The classic poem “Desiderata” says that if you compare yourself to others you will either become vain or bitter.
I don’t worry about becoming vain, as my self-esteem is still beneath sea level. But bitterness? That one had a hold of me last weekend.
I reached out to a guy with whom I was in regular touch a few years back. He suffered from debilitating depression then, so I thought he might benefit from the depression support group I just created on Facebook. He told me he was in a much better place now, and that he really didn’t have much need for depression support now since he only had a few, mild symptoms.
Two hours later I ran into a friend of mine who had suffered from severe pregnancy-related depression. Once her son was born, she was relieved of most of her symptoms. She told me her hell lasted about a year.
I was genuinely happy to hear that both of them were doing great.
And yet, there was a small voice inside of me that asked, “Why them? Why do they get a reprieve of symptoms and not me?”
I suppose it’s only human to go there, especially when you work so hard at something like I do with my health. You want to see results from your tireless effort, and when they are slight, it’s bloody difficult to not become discouraged. Then when you see other people pop one drug, or take gluten out of their diet, or get into a new relationship and voila! They’re well. Your amygdala — the hot-headed part of your brain that’s left over from our reptile ancestors — is fed animal crackers, and the temper tantrum begins.
Still a tad peeved, I sat down to watch the movie “Soul Surfer” with my daughter, the 2011 film based on the true account of teenage surfer Bethany Hamilton. She lost her left arm in a shark attack, yet went on to compete as a surfer and in the process became an inspirational figure to millions. Bethany’s story is incredibly powerful, especially if you suffer from any kind of disability: those obvious to the public and the invisible ones without parking spaces that can be just as crippling.
Sitting by her bedside in the hospital, the doctor tells Bethany, “The number of things you are going to have to learn to do differently are substantial. But the things that are impossible to do are few.”
The scene following that conversation is my favorite, because it shows you the kind of courage, tenacity, and patience that is required of anyone determined to live a full life despite a handicap. Bethany is in the kitchen trying to make herself a sandwich. She attempts to slice a tomato with her right hand, but it rolls away. Next she tries to untie the plastic bag holding a loaf of bread. She can’t manage it. Frustrated, she runs to her bedroom.
I couldn’t help but think of all the people I know, myself included, with treatment-resistant depression. No wonder why we’re frustrated. We’re trying to cut a tomato with one arm. It’s maddening because most of us know what it feels like to have two arms.
I’ve been blessed with moments of good brain chemistry where I have been able to accomplish things like write a memoir and give a commencement address. But there are days after days after more days of trying to cut a tomato or untie the bread bag with one arm: of faking mental stability in front of my kids only to bawl in secret, or of staring at my computer screen for three consecutive hours only to produce two sentences.
After a disappointing competition where she can’t get around a wave with one arm and her surfboard breaks in half, Bethany gives up.
“Can we have your autograph?” two little girls ask her as she’s leaving the competition.
“Here, take these,” she says, and gives them her surfboards.
To get some perspective, she embarks on a mission trip to Thailand with World Vision, offering relief efforts after the tsunami of 2004. That’s where she teaches a little orphan boy how to surf. He is so traumatized he is unable to speak, but allows her to hold his hand and walk with him to the water that killed his family and took away everything he had. It is in that moment — when she moves beyond her own tragedy to offer hope to someone else — that she realizes that there is something much bigger than surfing: love.
Her “tikkun olam” — a Jewish term which refers to humanity’s shared responsibility to repair the world — is a moment of transcendence in which her suffering finds meaning. It’s the antidote to her bitterness and the “Why me?” questions — and to the resentment that runs like poison throughout her veins, driving behaviors such as snapping off the arm of her Barbie. The act of forgetting about herself in compassion frees her from the prison of her disability.
After the movie, I figured I was due for some of my own tikkun olam. I logged on to the online support group I started last week and read through some of the sobering stories, of people who have much more debilitating symptoms as I have and more challenging life situations. I tried to share as much hope and compassion as I could, and offering suggestions on diet, kids’ anxiety, genetic tests, and other topics that I know a little something about. I tried to repair the world in the very small way I could. After a little while, I didn’t feel so bitter.
Originally posted on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.