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Alright, so I was writing my thoughts on how the Lost Souls in Disney Pixar’s Soul were a profound revelation to me about my mental health, and an answer to those around me who, with good intentions or not, try to tell me how I can overcome my multitude of problems. Check out my exploration of the metaphor of the lost souls as a picture of mental health struggles, and how it’s not a simple matter of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. It got a little out of hand. Then it got out of hand again (more than 8,500 words…), and it looks like I’m going to have to split this up into three parts as well, because this just got way too long. Here’s the set up and the product of that tangent.
Lost Souls are portrayed as people who’ve become fixated and obsessed with something to the point where they cannot leave the zone. The flow state becomes like the River Styx – you’re trapped, and deteriorating, and your autonomy erodes away as you become consumed with something. I think I’ve heard it said that this is a portrayal of addiction – and I guess it can be. But I think the broader umbrella is obsession or fixation, conflated with detachment from reality, which would include addiction. It also includes depression, anxiety, and maybe even things like Schizophrenia and borderline. I think that a lot of mental health issues, whether psychotic or neurotic, physiological or psychological, can be contained within this metaphor of the Lost Soul. For me, it really is like a negative flow state. I come across concepts all the time for how to “solve” mental health. “Just do this. Don’t do that. Don’t let it get you down. Reach out. You’re in control of your thoughts and emotions.” On and on. And I’m not sure whether the movie meant to do this or not, but I feel like shoving 22’s scene as a lost soul into certain people’s faces and saying, “screw you, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I know Hercules isn’t really about that, but I do keep coming back to the imagery of the River Styx because for me, that’s what it can feel like when I get trapped in one of my many mental health snares. Just a recap, I’ve gone through diagnoses of “mild” depression, sex addiction, premenstrual dysphoria, seasonal affective disorder, attention deficit (not hyperactive) disorder, borderline personality disorder, and anxiety. I used to get angry with each new one, because it felt like people just kept getting it wrong. But I think I’m coming to the point of believing that I likely do have all of them, in a sort of tree or web. They all coexist and feed off of and into each other, like rivers or trees. I think the PMD, SAD, borderline and ADD are the hubs that result from chemicals/physiology, with the depression, anxiety, and sex addiction being more like psychological manifestations that likely wouldn’t be there without the others. Let’s hope that’s all of them.
Anyway, without being able to understand this mosaic network of fractured relationships I have with the world and myself, it would be easy to say that I should “just” do this or that. I beat myself up for not being able to follow the advice of my therapists and friends, who also don’t understand why I don’t “just” do x, y, or z. “Just go on medication. Just do this program. Just tell us when you’re struggling.” And I want to. Oh, you have no idea. I make plans, and I try as hard as I possibly can.
But if you don’t understand what this is like, picture this: you’re going down a nice, calm river in a raft. The scenery is beautiful. The water is clear and lovely. You’re by yourself, and your raft has everything you need in it. Emergency supplies. Sustenance. A good book, a camera. Binoculars. Things are great. Other people have their own rivers, and sometimes they intersect and you can float together for awhile before they drift off on their own. However, you can’t get off this raft, and you can’t get a new one if this one sinks. If it sinks, you’re dead, because you can’t go to shore or get into someone else’s raft, as much as others may try to help you. Or maybe the shore is heaven, and drowning is hell. I don’t know. Either way, once your raft is done, so are you, and you might believe that you will get to shore by jumping out, i.e., killing yourself, but there’s no guarantee that you won’t just drown.
Now imagine that your raft is patchy and full of holes, being held together by duct tape and glue. This is trauma that broke through the protective shields that we have in our minds, and is now permanent. Yes, we patched it up and are functional, but it’s still vulnerable. Imagine that the plastic your raft is made of is weak, and flimsy. This is our physiological imbalances and damage, for example having an underdeveloped brain or a brain that’s been damaged by something. Even with these things, your raft can still float, an you can still enjoy the scenery and your book and your snacks, and hold some emergency supplies. But now imagine that while other people have those huge swan rafts with massive speakers and tons of leg room and secure storage spaces, yours is small. Maybe now you have less room for snacks, or binoculars, or extra supplies. This represents the resources in our lives, which limits what we can do to prepare for disasters or enjoy life. Things like family and other support systems. Money. Time. Energy that comes from sleeping and eating properly, which can be severely limited by the type of job we have or our family history. Some of us just don’t have the luxury of time to build a support system.
Alright, so you’ve got your raft. You know whether yours is full of holes or generally unscathed, whether it’s large or small with storage, or just things propped up all around you. Several things can happen now, as you go down this river. Maybe there’s a storm. These are things that affect lots of people, like recessions and natural disasters and pandemics and war. Tons of people are going through the same thing, but are they really? You might have a HAM radio in your raft that allows you to stay informed of when things are coming. This is access to information. This can be impacted by language barriers, mental processing capabilities, or the kinds of places we go for news. But sometimes, there is no warning for these storms. They happen out of the blue. You might not have a place below deck on your raft. You may not be able to hold on to all your sustenance and emergency supplies as you’re buffeted by wind and waves, and you may lose a lot of it. You might get knocked into the rocky shore, and have a hole poked in your flimsy material, or have the tape ripped off the hole from an earlier trauma. And you’ve got to try to fix it in a maelstrom, with fewer resources and no way to seek refuge. Others might be able to toss you supplies, but if you have no room for them or no way to hold on to them while you try to fix your sinking raft, what are you going to do? If you reach out, you’ll have to take your finger off the hole, and then you’re done for. Again, some people will be able to do this, and some people won’t. The storm is out of anyone’s control, and some are able to pretend it’s not happening because they’ve got a tricked out raft. Some can’t really see the damage to your raft, because it’s under the water. They might not be able to see what kind of supplies you have. So they will wonder why you don’t just do what they do. Don’t you want to survive the storm? Do you like being wet and cold and miserable? Why don’t you just….?
Now, imagine that something changes in your river. It’s no longer calm and placid, flowing predictably in more or less the same direction, passing the same people at generally regular intervals. Now you’ve got some twists and turns. Rushing rapids with sharp rocks and fallen trees. Maybe some crocodiles, or, worst of the worst, hippopotamuses. These are things that more or less only affect you, or the immediate circle of your life. This can be stress. Trauma. It can be manifestations of whatever mental issues we have. For example, I know that my SAD is most active in April/May, and October/November. My PMD becomes most negative about two weeks after the end of my period. I’m starting to understand which situations aggravate my borderline, and if I know I’m going to be in such a situation ahead of time, I can predict that I’ll have panic attacks, bouts of depression, and self-destructive urges leading up to, during, and after the event, whether it’s something good or bad that’s coming. On the “positive” side, I may have equally strong and out of control urges to put too much on my plate, fill up my social calendar, workout way too much, dive too deeply into my writing or ministry, or clean my house from top to bottom. The river is not calm, even if on the outside it looks like I’m functioning and succeeding. Yes, these changes in our rivers can be learned. Even good, but sudden, huge, and life-altering, changes, can slam us up against the shore with their abruptness. Sometimes we see these changes coming. We can see the rapids up ahead, or feel the current getting faster. but sometimes we have no idea what’s waiting for us around the next curve. It all has the potential for damage – some of it reparable, some of it permanent. Some of it deadly. We might end up being slammed into a rocky rapid, capsized by a giant wave that bears down on us from our past, or go off a waterfall before we’re able to change our course. Sometimes, this will be something that is still difficult, but manageable. We can use our paddles to navigate, and it will be over soon if we can just hang on. This can be what an addiction craving feels like. We are powerless when they come, and even though it takes a lot of work from our already limited resources and capabilities, we can navigate it until it’s over or change course with practice and time, without causing additional damage to our rafts or our supplies. But sometimes, there’s just no easy way to change our course, and it’s just too late. Maybe this is an accidental drug overdose. Being so drunk that you end up getting yourself killed. Saying the wrong thing to your abusive partner. Either way, it’s lights out, and there’s no going back, because the current has got you, and you’re powerless to stop it. And people will ask, “why didn’t she just….?”
I’m not saying any of this to be deterministic or fatalistic, or to give excuses for the damage that we cause when we don’t manage our mental health properly. I am saying that everyone starts out in life with different family situations and legacies, wealth and riches, mental health and brain chemistry/physiology, social systems, class, privileges, predispositions, and personalities. As we go through life, all of these starting factors play a big role in how our rivers, or life paths, and rafts, or mental health, are shaped. Some of it is more or less within our control, but so much of it isn’t, I think those who don’t struggle with their mental health really can’t understand what it’s like. And the fact that they can’t truly understand doesn’t give them permission to be dismissive or condescending, believing that it’s their own hard work that they “can just…” Good for them. But even someone with the mother of all exotic rafts can still go over a waterfall. They can still hit something so big that they spring a leak or lose almost everything that they thought was so secure and safe. Brain damage and dementia and late onset things like Schizophrenia can come for us all. Tragedy like family deaths or your house burning down or just being out walking or doing your daily routine when you’re hit by a truck, or maybe you buy some lettuce from the store that you’ve always bought, but this time it’s got some disease that will eat your brain and leave you not recognizing yourself. Also, we all have little things that over time can get to us. Feeling left out. Unsuccessful. Empty. Frustrated. All of these things can lead to what we believe is a healthy coping strategy, or at least one that “isn’t that bad,” but can soon lead down a course that becomes out of our control. There are some people who go through life with not a lot of big problems, and not only do they have good rafts, but they have good courses, too, and leave this world more or less unscathed. Some people like this even have the empathy and compassion to recognize this privilege, and encourage and help others who are much worse off, even if they don’t truly understand. They can offer respect and consideration for someone else’s experience, and they aren’t where they are because of laziness or lack of motivation. They don’t tell someone that everything would be better if…well, by now you know what I’m going to say.
There are some people who do manage to find stronger fixes for their rafts, and learn to recognize and avoid the bad arms of their rivers instead of going down them. Which is wonderful, because maybe there’s hope for us all. But sometimes these people can become even more arrogant than those who never had many problems in the first place. It’s the rags-to-riches of mental health, those unicorns who managed to overcome and succeed and function and thrive despite all the odds. It’s those people that we, the mentally impoverished, someday dream we’ll be. We’ll be getting those interviews and accolades and people asking us how we did it, and aren’t we just “so inspiring.” We tell our former peers how they, too, can reach the heights we’ve reached. I’ve been that person, at times. Not the famous one, but the one on a soapbox trying to tell others to “just.” Come on, why don’t those around me “just go to counselling, just read this book, look into this diagnosis, you never know, you might have it. Just cut that person out of your life. I did it, even if it was painful and difficult. Just pray more. Just go back and work things out. Just try again. Just don’t give up. I didn’t. Look at me – I’m still here.” I hate being on the receiving end of these “pep talks.” “Just look at the bright side. Just think about all the good you’ve done. Just think positive thoughts and manifest whatever it is you want. Just try not being suicidal.” All these people who I thought understood me, because we’ve talked for hours about our shared trauma. They’ve congratulated me for how I keep moving forward. They tell me how great it is that I was able to make my own way despite all the trauma I’ve faced (if they’re not telling me that “it wasn’t that bad” to begin with). But if I do fall? If I do end up back in the same place, doing the same old self-destructive behaviours that we thought I was finally done with? Well, then the story changes, real fast, I tell you! I’m treated as a traitor to the “survivors and thrivers.” How could I? How dare I?
And yet, I’ve realized I’ve done the exact same things to people I care about. I will believe that we’ve resolved something, that a certain behaviour isn’t going to happen again because we worked it out. But what do you know, we’re back to arguing about the same thing. They are back to doing the same thing that breaks my heart for them, and it’s infuriating. Even more so when I’m infuriated at myself for going against the well-crafted plan I had for avoiding my triggers and toxic behaviours. And sometimes I drag others down with me.
While there are some things that are inevitable, like one day going over that huge waterfall, or out of your control, like your starting place, it doesn’t mean that it’s easy to manage what is in your control. I want you to think about that person in the dinky, Rubbermaid raft without a lot inside of it. Really think about it, and I will too. I will think about the people in my life I’m most frustrated with, those who I wish “would just.” I want you to think of some of the worst things that you’ve gone through in your life. Whether it’s being beaten every day of your childhood or breaking a nail at the Met Gala. I don’t say this in jest – what may seem trivial to the survivor of domestic abuse may not be trivial to you, and may have caused you some real damage, even if you may have a bigger raft and are able to absorb that blow. Think about one of the darkest storms you’ve been through. Can you feel that fear? Desperation? Even if you haven’t, can you picture someone in a dinky raft facing hail from above and waves from below and giant rocks up ahead, bleeding resources and losing inflation? Can you think about everything that person might have to do just to stay afloat, let alone get anything “productive” or “proactive” done like holding down a job or even taking their meds every day? Can you think about how utterly exhausting that person must be, with both hands and both feet plugging holes, trying to duck their head to avoid their eyes being poked out by hail, and sometimes having to briefly let go to hold on for dear life when they hit a bump? Never mind being able to steer if they see they’re about to go down a destructive river. Maybe it looks a lot better than the one their on, and they don’t care if there’s a waterfall at the end of it, because at least they’ll have a brief reprieve. Sure, the river will eventually round the bend and join up with the main one again, but at least for a time they can try and forget. In this mad desperation required in such a situation, can you see why it might be easier to just let go? Even though it’s technically something that you can control, it takes so much herculean effort to do something that others take for granted that you just lose the ability to do so. You can strain your muscles and fight with all your might, and spit out the water every time your head goes under. You always have that choice. But it gets harder and harder, and with people around you throwing their own resources at you, or, in their own desperation to help you, screaming at you to “just,” it gets even more exhausting. Or maybe someone is laughing at you, ridiculing you, berating you and telling you that you deserve what you got, because it was your choices, and your life, and you should have just. I’m talking about the homeless. The drug addicts (who are often very, very homed). And yes, even the abusers and those we would consider the most horrible people on earth. And again, I say this not to minimize the experiences of those that they hurt, or to excuse their behaviour in any way. I say this because I believe that anybody can become like them. And one of the main traps that leads to the tragedy of becoming an abuser is dehumanizing them, labelling as completely “other,” and refusing to believe that it could ever happen to us. This causes us to complete dismiss the toxic behaviour that we may present toward others. The excuses we give ourselves, because “at least we’re not like….” and we’re sure we never will be. And maybe you may not become a genocidal maniac or a wife-beater, but the smaller ways that we dismiss or discredit or invalidate our own behaviours or the experiences of others can not only lead to our own downfall, but feed the fire of those who will become abusers. They don’t fall out of thin air or appear from nothing – we are all part of the same system, and we all affect others. If we recognize the humanity of everyone, we can be one step closer to clearing the toxicity from our own lives – not just for the sake of others, but for ourselves. Abusiveness, especially if that person has been abusive for a long time, is yet another mental health problem that can stem in the same way as all the others, and without the resources to manage the precursors, the microtears can spread quite quickly. And I also say this because if you’re reading this and you have been abusive, you don’t have to stay that way. You can be repentant and recognize the harm you’ve caused without being mired in a bog of shame – because all shame does is beat you down and keep you in the same behaviour, and makes it EVEN HARDER to try and take steps toward change. I think that by recognizing you, I’m saving someone you’re targeting from further pain, and I wish someone had done the same for the abusers in my life, because I probably won’t ever have the capacity to truly face them. And they wouldn’t take it from me, anyway.
So, now that you understand how grim and hopeless things can be, whether you’re someone who’s dealt with these sorts of issues in your life or not, what is the solution? Tune in next time to find out!
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“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him.”
~ Romans 15:13