I do wonder if people who have cancer think about their cancer every day and ponder if they ever will be completely healthy again. I wonder if people afflicted with diabetes or arthritis open their eyes every morning and, as one of their first thoughts, recall their diseases. I wonder if it’s possible that a person living with the realities of multiple sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease can get out of bed, shower and dress, then eat breakfast without the thought of their physical issues crossing their minds.
Does a woman or man whose spouse recently has passed away ever stop thinking about missing that husband or wife? If not, how quickly does that absence affect the heart and mind daily? What about a parent whose child has passed away, particularly a rather young child? Does that man or woman wake up each day hoping the daughter or son will greet them with a “good morning” in the kitchen or expecting them to walk through the door at any minute?
I can’t answer any of those curiosities. I’ve never had cancer and don’t have MS. My marriage has lasted 31 years and counting, as I kiss my wife good-bye as I leave for work each morning. All four of my children are alive and healthy. (Praise God!) Although I’ve known people living in all those circumstances, I only can imagine their daily thoughts and feelings.
The first time Donna and I gave our presentation for the “In Our Own Voice: Living With Mental Illness” presentation, I fully expected that I knew every word she would speak. We had gone through training together and thus shared the experience of developing our thoughts and feelings. Each of us is supposed to speak for about 20 minutes – I always talk too much, she occasionally does – as we alternate back and forth in six segments.
I knew I would ad-lib and expound on some stories once we actually gave presentations; I really thought Donna would stick by her scripted 3-by-5 notecards. She surprised me. Several times. A couple of the stories she told and thoughts she recalled having from the last dozen years frankly were difficult for me to hear. They all were sincere and true, but it pained me that I had put Donna through many of the hardships and fears as I battled the depression and anxiety.
We have given our presentation about 15 times. Her memories and some of her recollections still strike a blow to my heart with a combination of guilt and determination not to give up seeking improved health.
One of her thoughts frequently inspires me with hope and a desire to embrace a positive attitude. It’s about her friend – and my friend – Neil. I don’t know him nearly as well as she does, but well enough to have heard pieces of his story and to marvel at his strength. When Neil was in his early 20s, he loved to ride his dirt motorcycle. He loved to ride fast, with a good hint of danger involved at times. One day, he was blasting along way too fast for the conditions (his words) and hit the brakes at the last moment, for either a sliding stop or to turn back around. His back tire couldn’t find any traction in the gravel surface, causing the bike to fly out from beneath him and toss himself to the ground – perhaps into a tree, though I don’t remember that for certain. As soon as he realized what had happened, Neil has told me, he immediately knew something was very wrong.
That happened about 15 years ago, I guess, and left him a quadriplegic. He has been a wheelchair ever since, unable to walk and with precious little dexterity with his hands.
All of that perhaps has slowed Neil a bit; none of it has stopped him from living an active, enjoyable life. He works a fulltime job. He drives his own car. He dates and has had girlfriends. He attends plenty of functions upon invitations from his family and large circle of friends. He plays wheelchair sports, including racing and a pretty physical form of rugby, and has won awards for his abilities. Donna met Neil when he was serving as a youth minister on a theatre retreat for high school students; from the first moment she met him, Donna knew that Neil had a uniquely positive approach to life, in part because of his Catholic faith as well as his natural makeup, that impressed anyone he met.
“If Neil woke up every day and right away had the thought about his physical handicaps,” Donna said to the audience at our first presentation, “then he could just feel sorry for himself. He could think, ‘I’m not going to be able to walk for the rest of my life.’ That could keep him from doing anything. But he doesn’t do that.
“So I don’t want to wake up everyday thinking about Mike’s depression and how it might affect our day.”
Neil’s paralysis is a fact of his life. He can’t escape dealing with it as soon as he awakens each day. I’m sure he requires much more time and effort getting ready to head out the door than most of us. Surely he has mastered the process of getting out of bed, showering, maneuvering in his kitchen for breakfast, getting into his van and driving to whatever is on his day’s schedule. Those activities would challenge the rest of us. I can speculate that Neil has those days when he wishes he could move more quickly, that he could walk instead of wheel throughout the day. He might even face that thought several times during some days. But though his limbs are paralyzed, Neil is not. He lives a relatively full life.
Most days, I think about my depression within the first five minutes of my eyes opening. I don’t feel sorry for myself; I just do a quick self-check: How do I feel today? Primarily, it’s done to prepare myself for how much effort I will require to muster through the next five minutes, the next hour, the entire day. Unfortunately, more often than not I recognize that I will need some strength and energy. Some days, it takes a couple of hours to summon what I need; other days, I get started but have to operate on an hour-by-hour basis. At every turn, I am asking God to supply my strength and for me to have the grace to turn toward Him.
Should I fight the daily urge to perform that self-check? I don’t know. Maybe I would spend less time being self-conscious about the depression. Maybe a day without thinking about it would lead to a day of not being affected by it. One concern, however, would be that it would lead me to think I can ignore the use of the tools I have learned help me cope.
One of those coping tools: Turning to God.
Indeed, if thinking about my depression daily, even hourly, leads me into leaning on prayer, my faith and my God daily, even hourly, then it’s a price worth paying. I have learned that detachment from my ego and abilities allows me to lean upon God and depend upon Him. So even when I am weak, I find that I am strong, that He will provide all the help I need.
Something tells me it’s a message Neil learned long ago. May I never stop musing upon that.
By the way, if you are interested in booking Donna and I for a free “In Our Own Voice” presentation to any group, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re willing to consider going anywhere to share our story and message.