Storms make people stronger

By James Leftwich, CEO

I’ve never tried to commit suicide.  However I certainly have thought about it.  I’m not a religious person but I do have a belief that life is quite precious and that abandoning it is something of a violation.  Suicidality is a repudiation of long-term thinking.  Someone on the brink cannot see beyond their immediate circumstance.  It’s a cliche to talk about positive thinking in such circumstances and a recommendation that a suicidal person would find almost comical.  However the real key to overcoming a severe mental health crisis is to accept long-term thinking and undergo a planning process with an understanding that success is incremental and won’t happen overnight.

I was hospitalized one time when I was 22 years old.  I quickly found myself ostracized by friends and even family.  As I came over to the realization that this mental illness would not abate and may even worsen over time I made a crucial decision that I would not succumb to it.  No matter how much I struggled I maintained a goal (fantasy?) that I would emerge the victor.  At the time I likened it to the hero of the Count of Monte Cristo, who suffers but triumphs in the end over his doubters.  Despite many hiccups along the way I’ve never lost sight of the ultimate goal.  It has required patience and a willingness to endure very uncomfortable circumstances.  In hindsight I see a very logical procession.

Growing up I did quite well in school.  I could always count on my intellectual ability.  It enabled me to finish my Bachelor’s Degree after leaving the hospital.  Many doubted my ability to do that.  Showing that people were wrong to doubt my abilities became a motivating factor.  Despite getting my diploma I felt quite low.  I still compared myself to childhood friends who were becoming doctors, lawyers and successful businessmen.  At the time I could barely manage a cashier job at a hardware store.

I reminded myself about incremental success

I brainstormed a situation that would entail fairly low stress and would take advantage of my cerebral nature.  I settled upon a bookstore.  This was a superb decision.  I still had health benefits and housing subsidies so money was not a worry.  It became a place I looked forward to and allowed me to re-acclimate to social situations.  It built confidence.

 After two years there I became restless.  I still had an overall urge to prove my doubters wrong and regain my status among old friends.  I tried to figure out the next step I could take that would allow me take advantage of my natural talents, was still fairly low stress, would pay better and what could amount to a real career.  I settled on librarianship.

I set about methodically earning credits and before I knew it I had a Master’s Degree.  I found a profession that profoundly interested me.  Schoolwork itself was not very stressful but work environments during my internship triggered my paranoia and urge to socially withdraw.  I realized I would have to approach the workplace delicately.  I was surprised to learn my local public library was hiring part-time librarians.  I set about working 15 hours a week at the reference desk.  I began to slowly learn the ways of libraries.  At the same time I found it easier to look people in the eye and not let my symptoms overwhelm my social encounters.

A chance encounter led me to working at a small local college library.  After three years of part-time work I became a full-time employee and shed all my public benefits.  I had made it.  I was a full tax-paying American citizen.  Soon after I became Director of that Library.  While in hindsight that was perhaps too vast a leap to make, as much of the responsibility triggered my symptoms, it appears the same on my resume.  I stayed there 10 years.

My hopeful message boils down to three things:  have a long-term plan that you methodically go about implementing; be willing to put yourself into uncomfortable situations; celebrate small successes even if you only you realize their import;

use naysayers as motivation to exceed expectations;

don’t trust clinical appraisals of how dire your circumstances might be; acknowledge and accept that you are facing more impediments to success than most people.

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