I believe that I have learned a lot about how to live from people suffering from severe and persistent mental illness. I am a psychiatrist who has been practicing for nine years, and I have a clear memory of teaching a class to medical students when I was a young resident in training. The purpose of the class was to teach medical students how to examine a patient with mental illness. There were snacks provided and the med students immediately made a fast beeline for the food, gobbling-down most of it before the patient volunteers, many of whom were homeless, had chance to serve themselves. As the mental health clients picked through the remnants of the catering, I was struck when several of them called-out, “hey doc, you want some?!” before serving themselves. For several days after that, I continued to tell my colleagues how much more courteous and thoughtful my patients were than my students. I BELIEVE that many of the most humane actions often come from those whom society considers inhumane and that true generosity of the heart often comes from those who seemingly have the least to offer. I BELIEVE that those whom we idolize will often fall short of our expectations
As my career progressed, I realized that I would be reminded time and time again of how much we all can learn from those suffering with mental illness. My patient suffering from depression and low self-esteem said to me, “I want to be around bright and successful people, but they don’t want to be around negative and depressed people…and that’s who I am! I don’t blame them for not wanting to be friends with me…I wouldn’t!” I tried to tell her that nobody…nobody feels or acts bright and successful all of the time, but I knew that she wouldn’t believe me. In her mind I was the “too chipper psychiatrist that shit sugar and pooped candy hearts.” How could I possibly understand her negative hell..after all, I was just doing my job…I got PAID to tolerate her negative presence. At that moment I took a deep breath; do I remain in the upbeat, splenda’d mode of encouragement…or…do I BELIEVE that the truth will set us both free! I chose the latter. In fact, I said, “when we started seeing each other a year ago, you really irritated the heck out of me. Now, I realize that it ‘s not personal, you really are just miserable, but even though you feel this way, I must tell you, you are really quite funny and witty; I look forward seeing you each time we are scheduled to meet. I’m trying to help you, but I know that it’s going to take a long time and that we might fight. I believe that in spite of all of this misery and frustration, we can have a meaningful therapeutic relationship and learn from one another. I BELIEVE that misery not only loves company, but also wants to be confronted and put in its place.”
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.