, people told me to rest, to take the time to heal, to not climb the stairs. Why don’t we do this when our brain needs healing? Shamefully, I believe all of this and then have the thought, “But there is something within you that needs to waken and fight.” Maybe it’s the survivor in us. Maybe it’s that we’re too scared from being in a situation outside of our control. Maybe it’s that we’re ignoramuses. I dunno.
If I’ve learned anything through all this it’s that I know nothing, though I have had one deep realization and that is that if I don’t take care of myself, there is no way I’m going to be able to be of support to him. So I’m being super kind to myself – reading lots of fiction, eating Cheetos Puffs (hey, that’s kind sometimes), and moving super slow (hence my long delay in writing this blog post.)
I’d be super grateful for some love sent our way through the ethers, but I’d also love to hear your experiences with mental illness, whether you’ve suffered yourself or you’ve loved someone who suffers. What are your thoughts on mental illness?