Life lessons I squeezed from a lifelong severe mental illness

In the past I’ve written both an essay on the philosophical aspects of what I learnt from OCD and another essay on the practical measures that helped me keep it under control. Now I wanted to convey the little life lessons I learnt from decades of chronic mental pain. Stuff that isn’t directly about the disease, but might help anyone.

Plot friendship

Friends have kept me alive. I have rather a lot of them, despite not being that charismatic (or perhaps that’s false modesty and I am charismatic, but if so, it was very hard won). You need friends. Chances are you will not get friends organically unless you are in school or maybe in college. So you must make it happen. That means taking deliberate and systematic action.

Do these things 1. Give yourself chances to meet people. 2. Keep a list of the people you want to know better. 3. Make a list of the friends you do have and keep an eye out that you’re not neglecting any of them.

I know this sounds weird, maybe even creepy. However, we live in a newly atomised world- it was much less atomised even half a lifetime ago. The conventional wisdom hasn’t kept up with the atomisation. A much more active approach to your social life is needed than TV and books would indicate. If that makes you feel a little bit like the talented Mr Ripley so be it. Plot friendship.

You can’t enjoy what you grasp

You can’t really live if you hold your life too dear. So many things I worried about losing through my fears- freedom, dignity, life, reputation- I could not enjoy because I spent so long fearing for them. If you hold onto things too tightly, you lose time with them just as surely as if you had thrown them away.

Music helps

One morning I felt so bad- trapped and cold. Then I turned on the Mystery of Love by Sufjan Stevens and I felt completely fine.

We all know this right? “Music can help with depression!” but it’s more than that. Music, poetry, visual art- we to treat these things as “nice”. In reality, these are loadbearing pillars of our soul. You are cross-stitched with little bits of art and science and philosophy. That song lyric you can’t stop thinking about? It’s integrated into you now. Engineers and artists are the two closest things to sorcerers that exist. We don’t take them anywhere seriously enough. Cherish those who give you the materials to build yourself.

I regret every time I’m scoffed at someone singing along to music. I recently took up singing and can’t believe I didn’t do so years ago. Yousician costs 40 dollars a month and takes 10 minutes a day. Maybe my efforts are laughable, but it connects me with strips and veins of myself that would otherwise be inaccessible.

Shameless plug, I just made my first semi-serious attempt at covering a song here: it’s very rough and ready, but I’m proud I tried.

Life is better with a crazy ambition

I have a crazy dream. I won’t say “working towards that dream keeps me sane”, but it’s one of the little things that helped a bit. If you asked me what the odds of me pulling it off were I’d say about 1 in 30,000. That it is technically possible and that I want it to happen are about the only two things in its favour. I’m not going to reveal what it is- it’s too embarrassing- just think of some juvenile quest and you’ll be in the right vicinity. I selected it on the basis that even if it fails it will help me achieve a bunch of valuable intermediate goals the way. Consider picking one for yourself. Make sure it’s not dangerous to you or anyone else. If you’re not embarrassed by the thought of sharing it publicly it’s probably not crazy enough. Go wild, I give you permission to be a megalomaniac about this.

Whatever you do to the least sets the standards for everyone else.

My anxieties revolve around the fear that I might do something terrible. As such, I have spent far more time than most people contemplating what it would be like to be one of the most reviled people in society. The conclusion I keep coming back to is that the way we treat the most reviled people- think convicted serial rapists or killers for example- sets the minimum standard for everyone, and that has a trickle up effect on those nearish the bottom. It is in everyone’s interest to set that standard higher, because none of us know what the future holds. It may be true that you will never be in quite such a reviled position, and it may be true that right now you are far from the bottom. However, anyone can fall low enough that the minimum standard will be one of your few safety nets. You could end up like one of the people in Ronson’s book, for example.

Prayer helps even if you don’t believe

I don’t believe in God. I wish I did, but that’s not something I can control. Nonetheless when I become depressed or anxious I often pray. Sometimes I pray for myself, but mostly I pray for some kind of universal redemption or outpouring of mercy. Sometimes I weep while I pray. Sometimes I feel angry, and ask him for answers like Job shouting into the whirlwind. Sometimes I protest like a Karen asking to speak with the manager of the universe, appalled at what the customer service has done to 100 billion humans. Then I reflect that if he is real he has his reasons. I have no idea why, but this process helps me.

I dreamt I saw 
A portion of God's face
Only by his grace
Did I not see more
Lest I end like the sea
Ends a tributary creek

Rich in the mystery of darkness
Abundant in the revelation of light
The fire of his eyes is justice
And from that flame rises 
The incense of mercy 
And all the heat is love
And the cold is love too, 
Lest we burn away
All there is, is love


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The Tower (Tarot card) - Wikipedia

2 thoughts on “Life lessons I squeezed from a lifelong severe mental illness

  1. These are good lessons; thanks!

    ‘Plotting friendship’ is one of my embarrassing projects I’ve committed to. (I like your name for it!) You’ve inspired me to do it more-fully-heartedly.

    I feel very lucky that a few wonderful people defended among others for singing along to music; that helped, and maybe a lot really. (I’m sad some people hate that others sing along and I sympathize as I don’t hate others singing along but I do hate others talking over music.)

    I’ve been thinking along your ‘minimum standards’ line for awhile. (Again, I like your names for the ideas.) One of my favorite book series, The Culture series by Iain M. Banks, has this idea of ‘slap drones’, i.e. super-human and super-powered flying robots that just follow people around that have done something bad (i.e. to others) and prevents them from hurting other people (for as long as the super-intelligent AIs that run everything think it’s warranted). I think of that as a someday-practical ideal to aim for.

    The question then is what’s a feasible approximation to that now? (Practically reforming, or transforming, current systems to better approximate any ideal is a whole other puzzle!) I think there are levels and (a lot of) extra potential dimensions to this idea too (and you seem to imply or hint at them yourself). Beyond treatment of criminals, there’s, e.g. housing. There are a lot of options and possibilities between living on the street and living in a legally habitable dwelling. (And a LOT of people already live in dwellings, or have agree to terms about that housing, that isn’t legal.) Beyond simply building more legally habitable dwellings that are also affordable, we could accept some ‘substandard’ or currently-illegal living situations and NOT also add additional practical, e.g. legal, costs on top. (But, again, the politics is a whole other possibly-impossible puzzle.)

    I’ve never tried prayer seriously. Thinking about it now, I wouldn’t expect God to understand. That might read as a strange thing to think of an omniscient being, but I can’t imagine God sympathizing with me – on my level. Maybe that’s because of the idea of a Plan. I don’t trust other people to be sympathetic when I know or suspect that I’m an element in their plans either! if anything, we definitely can’t trust God! He’s certainly demonstrated an inability to give everyone a life they enjoy.


  2. Friend,

    With regard to the All-Good God, it is possible that you are unable to hear him directly. So he places those who cannot hear him directly under the charge of someone more willing to apply executive fiat.


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