On Putting the Best Construction on It

My mom’s advice is something I seem to bring up frequently on this blog:

“God has a plan.”

“Life isn’t fair.”

“Be kind, responsible, and self-controlled.”

“It’s a blessing to serve.”

My mom has these phrases, almost mantras, that have stuck with me through the years. Despite the memory loss of ECT and the mind numbing effects of my illness and the drugs used to treat them, I remember these mantras. When we were younger, my sister and I would come to mom with a problem and she’d use one of her catch phrases to comfort and direct us. It sometimes annoys me that I’ll call her with a problem and the first thing out of her mouth is “God has a plan.” But these phrases are important things to hear, regardless of my desire for the use of more eloquent language and the avoidance of cliches. Cliches exist for a reason: because of how much truth they contain.

Along these lines, I’d like to introduce you to yet another phrase my mom used frequently when my sister and I were young. Another phrase that goes through my mind when I think of the terrible burden I’ve been saddled with:

“Put the best construction on it.”

It’s most often used in the context of me worrying about my relationships with people. If I’m worried that someone might be mad at me because they haven’t returned my text message, I hear my mom’s voice saying “put the best construction on it.” And this puts me at ease. There are a lot of things that I can’t control – from whether or not a friend is going to text me back in a timely manner to if I’m going to have a psychotic episode during the night – the only thing I can really control is my attitude towards the situation, the only thing I can do is put the best construction on it and go about my life.

My therapist of the past ten years is retiring and so I’ve been going about the process of finding a new therapist – researching them, getting my therapist’s opinion of them after she’s talked with them, and then making appointments with them to get an idea of if I’d be a good fit with them.

In meeting with one of them, I discovered an attitude that very much defines how I feel about mental illness and maybe one of the keys to how I manage to deal with schizoaffective disorder so well. In the thirty minute intake session, this possible new therapist mentioned how mental illness can be a blessing – summing up the rant I’d been giving to her into a nice, succinct sentence. It’s not that I necessarily enjoy having a mental illness – it’s a terrible thing to live with and it’s limiting in many ways: I can’t get a job, I can’t go to school, I can’t drive a car. I have to live with many restrictions: no movies, no TV, no concerts, and no parties or crowded places, among a mass of other things I cannot do because of the awful consequences of doing them – the resulting psychosis or other un-stabilizing things that happen to me when I live outside my narrow and somewhat limited circumstances. There are times I wish so badly I could watch a movie with my friends or go to a concert since music is such a huge part of my life. There are times when I wish I could go to a party and make new friends; or go to a crowded restaurant and enjoy lunch with someone over a beer. But no, those things aren’t for me – I need peace and quiet, I need low energy environments. And so I make due with the quiet coffee shop next door or an evening smoking hookah in my apartment with a couple of close friends. The important thing, I’ve realized, is not to concentrate on the things I can’t do, but to focus on the things I can do. I can hear my mother’s advice now: “put the best construction on it.” And so I try.

And, in putting the best construction on it, I realize that I’m presented with unique opportunities because of my mental illness. I’ve always been passionate about writing, and now I get to dedicate all of my energy into doing it. I’ve been writing for this blog for just over a year now, and it’s been a more satisfying kind of work than I’d imagined myself doing ten years ago. I get to give speeches to Family-to-Family classes; to teach people about mental illness, offer them hope for their loved ones lives, and learn from them in the process. That’s more of a privilege for me than I ever expected to have when I was facing my high school graduation a decade ago. I’m working on a novel and it’s been a fantastic challenge – fantastic in the sense that it’s such an enormous challenge, but also because I love doing it so much.

So, when my potential new therapist told me that mental illness could be a blessing – I couldn’t help but agree with her. I’m not trying to suggest that mental illness is a blessing but merely that it can be a blessing and the distinction is important.

When I’m in the middle of excruciatingly painful psychosis, I’m not thinking about how much of a blessing it is for me to experience it – I want it to end. I want it to end now, and I want it to never come back. I still feel that way – if I could go the rest of my life without becoming psychotic or dissociating or becoming suicidal, it couldn’t have come soon enough. My experiences with schizoaffective disorder aren’t something I would wish upon anyone, they’re traumatizing and terrifying; I’ve seen things I wish I’d never seen, but I’ve also seen things that I wish everyone else could experience.

But, it’s important to live in reality, to put the best construction on it. Mental illness isn’t a blessing, but it can be. I’m in a privileged position – I get to experience things no one else on the planet experiences and I’m blessed with an insight and disposition to be able to relay those experiences to other people – to educate and commiserate with and help people. And, because I live in reality (regardless of my brain’s attempts to usurp me from it) I’ve come to put the best construction on it and see how my illness can be a blessing. If only I always listened to my mother’s advice!

I think it comes down to a modification of the classic stages of dealing with a mental illness: fear, bargaining, denial, acceptance, advocacy. I’ve modified “advocacy” to include “embrace”. I wrote last month about not fighting the illness, about embracing it even. And I’ve decided that “embracing” it should be done as much as possible.

There’s no cure for schizoaffective disorder and I’ve come to not really think of it as an illness. In the classic sense, an illness is something that can be cured, for which a cure is possible. All that can be done with a mental illness is the reduction of symptoms. Essentially getting rid of the proverbial fever and sore throat but not getting rid of the virus behind the influenza of mental illness. The problem still exists, it’s just not expressing itself. Maybe they’ll cure schizoaffective disorder one day; but, until that day comes (and it might never come in my lifetime), the best I can do is to put the best construction on it; to see it as less of a foreign thing invading my brain and more as a different way of thinking, a different way of being that means I have to live my life differently.

There are extroverts and introverts, there’s nothing wrong with being either, but they require a different way of living. The former is energized by being in a crowd and drained while alone and the latter is the opposite.

And so it goes with mental illness – I have a different way of thinking and feeling and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that – it just means I have to live differently than ninety-nine percent of the people out there. It’s an attitude I’ve adopted because it allows me to live with my illness the best I can. It’s an attitude that allows me to see myself as just another person – perfectly normal outside of the somewhat strange life decisions I’ve had to make.

In embracing my illness, in seeing how it can be a blessing, I’m not only accepting the reality of my situation, but also trying to use it to my advantage. One of the best pieces of advice I got with regards to playing chess is that there’s an advantage and disadvantage to every move. By advancing a pawn you may be able to take your opponent’s knight, but you also put your queen in peril. And, as in life, you can’t skip a turn in chess – even if you have the perfect defensive position, you must make a move or else resign and lose the game. By embracing my mental illness, I’ve learned to accept the disadvantages of my illness while focusing my energy on the positive aspects of it – what it enables me to do and the opportunities it’s given me.

I can’t sit still, I can’t just wait for my life to happen and unfold before my eyes. Life makes a move, and I have to react – I can’t skip a turn. If I allow my brain to become dormant, that’s when the demons start to take over; that’s when I start to dissociate, that’s when I start to become depressed or manic or psychotic. But I’ve chosen to see my life as a blessing – I’ve chosen to see how my experiences can be beautiful, I’ve chosen to use my experiences to my advantage and to the hopeful advantage of other people with mental illness. I’ve chosen to see the limitations imposed by my illness (no job, no school, no car, etc.) as a way to focus my energies on other things – on writing, taking care of myself, and spending time with my friends and family. Mental illness isn’t a blessing in and of itself, but it can be a blessing. It offers a unique perspective on life, it adds a certain character to my life that it didn’t have before, it can give me direction in my life.

When I was younger, right up until just a couple years ago, I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I remember going to my dad and asking him, with a certain amount of desperation, what he thought I should do for a living. My dad isn’t the kind of person who would flat out tell me what he thought I should do. His parents had done that to him when he was younger, telling him what kind of profession he should pursue, and it led to him wasting three years of his life trying to be something he wasn’t, trying to do something he didn’t enjoy. His answer was always to follow what I was passionate about, his answer was that maybe what I was going to do with my life hadn’t even been invented yet. His job in IT hadn’t been invented yet when he was my age – and so he thought the possibility existed with me.

And he was right, from a certain point of view, my profession hadn’t been invented yet – at least I didn’t realize that my “profession” existed. I’m a professional sick person, and I write about my experiences with that sickness. That wasn’t a job I’d even considered – being on disability and spending my time managing my illness and sharing the things I’ve learned with other people who experience similar things. Schizoaffective disorder has given me a focus in my life I’d lacked for most of my life, it’s allowed me to find what I’m passionate about and chase after it. It’s a rare thing to do what you love doing most in your life, it’s a rare thing to make your hobby your profession. It may not be under the most ideal of circumstances, I would much prefer to be writing without the burden of psychosis, dissociation, and everything else that comes with my illness, but in following my mom’s advice, which was passed down to her by my grandma, I’ve been able to put the best construction on it and come out with an attitude ripe for combatting such an ugly, filthy thing as schizoaffective disorder.

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