Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Fix-It Mentality

As my family's menu planner, I spend a lot of time waiting to check out at Jewel. Surrounded by magazines, I notice a pervasive theme of self-improvement. Every month, there is a new 9-step plan to whittle your waist. A two-week program to boost your confidence. A makeover to get you a hot date. Beaming celebrities appear on magazine covers having had babies, lost 50 pounds, or gotten new spouses. Other celebrities look more solemn as they penitently admit having lost their way, made mistakes, and learned big lessons. But even there, the story has a tidy ending and the message is clear: If you don't have it together, you'd better get it together, stat. Because the other extreme is being castigated in the tabloids with the most bloated, ghastly photo imaginable, and a headline like "At Death's Door" or "Fall From Grace." There is no in-between state.

So why do I care about magic sauerkraut diets or the follies of B-list celebrities? Well, I don't, but I do care about why such headlines sell. They sell because people long for a world in which everything can be fixed. People want a way to be done with problems in their lives. Give me a guru! Make me a plan! Attitude is everything! I can do it if I try!

The motivation here is noble. After all, who doesn't want to be better than they are today? Maybe even perfect?

The problem is that this fix-it mentality neatly sidesteps all kinds of messy realities. Some problems take years to resolve; others must simply be accepted and lived with. Motivation and morality are seldom black-or-white. A change in appearance is not a ticket to self-esteem. Children are their own people; they aren't merely a product of parenting gone wrong or right. And people often have difficulties that seem personal, but actually flow from socioeconomic, biological, and environmental factors beyond their control.

Needless to say, the fix-it mentality can be very hurtful to people with mental illness. At the societal level, there is real contempt for people with chronic mental illnesses who don't appear to "get well," and this contempt shows in huge funding cuts for community mental-health agencies. Ironically, emergency care and incarceration are much more expensive than preventive care, which convinces me that these legislative decisions have more to do with misguided values than with common sense.

At the personal level, people with mental illness too often have contempt for themselves. I work in an emergency room, and many of the psychiatric patients I see feel ashamed that they are unable to handle their symptoms alone. Often, what these patients consider "failure" involves a superhuman amount of effort and discipline to surmount their problems. Many patients' families worsen the situation without meaning to, by their inability to accept the person in his or her state of struggle. Heartfelt efforts to get the person back to normal crash and burn, leaving everyone demoralized.

What a difference it makes when families are able to take the long view, to support the person in crisis without setting arbitrary timelines for recovery. Just sitting with someone who's in an awful mess, and tolerating that mess, is profoundly counter-cultural and transformative. It's especially transformative when those of us with mental illness do this for ourselves. I only actually improve when I give up self-improvement and practice self-acceptance. To this day, that stuns me. But I can't argue with the results.

I'll never end up in tabloids, either beaming or bloated. I'm partly a mess and partly fixed, as is everyone in my home. We have a lot of ongoing projects and a lot of abandoned ones. If I am having a rough day, mood-wise, I can tell my family. Just this morning, I had a bona fide panic attack over a missing backpack. The kids started getting upset, too. My husband had to intervene and remind me gently that holidays with family always bring out the worst in me. His acceptance of me in my messy state helped the symptoms subside more quickly—believe me, I was not feeling at the pinnacle of my dignity and could easily have felt very embarrassed. . My holiday wish this year is for everyone in struggle to feel this accepted. Erasing the Distance is doing fine work on the ground to make this dream real.


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 a past member of ETD's Mental Health Advisory Board and one of our storytellers. Click here to check out Lisa's posts.

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