In my 30’s and 40’s (my 20’s, too, now that I think about it), I had a habit of rating my days in terms of my degree of mental illness. There were either Minor Mental Illness Days or Major Mental Illness Days, but there were few Major Mentally Healthy Days. This was because one upset or aggravation or another would inevitably surface daily and hijack my neurophysiology.
I recall with great astonishment when a friend once disclosed to me that whenever the phone rang in his house, his wife’s unwavering expectation was that it was a call from someone who genuinely loved her. I distinctly remember wondering what planet she lived on. In my house, when the phone rang, if it wasn’t from someone wanting to sell me something, it was someone needing something from me or needing my help solving a problem or multiple problems. Nobody was calling just to tell me how much they loved me.
Given my early exposure to so few people I would consider mentally healthy, this is really not so surprising. When I look back across the first 20 years of my life, the most head/heart-healthy people that come readily to mind are only two: a set of Yale Divinity School students, Dave Woods and Vic Weber. They were my camp counselors for two weeks at Yale Camp one summer.
Brain Molds You Through the Company You Keep
Most of my life has not been spent in the presence of truly joyous, loving, mentally healthy people. I once spent a year working with emotionally disturbed teens at a residential treatment center. Most of these teens had been through the treatment program for a sufficient length of time to be eligible for “entertainment furloughs.” It was part of my job to take them to the movies once a month. I distinctly recall standing in line with a half dozen residents and thinking: “These kids are magnitudes more mentally healthy than the people I’m seeing all around us here.” Sad, actually. But it pointed up the fact to me that truly mentally healthy people are not so easy to find. Genuine mental health, when you get right down to it, is not an easy, ever-present commodity to come by. It’s not like natural gas, or corn, or cotton.
Out of My Mind
UCLA psychiatrist Dan Siegel might consider the accuracy of my experience right on. He often begins his lectures telling of the thousands of helping professionals he’s polled who’ve never had a formal course in Mental Health. Teachers and students, for the most part have all managed to avoid agreeing about what mental health looks like in the world, what it feels like and how to know when it’s temporarily or permanently gone missing. They have never even considered an accurate, agreed-upon definition of mind.
Working together with a group of forty scientists in fields ranging from linguistics to genetics to computer science to developmental psychology, Dan came up with a fully-agreed-upon definition of mind: “a relational and embodied process that regulates the flow of energy and information in the brain and body.”
Ramping Up the Flow
This turns out to be a much more useful description of my state of mental health than simply thinking of myself as having Major or Minor Mental Illness Days. If I’m having a Major Mental Illness day, it’s because the flow of energy and information through the networks of cells in my body and brain are being seriously compromised, often by some very identifiable cause. I can begin to do things to help restore that flow by addressing the mind directly (go and mediate, for example, or focus my thoughts on the people, places and things right in front of me), or perhaps attempt to restore the flow relationally (talk to the person/people I might be upset with; or talk to someone else to explore even deeper reasons why I might be upset), or do something to rid my body itself of stress hormones (like aerobic exercise). And I’m not limited to only one: I can do all three to try and bring my neurophysiology back into balance. I can even devise something radically creative to restore the flow.
And the good news is: the more I directly and consistently address the restricted or compromised flow of energy and information, the greater my Flow Capacity becomes. And it doesn’t actually take that long to turn incremental increases into dynamically expanded flow. And that’s a good thing.