Funny thing about people who suffer from serious mental illness: They tend to make all these big plans but never really follow through with anything.
I don’t fault them. For one thing, they have an illness. Also, I used to be just like them.
Watching the start-stop-start-thud behavior of a friend is reminding me of what I used to do. My friend, who I won’t name, always has some big plans afoot. There was the plan to go half way around the world to film a documentary that was downgraded to a book project when the better thing to do in the face of technical difficulties was to collapse in despair and quit. The book project never got off the ground.
There was the plan to relocate to another state to teach that was somehow downgraded to various odd jobs that ended quickly over petty disagreements.
Then there was a return home to do more educational work that ended after less than three months.
There are plenty of reasons why these things happen. Sometimes a person is simply plagued by all kinds of bad luck. But when mental illness is at work, all of life’s curve balls become overwhelming, seemingly insurmountable calamities.
In college my great passion was to be a great journalist. Every class I took and every side activity I did was devoted to that goal. I rose far and fast in my first reporting and editing jobs, and the ultimate goal was to be a top editor for a daily newspaper. I got the night editor job at The Eagle-Tribune and that quickly turned into an assistant editor job for the paper’s New Hampshire editions.
Then my fear and anxiety started to surface. I had a difficult boss. The hours were brutal. Whenever a really big news story was unfolding I’d start to feel cold panic, even though I wasn’t one of the reporter’s running to the scene. A couple of my projects ran into trouble, and I started to seriously believe that I was no longer capable of coming up with a good idea and following through on it.
I lasted another couple years in the job but did nothing of any real importance. I started to dream up the next big chapter of my life: A writing job of some sort in the healthcare field. I was so overwhelmed with my disease that I felt like I’d be making a hell of a dent in the world by working for a hospital or some other health organization. Jobs in that industry proved hard to find, so I seriously started considering jobs that had nothing to do with any of my dreams and goals. I thought about joining the U.S. Postal service and actively looked into what it would take.
A week later I was talking to my father and step-mother about returning to the family business. Surely, I thought, I could do great things there with all the management skills I had learned as an editor. I could make it more than the obscure job I remembered throughout high school and college by starting up a couple charities. Surely, Dad would pay me to spend all my time on that.
That grand plan lasted about two weeks. My father brought me back down to reality by telling me he didn’t have any open positions. Thank God he threw cold water on me. Otherwise, I might have gone backwards instead of forward.
Things ultimately worked out. I got a job writing about cybersecurity — a topic I’m passionate about to this day — and I’ve kept at it. The reason, I think, is that I finally reached a point a few months into that job where I knew I had some deep issues I had to deal with. My emotional and spiritual growth has run a parallel course with my career and it has made all the difference.
I’m told that I was always a stubborn kid who would decided to do something and stick with it hell or high water until I reached the prize. When I wanted to lose weight I would focus in on it like a laser beam and throw myself into diet and exercise until I was thin. I got there by some unhealthy means, mind you. But that’s another story. The bottom line is that I did what I felt I had to do to get where I wanted to be.
That stubborn resolve definitely served me well early in my career as I clawed my way into the news business. And it served me well when I decided to start doing something about the problem that was eventually diagnosed as OCD.
But the fear and anxiety certainly sent me off course several times along the way.
I was lucky, because I’ve usually regained my footing just in time, or smarter people would stop me from making dumb moves, like going back to the family business.
Some are not as lucky. They set goals that look insurmountable the second fatigue and frustration set in. I really feel for them.
I hope my friend is able to snap out of it.
Art by Bill Fennell