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Mental Health Week – John Backman

Today’s contribution to Mental Health week comes from John Backman.   As a blogger for Huffington Post Religion and an associate of an Episcopal monastery, John Backman writes extensively on spiritual topics, including contemplative practice and its ability to help us dialogue across divides. His new book, Why Can’t We Talk? Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart, will be published by SkyLight Paths Publishing this fall.  You can reach John through his website:  Thank you John for this poignant and forthright article! 

Beyond the Light Box and the Meds

This morning I made decaf. The day ahead will require a lot of energy but also some serious focus, and I don’t need to be any more wired than my brain already makes me.

The fact that I even think about this comes from decades of wrestling with anxiety and depression.

So much has been written about mental and emotional health. There are articles about meds and therapy, diet and exercise, meditation and sunlight and support from loved ones. A lot of it is very sound advice. Over the years, I have picked up a few additional insights that help me. Maybe they can help you or your loved one as well.

Life gets better—in a way

It’s not that the problems get easier. It’s that our ability to manage them gets better. When we first moved where we live now, I did what many of the natives do: went to the track for the horse racing. To understand what was happening, I learned to read the Daily Racing Form. Years later, when choosing investments for my retirement account, I realized I could use my Racing Form – reading skills to understand the stock tables.

It works like this with a lot of things. By fighting with your annoying siblings, you learn what you need to manage your annoying boss 10 years from now. By planning a birthday party, you learn things you can use to run a business. Everything in your life builds on everything else—whether you realize it or not—and suddenly you’ve got skills.

Become an expert in yourself

What gives you pleasure? What triggers your issues? What’s the one thing that calms you down no matter what? How do these things change over time? Are there people who accept you for who you are, and how can you reach them in a crisis? How does the weather on any given day interact with all of the above?

I’ve come to realize that TV commercials about depression meds actually trigger my depression. So I will never ask my doctor about [name of med here], because as soon as the commercial comes on, I switch it off. (Well, most of the time.) Same with the decaf: no way am I giving up coffee—it makes me happy—but the switch to decaf is a must if I’m going to manage my anxiety.

It would be easy to turn this into an exercise in anxiety: a rigid list of dos and don’ts and a ton of fear and struggle around keeping to it. But beyond a few don’ts to keep you safe (involving things like drugs, alcohol, or hurting yourself), it’s really about paying attention. You watch yourself go through life, and little by little you solve the puzzle of you. Do this for a while, and not only can you cope more easily, but you’re actually ahead of most everyone else out there.

This paying attention business helps in another way too. The more I paid attention to other people, the more I found out that my issues weren’t unique. In fact, tons of other people struggled with the same things I did. I learned, basically, that I wasn’t alone.

The world needs you

I know how stupid that sounds. This does not look like a world where one person can make a difference. The problems of this world are massive beyond belief.

Ironically, that’s why the world needs you. To keep the human species going, we need everyone. All hands on deck. And it’s not just a matter of quantity. You have something to offer that no one else has. Yes, that sounds stupid too. But consider. Maybe you have a unique way of thinking about the world. Maybe you can write, or create music, or invent things, or inspire people—or inspire certain kinds of people—in a way no one else can. The very fact that you’ve lived mental illness gives you something to contribute. Maybe you don’t know what it is you have to offer. That’s OK. It’s there.

In my teens and twenties, I couldn’t see a blessed thing I had to offer. Being depressed, I had many days when death seemed like the preferred alternative (there still are a few of those days). But now I have a wife and a child, and despite my protests to the contrary, they seem utterly convinced that they need me. Also, I find I can write, and my thinking runs along very unusual lines. So there’s something I can contribute.  I suspect no one else can contribute it. Maybe the world needs me too—my one person’s contribution.

The other thing here is, when I contribute it, it feels good beyond belief. I get depressed much less often now that I’m contributing it. You have it too. What is it for you? Ask yourself. Ask around. You’ll find it.

My journey is not close to over. I’m still learning to live with my issues. Some days I win; some days they win. Things are better, much better, than they used to be. I suspect what I’ve written here is not exactly comforting. I hope it’s something I consider more valuable: encouraging—as in giving you the courage to hang in there and find the life that’s waiting for you.


I am a trained, professional Spiritual Director, Author and Hands-on Healer. I offer services, programs and classes that empower you to hear the voice of the Divine that speaks from within you. It is the voice of the Divine that leads us to our highest truth, to the discovery and cultivation of our gifts and to a life of Authentic Freedom where we know contentment, compassion and joy. Your truth will set you free!

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