Letter to Narelle: Achieving Critical Mass

John McManamy Health Guide
  • In a response to an earlier sharepost of mine, Narelle wrote:

    “You mentioned something about not being able to achieve ‘critical mass’ for recovery. I often feel like that ... When does one reach critical mass? I try every day to live properly and take care of myself and something always comes up ...  I have been in hospital 3 times this year for med related issues.”

    Sometimes, Narelle, I feel like I’m one of the lucky ones. This is despite the fact that my life has been touch and go ever since I can remember, and that my recovery, at best, is highly conditional. The nineties for me was a lost decade. I had pretty much resigned myself to my fate as the crazy uncle in the family. Then - miraculously, it seemed - I was delivered. Whatever had been holding me back was no longer holding me back. I could work on getting my life back.
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    Okay, Narelle, I’ll do my best to answer your question:

    One of the major recovery principles is to play to your strengths. I’m a writer. I can honestly say that in every other aspect of my life I’m a total unmitigated f***up. So it made no sense to set myself up for failure. Instead, I literally wrote my way out of a suicidal depression and into recovery. My first job out of law school back in the early eighties was writing very short summaries of judicial decisions for a legal publication. Soon after, I parlayed this experience into a career in financial journalism.

    History was about to repeat itself. I was good at summarizing. I was good at breaking down complex issues. I was good at connecting the dots. I knew nothing about mental health or science, but I was confident in my ability to learn on the job. After all, knowing nothing about finance didn’t stop me from becoming a financial journalist.

    Soon after my diagnosis in early 1999, I discovered this thing called the internet. This was literally a gift from God. I had instant access to information. Even on a steam-driven dial-up connection, I could research in one hour what would have taken five of me to research in one week.

    Moreover, I didn’t need to raise capital or get into debt by publishing the old fashioned way. I could literally go into business for myself.

    So I started putting into plain English med journal articles with titles such as, “Enhancement of Hippocampal Neurogenesis by Lithium.” (Translation: lithium grows new brain cells in a region of the brain associated with memory. Significance: until very recently we didn’t think new brain cell growth was possible.) I incorporated these digests in the form of an email newsletter and hit “send.”

    I didn’t worry that I was making no money off the effort. The money would come. You start by picking up a broom and sweeping the floor. Keep sweeping long enough and eventually someone will pay you for it.

    Basically, I had to let go of any sense of entitlement. No one owed me a living. No one was going to pay me for learning on the job. Like anyone else who loves their work, I had to create my own job, I had to put in the hours.

  • I didn’t worry that I wasn’t good enough or that I would make a fool of myself. Of course I would make rookie mistakes. Of course I would make some amazingly bone-headed decisions.
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    Obviously, I had to let go of my fear. Okay, I held onto one fear - that of being the crazy uncle in the family the rest of my life. Not taken seriously, no self-worth - that life sucked. But it was a comfortable life. I guess I had to hate it badly enough and at the same time want something else badly enough for something to happen. I guess that is what I mean by “critical mass.” Something literally shifted in me. I became unstuck.

    What helped me out enormously, Narelle, was the fact that I was receiving positive feedback from those early newsletters. That plus my own sense of personal gratification. I can’t emphasize the vital importance of a pat on the back, whether it is coming from yourself or from others. We earn these pats on the back through playing to our strengths, whether that strength is gardening or cooking or basketball or filing documents or writing. Perversely, when we are ill, we tend to lose interest in the very activities that give meaning and value to our lives.

    So now I could dare to imagine possibilities, of having my own business, of a measure of respect, of a life I could call my own. I was turning a vital corner. The obstacles in my path, though formidable, were inconsequential. There was no holding me back, now.

    But this is only half the story, Narelle. I’ve only talked about playing to my strengths. But recovery also needs to focus on personal weakness, the things that hold us back. Things such as our fears and anxieties and lack of social skills and bad habits. I had to work on those, too, plus pick up new skills and habits. I will pick up on this train of thought next week.

    Earlier, I mentioned that I consider myself one of the lucky ones. This is because I was able to finish college on my second try and at least enjoy a decent run at a career and loving relationships before my illness derailed me. I had a baseline. My writing had been tested in the real world, so I knew I had a legitimate strength.

    But what about those whose train has literally never left the station? you may ask Who may have dropped out of school, who never had a decent job, who could never stay in a loving relationship. What strengths? you may justifiably wonder.

    I hear you. I’m looking forward to addressing your concerns in future shareposts and in my recovery series here at BipolarConnect. But for right now I will leave you with this thought:

    Suppose tomorrow a new med were to come on the market and that this med proved to be your salvation. Suddenly, overnight, your brain started working right. Suddenly, miraculously, you could think, you could feel, you could function.

    What now? you may ask. What are my choices?

    Aha! Without realizing it, you are taking stock, performing a personal inventory. You are daring to think you have strengths.

    Yes, you actually have strengths. Hold that thought. Achieving critical mass may be in your future.
Published On: January 24, 2008