In his new book, Simply Human: Reflections on the Life We Share, Alan Bodnar takes us inside the lives of people with mental illness, providing the keen insight and discernment of a clinical psychologist to show that their stories are all part of a much larger human experience.
Bodnar explains, “I wanted to convey some of the fear, confusion, and betrayal that these people were feeling, and, in some small way, give voice to the distress that policymakers seemed to be ignoring.”
Here, Bodnar is referring to the stigma that so often encompasses people who have mental illness, a stigma that perpetuates society’s misperceptions of what it means to live with mental illness.
And yet people with mental illness share the same daily struggles, frustrations, hopes and dreams that are part of everyone’s lives.
Bodnar writes, “The people I write about are our friends, neighbors, relatives, the wealthy and the poor, some who have achieved and lost much, and others who have never had a chance.”
He goes on to say, “Everything we experience in life is an opportunity and a challenge to develop empathy, to realize that we are more alike than different, and to draw closer together.”
What people who struggle with mental illness offer — if we can listen — is a simple message: we are all heroes together, just everyday people trying to cope with our misfortunes and struggling to live the best lives we can.
Bodnar describes Jimmy, born to an alcoholic and drug-addicted teenage mother, who had been left, lost, overlooked, and misread, and despite all of these things had remained resilient and determined. In this moment, Bodnar wonders about his own role as a psychotherapist with this patient: “When I was a twenty-three year old intern nervously awaiting the arrival of one of my first patients — and attorney twice my age –I wondered what I could possibly offer to a man who had seen so much of life.”
Much like in life, in psychotherapy there is no perfect answer, no perennially accurate description, and no definitive difference between the struggles of the psychotherapist or the patient.
Bodnar writes, “Perhaps the essence of mental health is the ability to recognize that we spend our days ‘muddling through’ life, neither ‘flying high’ with all of the answers nor ‘bogging down’ in the mire of ignorance, fear, and despair.”
While complacency and inertia can keep us all stuck, it is in times of great despair that our empathy is called to rise.
“Empathy is a bridge between worlds,” Bodnar writes, “and whether that bridge spans the lengths of continents to the victims of tsunamis on the other side of the world or the length of the carpet on the therapist’s floor, it marks a route that is not always easy to travel.”
What psychotherapy offers is a place to explore, to look inside the lives of those who are foreign to us, to look inside our own hearts and to journey together.
There is an elusive prize we all search for, a secret wish we hold, and a hope that we dare carry: to be who we are.
And yet when a life is shattered by mental illness and seems to have lost its meaning, Bodnar believes that we as therapists can help our patients find meaning or a new direction on a road that seems to have crumbled beneath them when we “join our patients in their search for answers.”
We all have three lives: the life we live, the life we tell, and the life we understand. While psychotherapy can glamorize analysis, the trick, Bodnar writes, “is to strike a proper balance between life lived and life understood.”
Bodnar describes this transformation using the example of a young patient who has just been diagnosed with schizophrenia is learning to cope with his illness: “As the life he tells becomes the life he understands, he is free to enjoy the life that is there for him to live every day. And so are we all.”
As we look back upon our lives, surprised by the roads we have traveled, the interests we have developed, and the threads that seem to weave our lives together, the task is to watch and wait until something of value appears. “Sooner or later, we find it or it finds us…. It may be true that fortune favors the brave, but most of the time, it’s probably enough just to stay awake,” writes Bodnar.
Simply Human is not just a window into the mind and heart of a practicing psychologist, it is an invitation to uncover our vulnerability, to expand our empathy, to recover our strengths, and ultimately, to find the determination and resilience to live the best life we can.
Simply Human: Reflections on the Life We Share
Alan Bodnar, September 2018
Paperback, 256 pages