Let me tell you about a couple people I know. I’ll try to keep the details of the first one a bit vague because sad to say, his story isn’t a good one. But I want to compare his story to another to show how he might have fared better. I’ll call this one Sandy.
To be fair, Sandy had a pretty rough childhood. He didn’t get along with his family very well, or other children for that matter. He got in lots of fights and tended to wind up in detention or suspended from school. He was quickly diagnosed with ADHD, which got upgraded to Bipolar I later on. He collected a host of other diagnoses, so he has a lot to fight against.
The problem is, he kind of ignores his problems. He’s capable, but lacks the motivation. He barely graduated even high school, probably passing on a technicality, and immediately dropped out of college. His parents try to hand him everything on a silver platter, but he ignores it and wastes away with expensive addictions. I’ve been a pretty faithful friend to him, largely because I have a lot of experience in mental health, and I like being good to people who suffer. But most of his friends gave up ages ago. Most bridges are burned, and he’s been homeless more than once.
The entire time I’ve known him, Sandy talks about getting a job, but this very rarely happens, and even when it does, he never holds it down very long. He’s combative with coworkers, and frequently ignores half his job, focusing on what he wishes it were. Doesn’t take him too long to get canned.
What kills me is that he’s so smart and intuitive, but he just lets this go to waste. I hope that by continuing my friendship with him, I can make a difference. His parents obviously want the best for him, so he’s not totally without supports. I think he has a chance, but he’s going to have to be the one to step up to it.
Honestly, Geoff didn’t have the perfect start either, but his approach was way different. Like Sandy, he had ADHD as a kid and that caused some problems for him, but he had a fighter’s mentality in a good way. He would do anything it takes to overcome all challenges. He had friends in school and was good to them. One time, he got extremely sick, and the whole school rallied around him to support him as he got better. He was student of the month that time because he tirelessly did his homework even though he couldn’t get to class for a long while. In high school he carried around a 3.0 GPA pretty much the whole way through.
He learned to control the ADHD aspect with the awkwardness and worked consistently, generally impressing his coworkers. Even when he changed careers, he hit the ground running and did excellent work. You know the “Jack of all trades, master of none” thing people talk about. He doesn’t stop there. He’s good at everything he touches.
He recently quit his job working for a corporation to start his own business and it’s doing great. He also collaborates with others in their businesses and wherever he goes business does better. He shares Sandy’s intelligence and intuition, but he’s always using them to impact those around him. He has a large number of friends, and always seems to find more people to inspire.
I don’t know how subtle I am, but if you haven’t guessed it yet, both Sandy and Geoff are me. But which is it? Is my life a long list of failures, or a string of successes? Honestly, I think a lot of it depends on how one views it. Some look at my life and see Sandy. Often times that’s what I see. But I think the Geoff narrative is closer to the truth. Allow me to put the two together so you can see where each story gets its angle.
I didn’t get along great with my family when I was younger. But I was very intelligent and intuitive. I just didn’t know how to control that yet, and in my fear and anger, some divides happened. My parents did their best to guide both me and themselves through those struggles, and while they did a very good job, not everything went perfectly. That’s part of mental illness.
But was I beloved or shunned at school? I think in between. Like a lot of kids, I got in fights, but like a lot of kids, I was a pretty nice guy, too. I went back and forth, because there was a lot going on in my head. I always had a solid group of friends who helped me through, and when my spleen ruptured in grade 8, every person I knew was helpful to me and encouraging. I didn’t believe for a second that I deserved to be student of the month, but in hindsight, and with better clarity, I see that I was the perfect candidate. I was the poster child of working hard through difficult times to not fall behind. I got the recognition I deserved.
Did I barely pass high school or did I have a solidly high GPA? Again, both. My first three years of high school went relatively well. I didn’t think that at the time, but a lot of high schoolers feel more awkward and pathetic than they really are. In my senior year, my mental illness got a lot worse and I dropped out a few times, but the school counselors and teachers saw my competence despite that and helped me get through. I passed legitimately, even if I didn’t think so.
Am I constantly unemployed, or a success at every job I touch? Once again, it depends on how you look at it. I have indeed struggled often to keep a regular nine to five office job. But I’ve never just sat down and given up for any length of time. I always find ways to get by. My parents help me find opportunities, but they do not pay my bills. I do that myself. I was highly respected at the last corporate job I had for a few years, but later I worked under different supervisors who were poor leaders. I did not thrive under that environment. I’m a good employee, but I do seem to thrive best with specific directives from management. Give me a task and I’ll do it better than anyone else. Point at a workspace and say “Go work on something”, and I won’t do well. It’s just my work style.
Recently, I’ve been working at a number of small companies somewhat informally and things are going very well. Not all would look at it and call it great, but honestly, if I look with clarity, I see that I’m doing pretty well for myself.
What’s the Point?
What I’m getting at here is that those of us with mental illness can feel really down on ourselves and truly feel like failures. We think that because we don’t have the same normal life as everyone else, we’re lesser. My brother is an actuary (very skilled math job), with a wonderful wife and three great kids. It obviously looks like success. When I look at him and see my own life is so different, I wonder if I’m a failure. If I’m just not as good as him. As I gain clarity, I find that he and I are equally competent. We just express that in different ways.
I’m learning not to be afraid to see myself as a success. When I talk to strangers and tell them I’m doing well and list off the things I do for work, I’m not lying. I feel like I’m lying because I feel like I’m so bad, but I tell the truth when I describe my story like that of Geoff. It takes courage to realize that I really am a success, even when I feel like I’m not.