To be nobody but yourself in a world that is trying its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle any human being can fight and never stop fighting.
I am sure that this resonates with many of you. You know where the pressure comes from. It comes from bosses, teachers, peers, friends, and your family. You learn by observation: who wears a hat and a bowtie these days? Television, books, movies, and the omnipresent Internet tell you how you should act, dress, and think. This struggle against conformity can be overwhelming. You are who you are because Society tells you who you must be.
But there is a harder fight that e.e. cummings did not recognize: the battle with your own mind!
I live with bipolar disorder. When I am in episode, I become someone else. If I am manic, my mind says I am superhuman and a god. My poetry is the best, I am the greatest speaker, I am touched by the Holy Spirit. It has led me to former Yugoslavia in the midst of a war, to fight with my friends, and harry my wife.
When depression smothers me, I am convinced that I am vermin and an embarrassment. Should I spare others, I ask myself. Should I hide in my home?
Paranoia: If I am manic, I live in my own James Bond adventure. Is that car following me? Is that woman spying on me? Is my phone being tapped? When depression brings on this delusion, the assumptions become darker. During one period, I believed my brother-in-law was hacking my computer. No amount of reason could dissuade me from my belief. Lynn tried, but I held fast to the notion. “I am not paranoid” I would yell.
The strange thing was that I knew on a deeper level that behind all these warped personalities was a self who knew that these behaviors were absurd. This real self could not express itself, could not calm the disputatious sea inside me. My life was a continuous current of babble and self-deprecations as I swung from mania to depression and back again. It was a continual succession of tides, some of black mud, some of fire.
I am at war with my brain. It has gone so far as to try to kill me.
Suicide is not the only way the brain attacks the mentally ill. Schizophrenics suffer many of the same symptoms as I do except I experience them when my mood goes up or down: they feel them all the time. They may exhibit what is called word salad: Donkeys monkeys eucalyptus bend the green tortoise break imagination. When they don’t know that they are sick it is called Lack of Insight.
People with OCD are all too aware that something is wrong. Obsessions swoop into their brain and they can’t let them go. Compulsions make them do odd things: for example, I know of one man who leaves notes on everything. “Don’t move this. Leave this alone. If you use this, clean it.” If his son ignores the Post-Its, Father feels the end of the world is coming.
Escape from this confused world is difficult. Let me read you my poem, Recovery:
One day you realize
kudzu is choking the forest.
You hack and chop.
It comes back
thicker than crabgrass.
You persevere, exposing
the oaks and the roses
as best you can
even though you never find
the roots of the vine.
I saw a video recently about a man who learned to ride an unusual bicycle. It had been engineered so that if you pointed the handlebars to the right, it went left. If you pointed them to the left, it went right. He spent eight months learning to ride that bicycle, but one day he did it. He set his son the same challenge: the boy mastered it in two weeks.
You’re asking what this has to do with you. Many of you are not mentally ill. You have sad days, but they pass. You have strange thoughts, but you ignore them. But each of you faces your own contrary bicycles. How do you learn to ride them?
My recovery has taught me this: First, you must admit that you have a problem. Second, you must decide what you must do about it. Self-knowledge is vital: Who are you? Take the time to reflect on this and release that self. Third, you must get on that bicycle — it changes every few years — and learn to ride it.
“Habit is habit,” wrote Mark Twain, “and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs one step at a time.”
I did not magically recover as soon as I started taking medication. It took time for them to work. Then I discovered that I had certain bad habits which I had developed as a way of coping. Those had to go, too. That was my struggle.
People who overcome alcoholism often go through a stage called the dry drunk. They don’t finish the job of recovery. Many stop here, tormenting their friends and families. The smart ones move on.
Have you ever changed? Are you a dry drunk? Toastmasters can teach us many things. One of the most important is compassion. Appreciate the struggles that the new people undergo and give them aid. Even advanced speakers have bad days — usually when they have a fight with the projector. Have compassion for them and have compassion for yourself. I guarantee you that as you move through life, you will either have to change or become a distressed person. Be prepared.
This is what my battle with my mind offers you: Engage your faults honestly and with resolution and you will win.