Empathy: learning life beyond the labels
Today is World Mental Health Day. I admit, I didn’t know it and there seem to be such days creeping up all the time from the fun (national donut day anyone?) to the annoying (lots and lots of Hallmark buy a $5 card for someone they will just throw away day) to the perpetual need to raise awareness and empathy. There is a stark lack of empathy in our culture full of critics these days. I’m not saying it’s not out there, but it’s maybe not our go-to move. So we do need to raise awareness to the unknown struggles we so often just can’t relate to – not as issues, but as people trying to live “normal” whatever that may mean for them with more challenges that is the norm-al for most. We cannot ever truly know what someone else’s life is like, but that doesn’t mean we should not seek awareness and care. We do not walk a mile in their shoes (such a thing isn’t possible) but we can and should be willing to walk alongside them for the journey.
My family, for instance, has some good genes and some bad ones. My parents managed to raise us with a strong care for others, a sense of commitment and obligation that is still laced with joy, and a desire for adventure shared with others. That isn’t all they bequeathed us but that captures the essence. We also sadly seem to carry mutated genes ripe for disease. So I’ve learned something about debilitating pain and disease as I have watched two sisters, a nephew, and a niece struggle with genetic disease that is so often misunderstood. (And despite all the criticism being thrown at it these days I am very grateful for Social Security and Disability that has helped keep with their financial heads above water… though that hasn’t always been the case.) My sisters, like so many others, can get labeled lazy, mentally unstable, or even self-destructive. Labeled even by a medical community that isn’t able or willing to try to understand their daily struggle to just maintain the status quo, and the reality that doing so wears their bodies and spirits out so that tomorrow’s normal is often less optimistic than today’s.
I’ve been that person who just thought my sister couldn’t manage her time and energy well. That she was just her own problem. And she is. Just not the way I originally thought. Some days she just lacks the ability to do those things. Not of her own will – but her body and mind truly lack the ability to do it. It is true of her body, but not her fault, it’s a condition she lives with but it is not all of who she is. My sisters and niece and nephew are all people of great strength lying beneath of shell of fragility. It isn’t their fault. It’s not my parent’s fault. It’s not society’s fault. It’s the fault of a chromosome that mutated in a nasty way. Life just isn’t fair.
But what can be our fault is how we treat people who have such struggles. It is society’s fault when we seek to leave such people without safety nets. It is our fault when we choose to add stigma to their struggles, and when we make their hard lives harder.
I have a good friend who is bipolar. He described it that life is lived from -10 to 10. -10 is like suicidal depression, and 10 is like over the top joy and giddy happiness. Zero is… well middle ground. He said that when I get to like a five or six my body produces chemicals in that excitement, but also helps bring me back to baseline – back to zero. His body can’t do that. When he gets to five or six the only way his body and mind know of to get back to zero is to go to -5 or -6 first. His body can’t regulate straight to zero, it has to swing fully the other directions to cancel itself out.
He was fun when he was at 5 or 6 or…. I mean he was the life of the party at 7 or 8. But it was a horrible thing to witness. Horrible because it meant tomorrow was going to be hell for him. And as friends we realized it was our responsibility to help him not go there… I mean not go to 7 or 8 because he couldn’t afford to go there and we couldn’t be the people who let him or encouraged him to do so. (And yes people did encourage it because it was fun to watch if you didn’t plan on being around the next day).
When a person breaks a leg they go to the doctor and get it fixed. That’s it. When I was in high school I missed six weeks of gym class and took all my tests orally with my teachers because I fractured my dominant wrist and couldn’t write. No one told me I was broken. My wrist was broken. No one told me I was weak, or messed up, or lazy, or a problem. They just did what they could to help me heal.
So why is it that so often when someone suffers from mental illness, or chronic pain, or things we can’t see that we so often default to seeing THEM as broken? Not that part of their body is, but that all of them is broken? We make broken their identity rather than simply a part of their life with which they struggle. Why do we so often presume mental illness is sign of a weak person? In fact many of people who struggle with mental illness are some of the strongest people I know. And some aren’t because they never had that option and no-one could, or would, help them out. It’s no easy diagnosis. Not their illness, not their care, not the future. But let that be the fault of the disease, the illness, the faulty wiring… let it not be the fault of people and society unwilling to become aware, change our minds, and walk with our friends through their joys, their hell, their daily struggles being part of the solution and not part of the problem. Look beyond the labels, beyond the stigmas, beyond the assumption to learn of/from people with mental illness and debilitating disease. Be willing to enter their world – heaven and hell in a daily pendulum swing – and speak by your presence your care and love. Awareness and empathy is a powerful gift each of us can give each other. Let us walk these trails together.