It has been said, I think it was in the movie ‘Forrest Gump’, that “in order to move forward, you have to leave the past behind” or something along the same idea. I admit to having problems with letting go of what happened in my younger years, especially during times when my mental illness flares up especially bad. During such times I have a very hard time coming to accept that my life did not turn out how I remotely imagined it would when I was sixteen and looking ahead to the vast expanse of years that was ahead. At that age, I pictured that I would be doing something in medical research and married with at least a couple of children and living in some large metroplex by the time I turned 35. Like many intelligent kids that could be classified as somewhat ‘nerdy’, I dreamed of the day I would move out of my hometown of less than 500 people and onto bigger and better things. Like most of the few close friends I had, I so desperately wanted out of Nebraska. I figured there was nothing here for me in the science and medicine fields and I would be wasting my life if I stayed behind. Well, time has a way of making fools of even the smartest of us.
I never left Nebraska while all the friends from high school I stayed in contact with did. In fact, none of the friends I made in college stayed in state either. I didn’t end up working in any scientific or medical field for even one day of my life. I certainly never got married or had kids. I never even worked in a job that would require me to graduate high school for any real length of time, and I essentially failed at those jobs. In spite of my illness, I retained almost all of my natural intelligence even though now my ability to work under stress and read anyone ‘between the lines’ was completely gone. Any of these instances, let alone all of these put together, were serious blows to my pride and ego.
For the first several years of my mental illness, I agonized over where I went wrong. I retained my natural intelligence yet I couldn’t do well in even minimum wage work. It was baffling to my caseworkers at Vocational Rehab that I was so smart yet couldn’t handle any real stress. For a long time, I thought I just wasn’t working hard enough and that work was supposed to suck. I had spent my entire life hearing adults complain about their jobs as if their misery was something they took pride in. So I just tried harder and attempted to abandon any idea that I was supposed to enjoy work or even life for that matter. In time I came to believe I was doomed to be a failure at working a regular job.
For the next couple of years, I threw myself into my writing. I was working part time at the courthouse as a janitor by this time. I came to believe that the only way I could ‘make something of myself’ was to write a decent selling book. I knew that the odds were against me as less than one percent of even published writers would make above poverty level if they relied solely on their writing work. Well, that didn’t work either. I self published a couple books of poetry, a book about my experiences as a mentally ill person in a ‘chronically sane world’, and even wrote rough drafts for two novels. Found out the hard way that I have almost no talent for writing fiction. I don’t even like reading fiction, especially modern fiction. Even though I sold a few dozen copies of my mental illness book, the others didn’t sell at all. So for a few years after that, I felt like a failure as a writer.
Now that the traditional writer door had been rudely slammed in my face, I became very depressed and angry. I couldn’t understand what was the point of retaining my intelligence and not being able to use my abilities to even support myself, let alone help others. I couldn’t figure any of this out. I just couldn’t let go of what this illness cost me. Occasionally I still find myself angry over what I lost. I had the example of what I could have, and should have, been in the person of my older brother. He is currently working as an electrical engineer for a defense contractor, making more money per year in his mid 30s than my parents ever made at any point in their careers, living in a excellent neighborhood in a metroplex outside of our home state, married to an intelligent woman (who also is an engineer), and has four children that he’s absolutely devoted to.
I suppose it’s wrong to be envious of him, though a part of me sometimes is. I know as kids, I actually got better grades in school and read more books than he did. When I’m in the grips of my mental illness, I often find myself thinking our lives could have been similar. When I’m seriously in the grips of the illness and feeling nothing but anger and hostility, I find myself thinking our lives could have been easily reversed with me doing the work of my dreams and him being mentally ill. Fortunately that doesn’t happen often.
When I’m not caught in the grasp of the illness, I find it very easy to let go of my past and move forward. I have found an outlet of sorts though blogging. Sure I don’t have thousands of visitors every day like some blogs here on wordpress. No I’m not known outside of my family, my current hometown, my handful of friends, and people who follow and/or happen to stumble on these writings. No, I haven’t made even one cent off these writings on this blog. Sure, I’m dependent on the government for my medications and even my living. Yet, when I am doing well, I have completely accepted all the aspects of my mental illness and have moved forward. It is now only the small minority of times when I’m in the grips of the illness that I have to worry about stumbling and dwelling on everything that has happened over the last twenty years.
This a well written, well expressed blog, Zach. Thanks for sharing and using examples. I’m sorry your dreams were dashed.
Truly inspiring. Keep moving forward.