Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Human Beings vs. Human Doings

I've been thinking a lot lately about cultural values of productivity, achievement, and "getting ahead." Hint: Not a big fan…especially when it comes to recovering from mental illness.

I've had a lifelong love affair with the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. In the worst of my depression, I would get some comfort from reading his essays. Emerson was big on the inner life—the inherent worth and depth of the human spirit. He was highly educated and prolific in his writings, yet he shunned the idea that a person's value can be quantified by their level of activity.  In "Spiritual Laws," Emerson writes: "I see action to be good, when the need is, and sitting still to be also good... Heaven is large, and affords space for all modes of love and fortitude." Essentially, this was the 19th century's version of: "I am a human being, not a ‘human doing.’"

This was a hopeful message for me. My first episode of illness destroyed my self-concept, which had been dependent on other people's opinions. I felt humiliated that I could not keep up with my schoolwork, and had to drop out. The brain I had relied upon to wow people with its flashes of brilliance—well, it had blown a fuse. I had to read a paragraph five times before I comprehended it. I sucked at making conversation. I had to take Emerson on faith that I was still in there, somewhere.

It would be four years before I felt ready to return to college. While my parents and friends were supportive, some family members kept bugging me about it. They warned that if too much time passed, it might look bad to future employers. Ours was an appearance-focused family, and these particular members seemed to be holding their breath until my life "moved on" from this unfortunate impasse, which they were unwilling to call by name.

What they didn't understand was that I could not move on until my values changed. As long as I viewed life as a competition, I would be a loser. There would always be someone who was more ambitious, more disciplined, more efficient, better-looking. So, I may as well kill myself. What use am I? (Those last two thoughts came courtesy of depression, which has its own awful logic.)

My recovery process involved meds, therapy, some low-stress jobs—and loads of reading and writing. Emerson became my bible; his words reached past the thick fog of despair, revealing glints of my lost self. Something scary and exhilarating broke open. I filled dozens of 80-page notebooks with newly liberated anger, grief, confusion, self-discovery and hope. I began to have moments of joy. I became more immersed in daily activities, instead of judging them as menial or dumb. I discovered that I was ordinary. In embracing that, I found the extraordinary that we all possess.

Once I was back on my feet, I enjoyed almost 15 years of wellness until my next episode. I worked my tail off to stay well. I kept up with my sleep, my stress coping, my journaling, my therapy. It was hard, but it was great. In those 15 years, I got a lot done. Got a BA and an MA, did performance art, worked full-time, married, had a kid.

And that last one was where it all fell apart. Postpartum depression was the ugliest beast yet. Here, the depressive mindset convinced me that I could harm my child—a helpless soul—just by being myself. After all, she needed a mother who was endlessly patient, naturally selfless, who loved her without ambivalence or resentment because she was better without even trying. In 15 years, I had failed to become this mother. So, I may as well kill myself. What use am I?

But wait—that awful logic was not going to work this time. As mired and paralyzed as I was, I had those 15 years to fall back on. They were not pointless. They put the lie to the notion that motherhood was something only for the "best." (But given the pressure on mothers these days, I don't blame myself for going there!) I might be klutzy, impatient and slow to learn, but what other mother did this kid have? What could be worse for her than my disappearance? What more powerful opportunity to be a human being and not a human doing, since this is precisely what a baby is?

So I got through it. Even had another kid. Now I'm a mostly-at-home parent enjoying the hell out of our little human beings. Maybe because it gives me permission to skip makeup, play on the floor with toothbrushes, and talk about poop. Sometimes, I get a flash of my old self—the one who lived for a fantasized future of fame and accolades. The one who would have thought laundry and playgrounds a huge waste of time. But I'm able to say to her, "What better thing do I have to do than this?" She never does have an answer.

I thought about ending my essay on that note, but then I realized that I hadn't mentioned my job. Social work has raised my consciousness and cemented my values. In working with people with severe and persistent mental illness, I've learned to sit with other people's pain, inertia and regression. I've learned to sit with my inability to help and my lack of understanding. The drive to somehow tie all this up in a bow and pronounce it "fixed" is very strong. But there was no quick fix for me, and there is none for my clients. Some theories and techniques work better than others, but they all have limits. "Getting well" is a lifelong process, not a goal. That fact is a testament to the depth, complexity and uniqueness of every person.

I have to say, I've gotten extremely angry in the last few years about the brutal cuts to mental-health funding in Illinois. It goes beyond a sense of injustice that so many communities now have no mental-health services, and that existing agencies are hamstrung by an outmoded "medical model" that's penny-wise and pound-foolish.

I think what gets me so worked up is the essential lack of humanity in government. The funding cuts reflect an underlying belief that people who can't "produce" for society aren't worth helping. Many people with chronic mental illness can't work, at least not full-time. Some have limited education. Some relapse frequently and need intensive outreach to keep living in the community. They may be hurting and unlovely on the outside. They don't make the kind of "progress" that looks good on a bar graph.

The state seems to be saying, "Who cares what happens to these losers? Helping them is worthless." Nope. Only if my years of journaling and crying were worthless. Only if my time sitting here and writing this is worthless. I refuse to believe that—for myself or for anyone else. We are human beings, in all our "modes of love and fortitude." That's the reality that continues to save me.


Lisa Sniderman, LCSW received her M.S.W. from the University of Chicago in 2003 and has been a licensed clinical social worker since 2005. She is also a member of ETD's Mental Health Advisory Board. Click here to read more posts from Lisa.


  1. I needed this today. Wow. Thank you so much.

  2. Lisa, this is a great post because it reminds us that mental illness is cyclical. I too have thought I was "cured" only to fall down the hole again. As you mentioned, once you have the tools to get yourself back up, it helps to speed the process. Acceptance is the best way forward, and that's why ETD's work is so important. Thanks for sharing.