Understanding Mental Illness in the Land of Opportunity
As with many of life’s most important lessons, I learned humility and compassion the hard way. I was dropped to the ground by my depression and alcoholism and held there until I cried “Uncle!” Only then was I willing – begrudgingly – to take a look at myself, my beliefs and behavior.
I did not like what I saw. Arrogance. Self-righteousness. Judge and jury. I was a pull-your-damn-self-up-by-your-bootstraps kind of snob, holding myself and others to impossibly high standards. If you people worked as hard as me, if you would get off your lazy ass and stop holding your hand out, if you stopped acting like a victim, the world would be a better place.
Problem was, not all people are capable of working as hard as me. They literally can’t get off their proverbial “lazy ass.” And some of them are not acting like victims – they really are. How do I know this?
Because my depression and alcoholism took me to a place where I could no longer work hard. I could not get off my “lazy ass.” I really was held hostage by my mental illnesses. I had to hold out my hand and admit I needed help. Once I got help – therapy, medications, 12-step meetings – I was able to look at myself and others from a completely different perspective. It was as though the clouds had parted and I could see what an asshole I had been.
As my years in recovery and remission passed, I began to wonder why. Why was I suddenly cut down? Why was I suddenly unable to do the things that had come so naturally before? What had “right-sized” me?
I learned that although we are equal in God’s eyes, we are not created equal. If we were, we would all be able to sing like Alicia Keys and run like Usain Bolt. We are each born with unique abilities and capabilities. Our physical limitations are easy to see. We would never expect Danny DiVito to play basketball as well as Michael Jordan. No matter how hard Mr. DiVito worked at it, he would never, ever be able to dunk like Mike.
There are plenty of other runners who have put in just as many hours at the track and in the weight room as Usain Bolt, but they will never run as fast as him because their bodies are not designed to run that fast. Their lungs are smaller or maybe the length ratio of their tibia to their femur makes it impossible to produce as much power and speed.
We accept these physical limitations. But we refuse to accept or ignore the limitations created by the differences in our brains. Maybe that is because we cannot see those differences or illnesses that limit our brain’s ability to perform. We blame the addict and alcoholic for their inability to control their drinking. We judge people to be deadbeats without knowing whether they have debilitating depression.
Most of all, we fail to recognize that all brains are not created equal. Some of us were born to mothers who drank during their pregnancies. Maybe they didn’t drink a lot, but enough to affect our IQ. Or perhaps we didn’t get the proper nutrition our brains’ needed when we were young children. Perhaps we were exposed to toxic substances that affected our brains. Or, just as someone is born with one leg longer than the other, maybe our hippocampus isn’t as fully developed as it should be and you have memory problems, which prevent you from performing well in a job that requires accurately recalling past events.
Or, maybe your cerebellum is just a tad smaller than it should be and you don’t have very good coordination. Perhaps some regions of your brain are highly developed, giving you exceptional math skills. The brain is so complex, our understanding is so limited and the smorgasbord of variations is so subtle and vast that who am I to judge whether or not someone’s inability to earn enough money to support themselves is the result of laziness and entitlement or a genuine, physiological condition that makes them incapable of ever achieving my IQ, physical prowess or critical thinking skills?
I have learned in my recovery, remission and research that no matter how much time some people spend in school, how many times they perform a task or how determined they are to succeed, there may be an organic brain dysfunction or illness that limits their abilities. It may be very subtle and we cannot see it, but it is there. And for me to assume that this person is equal to me and should be able to achieve what I have achieved if they would just work harder is, quite frankly, bullshit.
This logic has been gaining a lot of momentum lately. Yes, America is the land of opportunity. If we work hard we can achieve our dreams. We, as a democracy, should not allow anything or anyone to limit those dreams. But we, as a society, should recognize that everyone is not physically or mentally able to achieve their dreams – much less our dreams. We must stop lumping together those who physically and mentally cannot achieve these dreams and those who are capable but choose not to do so out of laziness and sloth.
We must admit and accept that there are some people in society that are different and deserving of our help – whether through food stamps, social security or prayer. We must stop assuming that they aren’t working hard enough. We must help each other – without judgment.
Stapleton, C. (2012). Understanding Mental Illness in the Land of Opportunity. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 31, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/depression/2012/11/understanding-mental-illness-in-the-land-of-opportunity/