Letter to the Editor: Stronger than the demons

Published 3:13 pm Wednesday, April 20, 2022

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To the Editor:

Recently, I went to see the opening of the play Next to Normal, put on by the Theatre of Dare. Our community has some very talented people. It’s always a joy to see our local actors and directors display their art. I had no idea what the play was about, but it turned out to be a serious one. Eugene O’Neill-like. A play that rips your guts out, leaving them on the floor. The play dealt with a woman suffering from mental illness and personal tragedy. There were tears in the audience.

I once heard the clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson say that every life is a tragedy. That is probably an overstatement, but I get his point. Many of us, maybe most of us, are trying to deal with a personal tragedy or with “stuff.”

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Back to the play – it offered no solutions for overcoming mental illness, but, to be fair, it is a play and not a lecture on overcoming mental illness. However, the following day, I saw Mark Wahlberg’s latest movie, Father Stu, which is based on the life of Stuart Long. Before becoming a priest, Stu was battling his personal demons – the loss of his brother, a verbally abusive father, no employable skills, alcohol abuse, arrests, and finally a debilitating disease. He overcame it all, finding peace and serenity by helping others and by accepting Jesus Christ into his life. By accepting Jesus Christ, Stuart Long became stronger than his demons.

Next to Normal and Father Stu left me thinking and wanting answers . . .

Mental illness is a disease that requires professional treatment. I’ll leave that discussion for the mental health experts. I want to discuss what I‘ve come to believe, through reading and experience, are actions that can defeat the tragedies/demons. (This is not to say professional treatment isn’t required, nor am I attempting to minimalize the mental anguish or the physical damage done to the brain from tragedy or addiction, but for this discussion I want to draw a line between mental illness and dealing with “stuff.”)  How does one deal with the loss of a loved one, having an addicted loved one, one’s own addiction, coming down with a crippling disease, and, of course, the big one – facing one’s own mortality?

The solution is easy – be stronger than the demon. Achieving that is where the difficulty lies. The reader might think, that’s like telling a drowning man to simply swim to shore, to be stronger than the tide. But how to become stronger than the tide? How does one overcome his or her own personal tragedy? How does one accept the unacceptable, when the anguish, pain, misery, and lack of hope sucks you under the surface and every time you stick your head out of the water to take that precious breath, you are hit by another wave, forcing you back under? Is there not a lifeboat?

Actions that can help: (These are not mutually exclusive.)

1) As we saw with Father Stu, religion can give one strength over the demon. For the believer, God’s love is stronger than any pack of demons. He is the lifeboat.

But religion might not work for the agnostic or non-believer. Where do they find the strength?

2) Talking to someone. Professional counselors can give one strength. Individual counseling, group therapy, drug rehab can provide answers. (Of course, this step does not exclude religion. In fact, having a higher power is part of every 12-Step Program.)

3) Support Groups. Meeting with people who are struggling in the same way, who are fighting the same demon, can show that you are not alone. There will be people there who have been sucked into the abyss and have come out the other side. They can share what has worked and not worked for them.

4) Inpatient Mental Health Treatment Centers. This may include medication. One must be careful, but studies in recent years have taught us much about the human brain. And studies have shown that properly administered medication and monitoring can be an important component of the overall treatment plan.

5) For lack of a better term, I call this the Way of the Warrior. Military experience not required. It’s accepting a certain ethos, a certain way of looking at the world and recognizing and accepting certain realities. It’s rejecting victimhood and accepting that the world doesn’t owe you anything. It’s understanding that one can make all the right choices and, through pure randomness, still be struck with something bad. Greg Abbott, the Governor of Texas, shortly after graduating from law school, went out for his daily jog. Just as he passed under a certain tree, a limb broke, fell on him and put him in a wheelchair for life. If he would have been seconds faster or slower that day or had taken another route, his spine would not have been crushed. (How many times did he replay that scenario in his mind?) In the hospital, he made a decision to not let his injury define him.

None of the above actions are easy. They take hard work and commitment. It takes more than just showing up, but showing up, walking through the door, is the first step. There is no alternative. The choice is binary – either the fetal position or moving forward. And the good news is help is available.

Craig Jones

Nags Head