In a recent post, I wrote about how one of my most influential mentors, Dr. John Nash, recently (and very unexpectedly) passed.
He will continue to mentor me posthumously, as will his wife, Alicia, who passed with him.
I first learned about Dr. Nash’s life and recovery story through the movie Ron Howard made about his life.
Called “A Beautiful Mind,” it was actually the title that drew me in.
I had never before thought of any mind – let alone my mind – as beautiful.
But I loved the idea. That a mind could be beautiful – that was compelling.
At that time in my life (in 2001), my mind often felt more like a disaster zone – on a scale with Haiti or Japan.
It was a terrifying place – unpredictable, chaotic, rebellious and stubborn. It rarely made much sense.
Yet, just a few short years later (in 2004), by invitation I began sharing my recovery story. That is how powerful the “John Nash” effect was on me.
Recently a friend shared a powerful post called “Why the World Needs the Mentally Different” by Momastery blogger Glennon Doyle Melton.
While reading, I felt like her post might have been written by Nash himself, as she describes the addict’s existential dilemma – come out of their interior world to re-engage with a daily life that feels neither satisfying nor okay – or stay put.
Melton describes needing a reason or a mission to come out of the protective interior boundaries that addictive thoughts/behaviors can create.
She is right. I needed a reason too.
In his memoir by the same name (written by Sylvia Nasar), Nash describes his difficulty with setting aside the extraordinary mental life his schizophrenia could create for him…in favor of a life where he felt ordinary, average, like everybody else.
It was only when his schizophrenia interfered with his ability to perform his beloved calculations to the point where he became non-functional that reality became a more powerful catalyst than continued fantasy.
For me, the most powerful part of the book was when Nash likened his recovery from paranoid schizophrenia to “putting his mind on a diet” – refusing to permit it to indulge in thoughts that had in the past proven to be illogical, unproductive, or simply impossible – no matter how wonderful, exhilarating, or freeing those same thoughts might have felt.
I, too, had to put my mind on a diet to recover from anorexia and bulimia.
I had to put it on another diet to recover from anxiety and panic.
And – full disclosure here – I finally had to medicate it – a different kind of diet – to manage my ongoing tendency towards depression.
In this way, I have my own continuing recovery system – as Dr. Nash did right up until the moment he passed – for ensuring I can find sufficient nourishment, stimulation, support, and meaning through “normal” (aka “non addicting”) channels.
But it took some doing to convince me to make the attempt.
As Melton points out, the “mental differences” addictive-type minds often experience can serve as both deadly kryptonite and the survivor’s superpower.
She likens the experience to being the singing canary in the mine – the sole being who can sense the toxic gas before it quickly kills everyone inside.
Unfortunately, in this scenario, the only being who typically dies is the canary.
So clearly, this is a superpower that takes the most delicate and skilled of handlers to manage.
Melton ascribes having this particular superpower to also possessing a heightened sensitivity to life and the world – one which can cause many of its possessors to retreat into addictive behaviors or thought patterns rather than come out and meet the world’s need for such a gift.
As well, often the first awareness of having the gift comes from an experience of trauma.
A child observing how the words and actions of the adults around her frequently don’t add up….
A teen who is victimized while out on a date with someone s/he knows…
An adult who loses a loved one to a senseless act of terrorism….
It makes a strange kind of sense that witnessing, experiencing, being the target of such deep pain could in turn provoke the choice to simply “reject the world as it is,” as Melton says.
She writes about the daily battle such an addicted one faces:
…we turn on the news or watch closely how people treat each other and we silently raise our eyebrows and think: Actually, maybe it’s not me. Maybe it’s you, world. Maybe my inability to adapt to the world is not because I’m crazy but because I’m paying attention. Maybe it’s not insane to reject the world as it is. Maybe the real insanity is surrendering to the world as it is now. Maybe pretending that things around here are just fine is no badge of honor I want to wear.
So what finally enticed John Nash to put his mind on that all-important, schizophrenia-repelling diet?
What prompted Melton to reject her self-constructed sanctuary of (in her words) “food and booze and bad love and drugs”?
What made me feel initially confident enough I could survive “the world as it is” to decide to do the hard work of recovering from an eating disorder and panic attacks?
A big part of it was deciding I wanted to use my sensitivity for good – for my own good and that of others.
I wanted to pay it forward to continue the good work – the awakening, the revelation, the recovery – John Nash’s story had ignited in me.
Or, as Melton writes:
Because yes, I’ve got these conditions—anxiety, depression, addiction—and they almost killed me. But they are also my superpowers. I’m the canary in the mine and you need my sensitivity because I can smell toxins in the air that you can’t smell, see trouble you don’t see and sense danger you don’t feel. My sensitivity could save us all.
I realized it was my choice – how I used my superpowers. I could use them against myself and others, or for myself and others.
I could choose to listen to those who discounted me as “damaged goods,” as useless to society, as a liability even, or I could choose to listen to those who saw the place where my potential and this world’s deep need for my sensitivity and compassion met.
So I tuned in.
Drawing on the strength Dr. Nash (and other mentors before him) had loaned to me, I tuned in and noticed how much better it felt to see myself as valuable, needed, useful, precious, gifted.
I liked feeling better, and the more I worked at this new, better-feeling perspective, the stronger I got and the better I felt.
Today, like Melton, I am able to do my part to advocate towards the blessings of being mentally different.
Like the year my younger brother bought a Corvette and discovered (through a series of embarrassing if not life-threatening accidents) that just buying the car wasn’t enough – he would also have to learn how to handle its power before he could drive it like a pro – I had to learn how to handle my personality, my mind, and my sensitivity before I could use it for good.
I had to put my addict’s mind on a diet. I had to fight like a dog at first against my own fear of coming out of my self-constructed sanctuary.
I had to work even harder than that to believe the world I was coming back out to face had enough light left in it to make the work worth it.
Today, I know that it does. There is enough light, and I know where to look to find it.
So today, I’m grateful to be mentally different….and I am also starting to suspect being different is the norm rather than the exception.
Here is why.
We – those of us who live in first world, westernized areas – occupy a uniquely challenging place within global society today as we watch the international news of poverty, natural and political disaster, epidemic disease and power struggles from the comfort of our mostly plush and air-conditioned casas.
Perhaps this – this sensitivity to our comfortable yet often empty-feeling plenty (rather than the more commonly-assumed Westerners’ surfeit of growing narcissism) – is really at the root of our escalating levels of depression and anxiety, drug and alcohol addiction, excess spending, and other repetitive sanctuary-like (if unhealthy) thoughts and behaviors.
Perhaps we are all – or most of us, anyway – more “mentally different” than any of us realizes.
Today’s Takeaway: What are your thoughts on the “mentally different?” How do you relate to finding out someone you know struggles with addiction of thought or behavior? And, if you also struggle in similar ways, has it changed how you relate to yourself? Do you see having heightened sensitivity or vulnerability to conflict/crisis/chaos/feeling out of control as a weakness….or as a strength?
Beautiful mind concept image available from Shutterstock