What It Means to Be Fully Alive
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There is a saying that the honeymoon is over when the queen sits on her throne as the king comes in to shave. At some point, I suspect, every husband and wife asks himself or herself the question: Do I really want to spend the rest of my life with this person?
Because I’ve always had an aptitude for anxiety, I asked that question six weeksbeforeour wedding.
With 120 invitations in hand, I went to mail them, when all of a sudden I freaked out.
In the throws of a full-blown panic attack, I called the priest who was marrying us, a good friend of mine from my college days.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” I managed to say between breaths. “I’m a relationship moron. I am bad at commitment. Really bad.”
He helped me separate the anxiety from the real concerns. Given that Eric and I both emerged from broken homes, some of the panic was healthy.
The same sort of commitment and perseverance you invest in a marriage is required when state your dream out loud and start a company or form a foundation.
Last August, while reading the Viktor Frankl book Man’s Search for Meaning, it became very clear to me that my mission in life is to help people who have the kind of treatment-resistant chronic depression that I do, the kind of mood disorder that psychiatrists don’t know what to do with. I would build an online community for them, and a foundation for other programs.
For the months that followed I didn’t question my vision, because the sense of purpose I felt in every cell of my body improved my symptoms. I was even able to go 65 days in October and November without death thoughts, something that hasn’t happened in six years.
As soon as I launched the community on Christmas Eve, though, I had that moment at the mailbox again — where I stood, invitations (actually a 501c3 application to be a tax-exempt public charity) in hand, and panicked. I contemplated walking away from the community and Group Beyond Blue (the Facebook group I started last May), letting go of the dream of the foundation and going back to writing government proposals, which is good money and requires no emotional investment.
The stress of monitoring activity on GBB was starting to affect my health. In true holiday spirit, members were attacking each other — writing nasty, foul comments — and there was some disagreement among administrators as to how we should handle suicidal posts, which has always been a trigger for me. I knew that Becky, my right-hand person and angel from God, was near her breaking point with all of the bickering and whining among members. My eyes were tired and sad throughout much of the holidays. As soon as the last guest left, Eric had the come-to-Jesus talk with me.
“You don’t need to do this foundation,” he said. “You haven’t been this upset or stressed about work since you worked for US Satan [the name he gave to a religious magazine where I worked as an editor out of college because my boss was cruel]. Think, all of this stress, and we’relosingmoney!”
He was right. On paper, the foundation is clearly a bad idea. Not only are we shelling out dough that we might not ever make back, but we are incurring all kinds of risk. Building the sites and the programs is a distraction from my writing, and clearly steals valuable hours away from my kids.
“I feel so compelled to do it, but God, it’s so ugly the way people tear each other down,” I explained to him. “Why work my butt off to build something for folks to use just to be nasty to each other?”
“People suck,” I said.
I picked up Timothy Shriver’s book, Fully Alive: Discovering What Matters Most. Becky (my angel) attended his talk and book signing. When he signed the book for me, he included a bookmark of St. Therese, to whom we both have a strong devotion, good Catholic boy that he is. I held the bookmark, a symbol of hope for me, as I read his wise and inspiring pages.
“We know there’s something beautiful and special within each of us — something we know is good and we want to believe we can share with the world,” Tim writes. “If we’re going to pursue our dreams, if we’re doing to muster the grit and optimism necessary to bring those dreams to life, we need to silence the voices in our heads, and around us, that tell us not to try.”
He illustrates this with so many poignant stories, from the courageous athletes he’s worked with during his tenure leading Special Olympics — like Loretta Claiborne, who became a world-class athlete and a captivating motivational speaker — to world leaders such as Nelson Mandela.
I thought about a safe life writing government proposals — cash to take the kids on spring break somewhere, no liability about persons taking their lives, no emotional gunk that sticks. And then I thought about the foundation, for which the boards have been formed and some of the paperwork submitted, but which isn’t official yet. Ironically, I came to this paragraph:
“Escape is not a strategy for feeling or living fully alive. In fact, it makes it impossible to do so. Only by facing fears and only by seeing beneath them to the center can any of us feel fully alive. Only by facing the ‘dis’-abilities that we think will hurt us and discovering that they cannot hurt us can we possibly distinguish pain from suffering and, by doing so, accept the inevitability of pain but reduce the internalization of suffering.”
Living out loud, as I do as a mental health blogger, and as I would do more of as an executive editor of the foundation, requires facing my fears every day, owning up to my “dis”-abilities. It means addressing my sense of hopelessness when I encounter the ugliness of human nature, the nastiness that thrives in online forums. It means trying like hell to believe the best in people, despite the manipulation I witness in the behavior of some. It means a flat out tug-of-war with hope. Every day.
I thought about how fragile I am, and Eric’s commitment to me over the years despite that breakability. I wondered how many mailbox moments he’s had over the years.
“When I was hospitalized, either the first or second time, did you ever say to yourself, ‘What the hell have I gotten myself into?’” I asked him this morning. I’ve always wondered.
“No,” he said. “I thought to myself, 'We need to fix this situation.'”
So, inspired by Eric and Tim and Becky and everyone who has thanked me for addressing the kind of depression that professionals don’t like to talk about, I decided to fix the situation, instead of escaping my mission altogether. I told my fellow administrators of GBB that they would have to police the comments without my input because I had a bigger vision I needed to attend to: that of building a foundation.
And I repeated to myself the words of a mystic I studied in college, Saint Catherine of Sienna, who Tim quotes in his final chapter: “If you are who you were meant to be, you will set the world ablaze.”
Artwork by the talented Anya Getter.
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