21 days and 1,000 nights: Journey to mental health

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By Jack Smith

We huddled on a small hill at the highest point of an otherwise flat campus just after sundown, our eyes fixed on the sky. It was a crisp and clear autumn night.

A distinctive amber light, brighter and different than all the other stars, soon painted the sky above and behind us. And then it was gone.

It was the International Space Station hurdling across the big Texas sky at 17,500 miles per hour. Somehow, it appeared to be going no faster than the trains that rumble by near the campus of the clinic I called home for 21 days.

I suppose it appeared to be moving slowly because it was 260 miles above us.  That’s what distance does to our perspective. It alters our perception of reality.After the space station disappeared in the horizon, I couldn’t help but reflect on my journey here, which really started about 25 years ago, maybe earlier.

I also thought about how those astronauts and cosmonauts, much like I did on my way to Houston, must have felt their own fears when their journey of a lifetime began.

I thought about the courage and faith they showed when they were strapped in at takeoff and the physical and mental fitness it takes to do their job. I thought if they could survive being confined to a space station for months at a time, surely I could last three weeks in a four-star mental hospital.

Watching the celestial show that night stirred something in me. It caused me to realize how small we all are in our Father’s world—and at the same time how big each of us is in His eyes. As I wondered about those astronauts and their stories, my mind turned to my new friends fighting their own wars with mental illness.

I became curious about their stories, because I have discovered that telling our stories is one of the healthiest things we can do. I now know from experience that sharing our secrets takes away their power and that talking about our pain is the best analgesic of all.

I thought about the odd collection of beautifully flawed people that made up our milieu. In some ways, we were like the worst, or maybe the best, fraternity on campus. I even had the impulse to blurt out “Blue, you’re my boy!”

I never did and our unit was certainly no “Old School” frat scene, but we all laughed more than you’d think. We laughed more than we cried, but we did share some tears.

I thought about one of my best friends here, an ex-con whose recovery was derailed by one line of cocaine. It cost him his job and jeopardized his freedom, but he feared a return to the prison of his addiction more than going back to jail.

I thought about the 19-year-old skateboarder who wears a black hoodie and hates his parents. Speaking in Spikoliesque monotone drawl, he told me why he can’t relate to his father. “I mean, he’s never even smoked pot.” Turns out he’s never really spent time with his son, either. That made me sad. It also taught me a lesson.

I thought about the burly excavator operator from Jersey suffering from a severe and stubborn bout of Major Depressive Disorder. He endured nearly 20 rounds of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) but still feared ending up where he began– sobbing on the foot of his bed instead of going to work. His wife told him “you just need to get your act together.”

I thought about the troubled young woman who would laugh and then cry for no reason. She left the clinic in handcuffs shortly after splashing a full cup of coffee in the face of the inflexible charge nurse.

I thought about the brilliant paranoid schizophrenic, ostracized since age 7 because he heard voices saying what few friends he had were out to hurt him.

I thought about the incredibly kind, wickedly funny and noticeably frail schizophrenic woman who looked 20 years older than her age. Sometimes she would bust out in song in the middle of group therapy sessions. Every now and then she would smile and show her pretty teeth.

She was so unsteady on her feet that walking to the cafeteria took ages, often prompting offers of help that were not well received. “Eat shi* and die,” she told the Jersey man, who reached for her arm. She nicknamed me “Scarecrow,” but I’m still not sure why. She came a long way in a few weeks’ time squeezing my tight as I walked out the door. I will miss her.

I thought about the beautiful epileptic who endured four brain surgeries, including the one that went badly wrong. She awoke only to discover all the pre-med knowledge she worked so hard to gain was gone…and that she no longer had feelings for her fiancé.

I also thought about the talented artist who paced the halls most of the day. He was addicted to opiates and fighting through the nightmare of Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome. He paced so much at his home before being hospitalized that his feet were bloodied and blistered.

As different as we all were, I thought about all we had in common.

We are smart and we are creative and we are obsessive about something, whether music or art, cigarettes or writing.

We are compassionate and forgiving toward everyone but ourselves. Nearly all of us are addicts.We are impulsive and can be reckless, but thoughtful and courageous, too. We are all very different, yet we are exactly the same.

I will miss my new friends, but I will never forget them.

As I prepared for a flight back to my family, my friends, my home and my life, I thought again about that space station.

It reminded me that the great philosopher, Ferris Bueller, really had this thing figured out a long time ago, about the same time my troubles started as it turns out.

“Life moves by pretty fast,” he said. “If you don’t stop and looking around once in a while, you might miss it.”

P.S. I look forward to sharing my diagnosis and treatment plan in the days ahead. Thanks to all for the prayers, love and support. It has made all the difference.

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8 thoughts on “21 days and 1,000 nights: Journey to mental health

  1. I have heard Christ described as our Wounded Healer. You are right, everyone’s experience is their own…we never can know “just how you feel”. But I do believe you are a wounded healer. Thank you for being so open to share.

  2. Jack, I always liked you & your family during the years I worked at Sparks in Eufaula — some of the best years of my life. I, who also suffer from depression, would never have guessed that the handsome, talented, cheerful “boy who has everything” was hurting so. You bring tears to my eyes with your blog and warmth to my heart with your courage. Jack, may God be with you in this journey.

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