I am attending a Conference on mental health. One of the most important lessons I have learned is that in a supportive relationship with someone challenged by mental health issues I learned more from her/him than s/he ever did from me. The obvious thing we all learn is the spirit of resiliency, but it does not end there. Coping strategies matter too and those of us whose lives may not be touched by mental health issues on a regular basis do not always know how to cope when things get difficult. I know for myself when things don’t do right, when I say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, neglect to do the right thing, let someone down, etc…I can’t get quite down on myself and frustrated with others. My friends who live with mental health challenges, for whom every day is an adventure in navigation know how I feel, except for them it is so much more. To survive and thrive they learn strategies that make all the difference to me.

Recently our family has been challenged by some stressful times and to be honest our lack of coping skills has everything to do with the ease of our lives. The other night I found myself saying, “Amidst all of this it is so important to hold on to the special moments, the beautiful moments, the moments that make us whole.” My wife agreed. I take no credit for this wisdom, the words come directly from a person I have known for many years who lives with mental illness.

Of course coping with challenges does not exclusively come from those who live with mental illness. I am finding others living with terminal illness to be equally inspiring and helpful. Gord Downie has been such a source of wisdom to me, listening to him, watching him navigate his illness. But there is an understanding for people with terminal illness that is not as obvious for those with mental illness. Which makes their coping skills even more helpful since there is a layer of dealing with ignorance and judgement that does not exist for those with terminal illness. When your stress is related to an issue that others cannot understand the resiliency of those with mental illness is even more necessary.

Too often those of us without a mental health diagnosis have a very linear expectation for life; we will move forward, with only hiccups to interrupt us, from birth, to adolescence, to adulthood, to career plans, to mating, to parenthood, to retirement, to aging, to death. We come to expect this progress and when it is interrupted or something hits the pause button we are confused, upset and in despair. We don’t know what to do, where to turn, how to “move forward”. Our friends with mental health challenges can show us the way, how they use their creativity, how they meditate, how they find support, how they honestly disclose, how they set new goals and how they take responsibility for being part of a new action plan. But perhaps most importantly they learn that it is not a straight line but a series of waves, that life hits highs and lows not based on a climb but rather based on a fragile path that twists and turns with no specific destination, only companionship and openness to transcendent experiences.

I have learned so much. Thank you.