Where Medicine Ends and Life Begins
Just like a lot of other people with a mental health label, I've been told that I have a brain disease, a chemical imbalance and that my problems are biomedical. While I no longer think of my own experience in these terms, I can see why the medical model of 'mental illness' makes sense to a lot people. In my own experience, there was – and still is - a lot of going on both mentally and physically that has to be reckoned with.
At the same time, I’m drawn to other questions – questions mostly outside the purview of medicine as it currently is being practiced. For example:
- What about our lives, experiences, and stories... ?
- What about our personal values, dreams and quest for meaning…?
- What about the need, in each of us, to understand ourselves and answer to the truth of our own conscience…?
- What about the basic human need for support, acceptance and belonging…?
- What about the stress of living – especially if you’re poor, homeless, bullied, abused, or discriminated against by powerful others…?
Where do factors like these come in...? How do these things affect us? What happens if certain crucial material, emotional, social, cultural or existential ingredients are missing…? How do you tell a hard or under-supported life from a disordered one... ?
Differential diagnosis: Hard Life or Mental Disorder?
Here is where the rubber meets the road for me. While we don't talk about it much, on some level we all know that life is precious and fragile. To create a single human life, nature arranges for nine months of specialty-designed, comfort-padded, form-fitted, super-insulated, dynamically-adjusted, round-the-clock guarded incubator space. Once out of the womb, there are several years more of intensive care and nurturing that new arrivals ideally get in order to ensure optimum development.
The refuge required is not only physical, but also economic, emotional, intellectual, social, cultural and spiritual.
In other words, the maturation process is complicated, labor intensive and a lot can go wrong. There is no way around it. We are all vulnerable. If any of us lives long enough, there will surely be setbacks and losses. Even worse, the one clear certainty, at the moment of our birth, is that someday we will die. So will everyone else we love. It's only a matter of time.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust …
Add to that the kicker that no one actually has 'the answers' - real answers - to the problems that have plagued human beings since time began. Yeah, there are a lot of theories and philosophies that help people cope with death and loss. There is a lot of religious and social wisdom about how to avoid, escape or transcend the material realities.
No doubt, some approaches hold more promise than others. At the same time, on the tangible, visible planetary level, no one really knows. Everyone has done their level best. Countless scientists, academics, philosophers and saints have devoted their lives to the search for this holy grail.
Yet, no one has succeeded. As a whole, for the human race, we still have more questions than answers. This is especially true when it comes to the really hard questions - the one's that really matter:
- Why is there suffering?
- Why do bad things happen to good people?
- What happens when we die?
- What happens to our relationships with the people, animals, beings we love?
In the final analysis, there are no experts. We all end up the same. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
So what's the point?
The fact is, life is challenging - and that explains a lot. There is a lot of going on – mentally, physically, socially, environmentally, existentially - that every one of us is invited to reckon with.
We are born into a world with few if any certainties. We are all vulnerable to loss and death. There is no way around it. No one we know will escape it. No human being yet (despite every one of us trying) has discovered a universally satisfying answer to the common existential questions that nearly all human beings ask.
Seen in this light, stumbling or struggling are not 'abnormal.' Far from it! They are a natural part of learning how to live.
Thus, we should not pathologize each other for getting stuck, stressed out or even checking out at times. This kind of detour is a fact of life - not a mental disorder. It is an inherent and predictable part of the journey, given the vulnerability of being human and the level of challenge that life presents.