Moving forward in my counseling program, I find myself wondering what really helps people. Last night Alma asked me, “What helped you?”
How do people change? Why do some people overcome profound loss, abuse and tragedy, while other people just fade away? This is a particularly sensitive question right now as we watch a loved one struggle with serious mental illness and addiction. We both look back on our troubled younger years and see so many forks in the road where we could have taken a lethal turn–and didn’t. And so many others did. So what made the difference for me?
1. Relationships. I am blessed with an awesome family that has always supported me. I have always had good friends. Relationships are a double benefit. People were there to help me and talk to me, which was invaluable; and just knowing that they loved me was itself a powerful incentive not to hurt myself. Though I considered suicide many times, I never attempted to end my life–as soon as I thought about how I would do it, I thought about the people I would leave behind, especially my little brother.
2. Radical consciousness. I got into social justice at a young age, and it’s been endlessly valuable to me. I learned that just because you’ve been told you’re disgusting and worthless doesn’t mean you are. Society is often wrong. I learned how to see myself as in the same boat as other marginalized people. And I learned that respecting them meant respecting me, too. I could sink really low, but pretty soon I’d see the injustice of it all, and then I’d get angry–and then I didn’t want to die anymore. Radical consciousness allowed me to adopt a stance of defiance instead of defeat.
3. Religion & spirituality. When things started to get really scary for me as a teenager, I retreated into my religion. I studied Jewish philosophy and kabbalah, and I talked Torah with rabbis ranging from Reform to Hasidic. I read about other religious traditions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. I saw myself at a crossroads, and I had a choice: the path of life or the path of death. I chose life, and clung desperately to every scrap of help and meaning I could find; for me that was God, and my tribe, and my tradition, and mysticism of many varieties. Religion gave me the sense that there is meaning in the universe, the sense of being connected to a tradition across place and time, and a rich repository of narrative and poetry to draw upon in times of need. Ecstatic experiences of awe made me feel life is really worth living. I embraced life as a quest for connection and truth.
So that’s what helped me. But does that really account for it? Through these three things, there is still something unexplained, an x-factor. I always sensed the meaning and value of relationships, radical consciousness, and religion; I was able to take advantage of them. I wanted to take advantage of them. Perhaps that is the key ingredient. But what is it? Did I really just help myself? Why was I able to? Is it will to live, random chance, hope, strength, luck, faith, genetic predisposition, destiny?
I wish that I knew.