The Dignity of Risk

Pioneer mental health advocate Pat Deegan talked about “the dignity of risk and the right to fail.”

I want to talk first in this blog entry about the Dignity of Risk. In the coming blog entry I’ll talk about the Right to Fail.

Too often peers could be afraid to take risks. Mental health staff could have a poor impression of what a person is capable of doing. This could rub off on their patients.

As well family members might abandon their loved ones. It can be harder to take risks when there’s no one in your corner cheering you on.

The boxing match between you and your illness could be ferocious enough on its own. Thus the thought of tackling a grand goal can seem out of reach.

These factors add up to learned helplessness: the thought that it’s not worth trying to risk doing something so why bother.

Dare–I tell readers–dare!

To quote Michael Jordan:

Don’t be afraid to fail. Be afraid not to try.

This guiding motto is inscribed on a metal paperweight on my desk.

Too I have this quote magnet guiding me:

Proceed as if success is inevitable.

Only sometimes your best-intentioned plans go awry.

I will talk about having the Right to Fail in the coming blog entry.

After this I will give a pep talk about risking finding a job.

Recovery as an Act of Bravery

In my Queens Library presentation which I gave from memory without reading notes (!) I talked about the 3 factors that enabled me to recover fully: having family support, adhering to treatment by taking medication every day, and using the creative process on and off my librarian job.

To wit I said:

Only by expressing your identity will you thrive in recovery. Your diagnosis does not define you. You define you.

I identify as an Artist. My 5 great joys in life are art, music, fashion, books and writing, and exercise. I’m happiest performing on stage at poetry readings.

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Recovery is an act of bravery.

It takes courage to be yourself in a society where there’s a lot of hate and judgment going on.

Yet the only way to live is Your Way.

My failed first career in corporate insurance offices is a testament to how I became ill by squelching my true Self.

Like Pat Deegan expressed peers should have “the dignity of risk and the right to fail” in any arena in our life–even in our careers and our relationships.

I took the risk to have a career that I thought I wanted to have. All along I ignored the subconscious warning signs that I was going down the wrong path.

It took me 7 years followed by 2 years in a law firm office library before I realized I wouldn’t ever be happy and healthy working in a business where I had to button-up my Artist self.

Expressing yourself is an act of bravery too.

I relate to LGBT individuals who were asked to submit to conversion therapy to straighten themselves out.

Early on in my recovery I tried to conform to what was deemed “normal” in society. And I failed miserably in my attempt to be someone else.

I would ask readers: “Why have you been afraid to express yourself?”

Here I am telling you as one peer to another:

You are worthy. You are beautiful.

Show yourself to others. Live out loud. Shine on.

There is no other way to live.

Queens Library Talk

Drs. Costakis and McKelvey of Zucker-Hillside Hospital Northwell Health talked about schizophrenia using a PowerPoint slide show listing symptoms medication and other facets of treatment.

At the end there was a Q&A. One question was directed at me re: what I wrote in Left of the Dial to the effect: I strive to be creative and express myself yet want to blend in.

The person’s question was about how to set that boundary.

I want to go into more detail here to expound on what I told the listeners on Tuesday.

The boundary lies in how you interact with others in an appropriate way and with respect. Not sharing private information about your life indiscriminately. Being able to discern what is fair game to reveal and what should be kept to yourself.

To the people listening to the talk I had said:

I think you cannot act false to yourself. You must act true to yourself. Early in my recovery I had jobs in corporate insurance offices and I had an apartment. So it appeared that I had recovered because I had a “normal” life.

Only I don’t consider myself to have recovered until I started my librarian job when I was 35 years old. The library was a different environment.

Working in the corporate offices I wasn’t able to thrive. Not only that it failed to give me economic opportunity.

I would say that you should show up as yourself in every interaction you have with other people.

That is the answer I gave to the question. At the end of the event I think I could’ve said more along the lines of:

Today I have no desire to blend in. Certain things I wrote in my memoir when it was published I see differently today.

For one–how I was impressed with women I called “living museums” with the perfect hair impeccable pocketbook and smashing clothes.

The idea of wanting to blend in no longer holds an allure either.

This is because for years after the book was published I’ve thought that you cannot repress your soul and expect to be well.

I would go further to say that that you should choose your job carefully when it comes to the type of work environment you will thrive in.

In the next blog entry I’ll talk in more detail about my own career trajectory to illustrate this point.

It comes down to what pioneer Advocate Pat Deegan called having “the dignity of risk and the right to fail.”

Sometimes you don’t know until you try on a job or career for size that it’s not the right one for you.

I was 24 when I expressed that sentiment about wanting to blend in.

I’m 55 years old today and things are different.

When you’re first starting out making a compromise might be necessary to get your foot in the door of having work experience.

Only I still think it’s a slippery slope in terms of finances and self-actualization to hide yourself and your light from view at any time in your life.

My Upcoming Talk

I”m giving the talk referenced above with the Queens Library on the internet via a virtual event that you can attend.

To register use this Queens Library link to obtain the URL or telephone number and the pass code.

I’ve memorized the talk I’m going to give. As well I will be reading an excerpt from Left of the Dial.

Two doctors from the Zucker-Hillside Hospital will be joining me on the panel discussion.

It’s going to be a treat for audience members.

I will be taking and answering questions at the end.

My talk will be about 8 minutes.

I’d love to have blog readers join in.

Grazie.

Remembering Robin Hugh Cunningham

Robin was my mentor. Not that I asked him to take on this role.

He simply gave of himself freely that way without having to be asked.

In 2005 when I started writing the Recovering Together column for SZ magazine I called up NAMI-New Jersey where he was on the board. I told the woman who answered that I was interested in having Robin be a featured panelist for the Q&A on hot topics in recovery. I gave her my telephone number.

Exactly one half-hour later Robin called and said Yes. I had been talking to him ever since 2005.

Robin Cunningham lived to be 77. He died in December 2019.

He lived to be 77 even though he took schizophrenia drugs for 64 years–ever since he was 13 years old and first diagnosed.

For the first 10 years he heard voices that the pills couldn’t quell.

His doctor tried every new medication that came on the market. Ten years later Etrafon stopped the voices.

Robin recommended me to his boss at HealthCentral. In 2007 she gave me a job as a Health Guide along with Robin at their schizophrenia website. I held that job until September 2015.

The exclamation point – ! – is that Robin didn’t die 25 years earlier like news accounts claim that people diagnosed with schizophrenia do.

Robin had a full and robust life. He had a daughter and a wife. He was full of kindness and compassion.

Robin obtained an MBA and rose up to be the CEO of a corporation.

He told me stories about his life which I soaked up. I was eager to learn how a person diagnosed with schizophrenia could do these things.

We talked on the telephone from time to time.

I installed his memoir on my iPad. You can buy Descent into Chaos on Amazon or special order it from a bookstore.

Robin’s life journey was a testament to having a never-broken spirt in the face of adversity.

In 2000 after retiring from his business career he was a pioneer in becoming an Advocate for his fellow peers.

Robin Hugh Cunningham is gone. He should not be forgotten.

Keeping a Goals Journal

While working through the Changeology 90-day action plan for my goals I track my weekly progress in a journal.

I buy the hardbound journals in Rite Aid. You might be able to pick them up in Staples too.

Tracking Behavior starts in Step 2 Prep and continues after that. I write in the journal as often as needed and re-read the entries every few days.

There–you can see in black-and-white–or in blue or black ink how you’re coming along.

So far I’ve achieved one 3-month goal. I’m in Step 5 or Persist which lasts the rest of your life.

This requires that you get honest with yourself about what’s going on that is derailing you from achieving a goal.

Measuring a behavior could tend to improve a behavior. When you’re accounting for what you’ve done the tendency is engage in the goal activity.

Keeping track of what you spend money on for example could be the natural segue for spending less.

The goals journal should be a separate one from a regular day-to-day journal.

Using hardbound books motivates me to go back and flip through the pages to see how I’ve improved.

In the coming blog entry I’m going to talk about finding a mentor to help you out in your life and career.

In Step 2 you mobilize your support team. In Step 3 and beyond you rely on these helping relationships.

My stance is that peers should empower each other not be jealous of each other. Jealousy is a form of self-stigma.

Instead of being envious of others I’ve always wanted to “pick their brains” to see what enabled them to succeed.

One mentor was instrumental in my life and I’ll talk about him next.

Creating a Goals Binder

In 2000 when I started my librarian job I bought a black binder with clear sleeves. On the front cover I inserted an index card that I typed my life goals on. On the back cover I inserted the Theodore Roosevelt quote about daring greatly.

I used each tabbed section of the binder to insert different worksheets. One section houses pages that list my goals for each decade of my life. Another section is where I placed the Accomplishments lists. A different section contains sheets of life guidelines I typed up.

Every so often I re-read the binder. When I showed the binder to a woman who was an LCSW she was astonished that I wrote down my goals in vivid detail.

I recommend creating a goals binder. Skimming through it might give you comfort in this time of the pandemic where everything has been halted.

At first you might read the contents every week. I read my own binder every two months.

In tandem with this approach I recommend keeping a goals journal. I’ll talk about this in the coming blog entry.

Combating Self-Doubt

Confidence and self-doubt go hand-in-hand. The point is you can thrive even when the doubt comes on Persisting in the face of self-doubt is possible.

Years ago I did this very thing by creating a list of everything I accomplished in my life by the time I was 50. I was 51 when I typed up this list.

The arrow point is that everything counts whether a big goal or a tiny action either way.

The times when you think something can’t be done are when you can refer to your list of achievements.

In lieu of accomplishments you can write a list of things you like about yourself that you’re proud of.

The goal with either of these lists is to free-write and number each item as it comes to you.

The list doesn’t have to be long.

My list featured 33 items. They were as simple as joining the St. George Library teen writing group to obtaining a driver’s license and as big as traveling to Italy.

Try to keep going until your writing hand can’t go anymore.

Re-read the list when you need a shot in the arm of confidence.

In keeping with this exercise I’ll talk in the next blog entry about novel ideas I have for getting confidence to tackle goals.

Using Traits and Strengths on a Job

I’ve been told that I’m the exception. This doesn’t make me feel better. And it’s simply not true.

I interpret that shopworn comment as a barb that discounts the role of a person’s personality–who they are and their traits and strengths–in enabling them to recover.

In the April 2015 issue of Current Psychiatry an article stated the people diagnosed with schizophrenia can hold jobs.

Who are you going to trust–a medical journal or some outsider on the street whose opinion is conjecture and not rooted in fact?

Recovery appears to each of us in different guises. Our recovery is as individual as our thumbprint.

Celebrating differentness is the first order of the day.

Those people who view peers in terms of our illness and symptoms are setting us up to believe that recovery is a dim star.

Aside from other people not being able to see beyond color or gender to the person inside:

Peers living with mental health issues are often not seen as our true selves apart from our diagnosis.

The premise of my memoir Left of the Dial was that I healed when I was able to use the creative process on my job and outside of my job.

The point wasn’t and isn’t that everyone living in recovery should be able to have an M.S. or L.C.S.W. or J.D.

The exclamation point [!] was that I recovered because I found the job I loved that enabled me to use my traits and strengths.

I recovered when I stopped buying into the myth that I had to do what everyone else did–have a corporate office job and a normal life [average or ordinary; conforming to a standard or type].

In daring to go down a path that differed from the norm I was able to recover. This was my road. Your road again will be different.

!!!

In the next blog entry I will talk about a written exercise I created to heal from self-stigma when a bout of doubt had come on.

The point is you should take pride in who you are. You should figure out the kind of job that will best use your traits and strengths.