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Some People Really Are Crazy

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“Our life is what our thoughts make it.” —James Allen

It’s been a little under four years since I attempted to end my life. (Which, believe me, is no more bizarre to read than it is to write.) About two weeks passed between when I begrudgingly agreed to go to a hospital (hour after hour of my father convincing me that he could go to jail for my death finally became enough for my rather unstable mind to concede) and the time that I became “safe” enough to graduate to the facility’s mental ward, where again, I reluctantly submitted in protest. You’d think that any time spent in any mental ward would be the darkest time in someone’s life, but the reality is that the most difficult stage of the process was actually the time leading up to the decision to put me there. Desperate for anything, I clinged on to the hope that I could still somehow die even though the medical and psychiatric staff were having none of it — which isn’t to mention daily visits from a heartbroken, yet no less faithful family… That was dark. But the mental ward itself, once I resigned to the fact that I had to be there, wasn’t all that bad. As far mental wards go.

Part of what slowly helped it gain its charm were my neighbors; there were plenty of interesting characters who I crossed paths with but only one that continues to stick out in my mind. His name was Adam — or at least his government-issued alias was “Adam” — and he was the son of a very important member of the government, sent into such environments to harvest information and act as a spy to make sure that the system was following regulations. Adam was there before I arrived, and despite the relative frequency of patients coming and going, Adam was probably there long after I left. Or at least until his assignment called for him to pull out. Our favorite TV show? Ironically, A&E’s Intervention. (Can you believe that people get high off of air-dust cans? Some people really are crazy!) Favorite snack? Single-serving ice cream cups accompanied with kindergarten-friendly disposable wooden “spoons.” More than anything however, the introduction to such a range in characters embodied a theme which would remain constant throughout the entire summer: that being separate realities.

The roster of people I met during my three weeks in the mental ward was remarkably varied. There were people like Adam (though to say that there’s anyone quite like Adam is a lie, actually). There was my first roommate: a rather massive young man who went on a destructive booze bender before being placed in the facility for a couple days at the request of his parents after he threatened to kill himself. There was my second roommate, a small Hispanic guy, about my same age, who latched on to the fundamentals of The Secret in looking for the strength to return to his girlfriend and child. There was a late thirty-something who spent one weekend trading stories over ice cream, who decided to spend his time in the ward rather than in police custody after his wife called the cops on him (he had a black eye and told me that it was either this or lock-up after he’d tried to walk away from the violence; I still believe him). There was also an 18-year old who’d gotten caught up in meth pretty bad; though despite his age, this wasn’t his first rodeo. Each of us living behind our own set of eyes, each experiencing life from an entirely different plane of existence, each of our realities skewed by the resistance of our own operating systems.

As time passed it became evident that the hospital wasn’t to be the last stop on my rather unique summer adventure though. The hammer fell, court order motioned, and through assessment it was determined that I was to spend time in an in-patient program to help deal with my previously mentioned dual-diagnosis. The main problem with this wasn’t that I didn’t feel I had to fight the transition to the next leg of the journey, but that I wasn’t too keen on the options. In this case however — unlike the hospital and subsequent psychological lock-down — I felt like I did have a say in where I would land. When I first landed in detox (and subsequently county lock-up) for drunken driving some weeks prior I began to read Alcoholics Anonymous’ Big Book. I continued in the mental ward and eventually read the entire thing; nearly six hundred pages of rhetoric aimed at setting people like me on the right path. I wasn’t sold. What the book did do was further wedge a separation between myself and the idea that there was any actual value in the “recovery” process (how anyone can shed a dependency or grow emotionally by handing the reigns over to a higher power, I still don’t fully understand). So, given the option of spending more time in the ward while waiting for a spot to open up in an alternative treatment program or opting out of the cuckoo’s nest (no one called it that) early, I stayed. Despite being generally turned off by anything remotely holistic-leaning I opted for a remote Minnesotan setting which places focus on “healing the mind, body and spirit” using the principles of (hippie-talk notwithstanding) “Health Realization” in seeking reprieve from both mental illness and chemical dependency.

“Life is as it appears because of how we think it to be.” —Joseph Bailey

At its most basic the program I was involved in worked within the realm of “Psychology of the Mind,” which is really just another term for Health Realization in corralling a number of health and wellness philosophies; Joseph Bailey has arisen within that particular realm as one of the more prominent voices regarding the treatment of dependency, and his book The Serenity Principle was a staple of the program. The fundamental elements of this program involve the nurturing of a process that strives to leave its participants more in tune with a reality that we can all change how we react to our circumstances by becoming aware that WE are creating our own experiences (not the other way around). The process revolves around mind, consciousness, and thought using three interconnected principles: 1) our thoughts form our mental experiences, guiding how we view the world; 2) personal consciousness is what makes our thoughts appear real; 3) the mind is the source of both consciousness (the ability to become aware of your life) and thought (the power to think, and thus the ability to create reality). Rounding out the philosophy is a blanket acceptance that we are all born with innate health and well-being (which is sort of like The Wizard of Oz: everything we’re searching for we already have) that can be regained through the practice of embracing these aforementioned principles: We’re not sick and in need of a cure, bur rather we’re already healthy and just have to learn to rediscover what we’ve lost. Again, it was either this or A.A.; don’t be so quick to judge.

One of the main concepts within the program was that of separate realities: the mind is the creator of reality, and as we all have unique minds we’re all living in unique realities. Perhaps more important is that this idea reflects a call to remember that we’re not only the ones actually thinking our own thoughts (our thoughts don’t have a mind of their own), but that we’re the ones who determine which of the twelve to fifty thousand thoughts (that we have every single day) which we actually pay attention to. The foundation for personal progression within this system came from the understanding that to regain this inner health we have to be mindful that a filter actually exists, and furthermore that we are responsible for what we pay attention to in order to construct our own realities (which goes back to the whole personal operating system-thing). Our mind is selective in allowing in external forces which correspond to our preexisting beliefs. Once we acknowledge that these separate realities exist however, we can begin to look outside of the immediate and selective external stimuli that has proven to reinforce our thought patterns and begin to evolve mentally, looking beyond our conditioned beliefs for continued validation. Once we do this it becomes easier to accept the world around us without immediately shutting down.

While the program’s focus revolved around the work done by of a bunch of relatively stuffy white people these ideas are hardly exclusive to rustic wellness programs: be it Buddha (“Our life is the creation of the mind”) or even Dr. Seuss (“Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!”), the understanding that we’re in control of determining what influences our perspective is nothing new. As simple as the concepts might be though, there’s a tendency to shrug them off or let them be forgotten, in part, because they’re so effortlessly lost in the simplicity of such easily digestible truisms as those two examples. To say that thoughts are like waves, and while we can’t stop them from crashing in on us, we ultimately have the power to decide which ones to surf is completely true and might be cause for refocusing the structure of one’s entire life, but such airy platitudes are just as easily overlooked when printed in bold Papyrus over a stock photo of bleach-blonde body-boarder escaping a gnarly pipeline, framed, and hanging up on a wall. Yet when presented in the proper context (and perhaps by a respected source), these simple ideas can transform into something truly life-altering.

Take for instance the case of David Foster Wallace’s revered (at least by me) “This is Water” speech he delivered during Kenyon College’s 2005 commencement address, where he parted conceptual seas with a winding parable about the ease with which we’re able to be tripped up by daily life in neglecting such simple principles. Making his case that it is essentially selfishness that is innate, and not well-being (which I tend to agree with), the acclaimed author complemented many of Health Realization’s principles throughout his argument for increased awareness. Invoking separate realities as a plea for more empathetic and intelligent living, his speech reached a boiling point after introducing the idea that a Liberal Arts Education isn’t meant to simply teach someone how to think, but rather help students “[Learn] how to exercise some control over how and what you think.” He continued, “It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves [of it] over and over.” Though the repetitious recycling of the same ideas reinforced by different sources is one hell of a way to get a point across, the connection to be drawn by all of this isn’t just between that of a still-mourned writer’s call to arms and a wellness movement, but that between each of their roles to an understanding of every day happiness.

My road took me through some rather unfortunate avenues before I was introduced (or, unwillingly introduced) to these ideas, but in hindsight I don’t think that I’d have it any other way. I graduated from a small private Western Iowa liberal arts institution in 2006, but had I been shot out into the real worlda year earlier, using Kenyon College as my launch pad I still don’t think that the value of Wallace’s words would have translated. I had to find my own way, as we each do, but one of the main checkpoints along the path of discovery (at least in terms of happiness) comes at an intersection of the ideas presented through (again, even typing the phrase makes me think of petuli oil and hacky sacks) “Psychology of the Mind,” insights from historical thinkers, and most recently the research done by Positive Psychologists. Many conclusions in each realm suggest an increasingly similar consensus that not only are we each the creators of our own reality, but that our individual capacity for happiness lies within our ability to discriminate between reflection and experience (we are the ones who think our thoughts), and that our happiness relates to what we spend time focusing on and who we spend that time with. Whichever theoretical path leads you to a conclusion, if one is even to be made, isn’t that happiness is an innate state that needs to be rediscovered, or that it’s something that we need to defy the odds to achieve, but instead that it’s something so very viable yet simultaneously unattainable. As Wallace said, “The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.”