We with mental illness are typically told that we are not competent to lead ourselves, in our own lives.
“You’ve made so many mistakes with impulsive spending because you’re bipolar. Let me take your ATM card from now on. You can’t be trusted.”
“Come on! Get up off that chair! Without me to clean up after you, you’d be living in your own filth.”
“You know, the only reason you live in comfort, without a job, is because I allow you to stay in my home, and I cook your food, yadda yadda. Without me, you’d have nothing. You’d be on the street. So you better show me some respect.”
And so forth.
I remember… for so many years, I always looked to others to make decisions for me. It started in childhood, with my mother. As it does with us all, I suppose. But for me… it never ended. Because the older I got, the more that mental illness began to rear its ugly head…
The illness began to replace my head with its own. A ghostly sepulcher, super-imposed on my own, slowly changing me… into it. Yet this entity is, of course, invisible. No one sees it, nor do I. No one knows that it is separate from me… least of all myself. It simply happens… me, changing into something that is not me.
Whatever this process is, is irrelevant. Because the only thing that anyone ever saw, was my behavior. As the years went on, my behavior became more and more symptomatic, and I was perceived as “incapable.” “Incompetent” to finish a masters program. “Unfocused.” “Procrastinatory.” And the absolute worst word, one that a beloved professor bestowed on me:
I was in the south of France, at the time I heard this. I was participating in a viola masterclass with my professor at IU. It was a costly trip… my mother and I sold some family valuables to pay for it, after much begging. My thought was… if I could just go to France to be with my professor, maybe he’d like me. Maybe he’d tell me I was a good violist, and maybe he’d favor me. Maybe… he’d take me under his wing, and maybe he’d care more about me than the other students in my studio. I saw it happen everywhere in conservatory. Why them, and not me?
It was a simple statement he uttered. It was a response to my playing on the viola. He was attempting to correct an error in my playing: when I played a section one way the first time, I played the same passage again a different way for the next time. Most likely, mistakes cropped up in different places each time. And to this, he said I was “inconsistent.”
But for me, this word was a dagger. A dagger that stabbed a part of me that I couldn’t even find. Certainly nowhere physical. But nowhere mental either. It was not a fault with my personality… was it? Or my spirit? Is this a matter of religion?
You might think I’m taking a gesture of simple constructive criticism to an over-exaggerated level. But the problem was, I didn’t understand what he was even criticizing. I wasn’t trying to play inconsistently. That was just what came out. So for him to say I was inconsistent, was to say that I was inconsistent.
Me. At the very core of my being.
Perhaps this story can shed light on why criticism, even constructive criticism, takes a lot of maturity to bear. Because, the inner child in us all, as much as we want to remain in touch with it, is the most sensitive to criticism. A child, wanting approval from her parents, is only met with disagreeance. Or a viola student, playing a piece for her teacher, wanting that praise. Wanting that validation.
For me, I am an adult now. I will be thirty next month. And yet, I still seek that approval from people. At times, I fear standing up for myself, because I don’t want to ruffle anyone’s feathers.
Something just occurred to me.
Getting the approval from others is not the same as love.
And LOVE, is not expressed by approval.
This is one thing that we must get to the bottom of. Biologically, children are drawn to parents by instinct, and vice versa (hopefully). A child learns how to adapt to its environment, and easily learns such by understanding what is accepted, or approved of, and what is not. What is accepted, is often rewarded. And sometimes, that reward is a hug, or a kiss, or a pat on the back. “You won that piano competition at school! Come here, give me a kiss!”
Perhaps the transition from childhood to adulthood is most acutely marked by the realization, that love is not something earned. And that acceptance is not love.
Back to France. Looking back, I realize that I played the viola for one simple reason. As a child, I garnered much praise from teachers, musicians and school classmates for my talent. And that praise… seemed to feel good. And in college, I stopped getting that praise. And when that happened, I no longer had a reason to play.
Imagine: the sonorous joy of music, diminished next to the realization that music cannot be used to win love. That is how warped our minds can become. So warped, that we perceive nourishing water to be poison, just because a grandmother told us not to swim in a pool. And I, following in her footsteps, in her mentality, simply to earn a hug and a kiss at the end of the day.
This is not love. This is condition.