it was a bittersweet first last day.
as you may know, i have had the opportunity to work with people diagnosed with a severe and persistent mental illness for the last 18 months. over the last 540 days i learned something new and was challenged in a way that demanded personal growth on a daily basis. and even after all this time, i want you to know that i do not know what it is like to live with schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, PTSD, bipolar disorder, or major depression with psychosis (or any other mental health diagnosis for that matter). i cannot say what it feels like to experience auditory, visual, or tactile hallucinations that no one else can see, hear, or feel. and i do not know what it’s like to believe so strongly in a delusion that everyone else around you will disagree with. i haven’t woken up in the middle of the night in a panic, sweat covering my body from a flashback, nor have i had the experience of using up every ounce of energy just to get out of the bed for the day with a lost interest in life, struggling with every movement and task to get through the day –as often happens with major depression. i haven’t experienced trauma and i didn’t grow up in extreme poverty. i’ve never had to choose between paying my electricity bill or water bill for the month. i’ve never been bound to one room in the winter because i couldn’t afford to heat the entire house. i have not had my personal rights taken away due to psychosis impacting my ability to care for myself. and i haven’t been fearful of leaving my house due to paranoia, anxiety, or the way i was treated by others. i have never used an illicit substance because that was a better alternative than living with intense symptoms on a daily basis. i haven’t had any of these lives. and i do not mean to speak for any of the people who have, because their stories are unique and my words would never be able to fully describe their experience. i write to remind you that each person has their own story. and i write about this because their stories are often the ones that are never heard. i write because i want you to know that there are people out there who struggle in ways that you may not be able to understand, who make decisions very different from the ones you might make, and whose celebrations may be much different from yours. and i write to remind you that despite all of these differences, our need to be loved, accepted, acknowledged, and given kindness remains the same. i write because we are all alive together in the same moment.
and after a year and a half i didn’t learn everything. but i want you to know that i did learn, i learned up until the very last second on my very last day. and on this day i learned that people will touch your life in ways that you never knew were possible. that saying good-bye to strangers can also be like saying farewell to a good friend. that words will linger on in your mind and heart long after they have been spoken. and that people’s ability to survive and overcome will surprise you. and i’ve learned that we become who we are because of the people we meet along the way- the ones that break us down, the ones that build us back up, and the ones who briefly interrupt our life story but change it all the same.
one of our clients came to the office on my last day. this person’s clothing was disheveled and soiled, partly due to living on the streets, and partly due to the difficulty associated with completing tasks of daily living that is characteristic of the diagnosis. a sandwich and daily medications. we had a conversation of mostly unintelligible speech or ‘word salad’ due to the severity of this person’s schizophrenia and decreased ability to communicate thoughts in a coherent way. there were smiles and nods and putting more chips on her plate. i mean it when i say that for ten seconds her thought process was clear. she wiped off the table and threw her plate away. “i can be kind- turn off the light or shut the door-those kinds of things.” she said. “and you know, sometimes i need kindness too.”
and then it was gone as quickly as it came. but her words linger on.
they linger because they are true. and they linger because i have observed how she has been treated in public by other people who do not necessarily understand or know her situation. they linger because of the people that won’t walk near her on the sidewalk or look her in the face when she talks to them. they linger because of accusations of alcoholism or drug addiction. and they linger on because of the people who take the jacket off of their back so that she has one in the cold. they linger because of the food she is provided by people who know that she is hungry. by the people who stop to acknowledge her presence. they linger because the world can be hard but it can also be good.
we need more good.
in terms of work and learning from first jobs, here is what i know:
1. be willing to work harder than everyone else. if you aren’t willing to do it, someone else will be.
2. surround yourself with people who are better than you are. it encourages growth.
3. first impressions matter. act like your best self until you become your best self.
4. open your own doors. create your own opportunities.
5. your attitude is louder than your voice.
6. commit to excellence.
7. be kind.