Mom was a Jungian—sort of.
A World War II-era psychiatric nurse, she understood there are times when talking through a problem simply wasn’t enough. She knew the health of the mind was inextricably linked to the health of the body. She’d seen firsthand the devastating effect of shell shock, as well as the psychosis and personality changes suffered by her sister when a well-meaning fool burst a goiter on her sister’s neck. She also knew entire families could suffer with mental health issues, and it wasn’t a matter of fault. They were born that way.
To her way of thinking, we’re all born that way. Even people wired to be happy can find themselves devastated by circumstances beyond their control—the death of a loved one, terminal illness, injury and global catastrophe. Sometimes sadness or a feeling of utter powerlessness is the only rational response to a situation. As someone who’d experienced her share of tragedy, she knew grief was a natural part of the human condition. The trick was to prevent the sorrow from becoming more calamitous than its cause.
Safe, effective anti-depressants hadn’t been invented yet. So Mom and her colleagues explored other modes of treatment. Mom focused on the coping mechanisms developed independently by those who routinely struggled with depression. She was particularly struck by Winston Churchill’s way of dealing with his “Black Dog”. Whenever Churchill felt himself sliding into despair, he would go into the garden and lay bricks on a wall.
To a Jungian, the symbolism was obvious. The wall represented a physical and symbolic barrier between him and his troubles. But Mom took it further. Analyzing newspaper and magazine articles she found in the base library, she concluded Churchill’s deepest depressions coincided with moments where he felt most powerless. View in that light, the wall was also his way of exerting control over his world.
Few people in Mom’s orbit had the luxury of building a wall. Hell, if you were living in military housing, chances were you didn’t even have a yard. But control—Mom understood control. I used to describe her as a combination of the kinder, gentler qualities of Napoleon Bonaparte, Niccolo Machiavelli and Attila the Hun. Full disclosure: they didn’t have any. What they did have, however, was the ability to assess the available resources and apply them to the problem at hand.
Ultimately Mom decided the best alternative for building a wall was cleaning a bathroom. The two tasks shared many attributes. Cleaning a bathroom seldom qualifies as a daily necessity. It’s usually something you could choose to do. Or not. It involves manageable levels of physical labor (subsequently shown to help the body self-regulate its chemistry). It can be done in a limited amount of time. It offers tangible results. It harms no one, yet invariably leads to a sense of accomplishment. When I was young, she insisted it was the only viable therapy for a growing girl; a big, strong man like my dad could clean the stove. (What? You didn’t think she practiced her trade on Dad and me? See the historical role models listed above.) But later, after she finally sprang for a regular cleaning lady, she admitted any self-contained, productive activity could suffice, from washing the car to baking cookies for a friend.
Mom died twelve years ago, but I still use the “bathroom trick”. I don’t always clean a bathroom. Sometimes I don’t even bother with physical exertion. It doesn’t really matter what I do. The key is restoring a sense of control through a personal achievement, no matter how small.
Mom would have been the first to say the strategy doesn’t always work. Plus, it’s only a therapy, not a cure. But she believed that any strategy that took the edge off pain without causing harm should be shared. I share it in that spirit. If it helps anyone who reads this, I’ll consider it worthwhile. So would she.
About the campaign:
#HoldOnToTheLight is a blog campaign encompassing blog posts by fantasy and science fiction authors around the world in an effort to raise awareness around treatment for depression, suicide prevention, domestic violence intervention, PTSD initiatives, bullying prevention and other mental health-related issues. We believe fandom should be supportive, welcoming and inclusive, in the long tradition of fandom taking care of its own. We encourage readers and fans to seek the help they or their loved ones need without shame or embarrassment.
Please consider donating to or volunteering for organizations dedicated to treatment and prevention such as: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Home for the Warriors (PTSD), National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Canadian Mental Health Association, MIND (UK), SANE (UK), BeyondBlue (Australia), To Write Love On Her Arms and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
To find out more about #HoldOnToTheLight, find a list of participating authors, or reach a media contact, go to https://www.facebook.com/groups/276745236033627/.