Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Keep Your Mind Lively

Originally dated 12/28/2003 but just as relevant for now so I will keep this as is, and refer all visitors to first post at bottom or to my About me post when I finish it, as a explanation.

Yesterday I had an enlightening conversation with my friend Joe, who lives downstairs from me in this beautiful 250-unit Section 8 building in Connecticut, which I call, almost without joking, the Wethersfield Hilton. Joe, a retired engineer, is refreshing his memory of high school math so he can tutor remedial college students and high schoolers, and one thing led to another until we got to talking about how hard algebra had always been for me to conceptualize, that is, to imagine or translate into anything real. I did well in high school geometry, true, but mostly because it was based on visual things, and on axioms that made sense, or at least what followed from them made sense if you accepted their Euclidian validity. But algebra was another matter altogether. How did one understand in any meaningful way that an equation is like a sentence in any language, that it means, or states, a certain curve or line plotted on the X and Y axes? Joe gets it, understands this, in the same way that I know how to spot a troublesome sentence or fix someone’s shoddy writing. But I absolutely never got algebra. I may not have flunked, but I certainly only passed perforce of brute memorization, which in the end went for naught, as I hadn’t the faintest glimmer of understanding what I was forcing down my craw. I only did it because it was required, remaining stubbornly blind, deaf and dumb to any meaning, until last night when Joe’s explanation illumined matters in a way that had eluded me for thirty years. I am still only a novice, of course, but it truly is fascinating to see how mathematics is a real language, and can be used as such, to state things about reality with both precision and beauty.

Which brings me to the core of the matter, which is how, despite this illness, to keep one’s mind alive and active when sometimes, perhaps even most of the time, you might prefer to sit numbly in front of the tube or vegetate next to a talk radio station. I have certainly watched my share of TV, though fears and paranoia about the radio have prevented me from becoming an audio afficionada, and even now there are times I must force myself to get up from my bed, go into the living room, and pick up a book. But in good times this is relatively easy, and I’ve found I love learning just about anything in fact. Learning a new skill or acquiring a new interest is essential for everyone as she ages, but most especially for those of us who suffer from mental illness, a disease that can so easily destroy all joy and interest in living unless we force ourselves to find it somewhere, anywhere at all.

The great love of my life apart from writing, and probably what saved me from certain mental deterioration, was field botany. Identifying wild plants, that is, knowing helianthus from heliotrope and both from false Hellebore got me out of my room and into the outdoors, which is therapeutic every single time, but it also awakened in me an extraordinary appreciation for the natural world, and gave me eyes to see what before then had been no more than a blurred mass of green, undistinguished by any details greater than grass trees weed. My most recent passion has been for tropical fish, and marine animals of all kinds. True, I acquired the interest while manic, and that undoubtedly helped fuel it, but while my intense ardor has cooled somewhat from that too-high pitch, I still love immersing myself in books about the ocean and videos about marine life. And when we, that is, Joe and I, went at last to Mystic Aquarium, I was a pig in excrement. Once I saw the weirdly lovely, white Beluga whales I completely forgot all about how long the drive had been, how tired I would soon become, or how scary it was for me to be out in public without the safety of my apartment within easy walking distance. My interest in things outside me, hard won or more easily acquired, is what has brought me back to reality every time, not solving delusions or resolving hallucinations or even accepting medication (which I do).

There is a life that goes on beyond the confines of one’s head. The most important thing when you are faced with a set-back or relapse, is to force yourself to get past the difficulties, the anguish, and open your eyes and see what is out there.

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