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Painted Brain | Denial: An Editorial On Mental Illness
We're bridging communities and changing the conversation about mental illness using arts and media.
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  • July 18, 2015

Denial: an editorial on mental illness

One of the things that I respect the most about people at The Painted Brain is how honest we are with ourselves about what we want, what we need, and what we have to deal with. I think that being honest with oneself is a very fundamental part of sanity.

Maintaining a sense of sanity can be a challenge, however, when we try to take an honest look at the world around us. Living in LA, one can’t turn a blind eye to the great disparities in privilege that this city has to offer. I see the same people living on the streets, day after day, and I’ve been seeing some of them for years. There is a certain insanity, a glaring contradiction, inherent in the perpetual predicament of these unfortunate people, poverty-stricken for years in a city of vast wealth. Then there are the horrendous things that happen to so many people every single day. Why must we focus on easy solutions like taking stupid flags away from people instead of taking away the guns with which we kill one another, day in and day out?

If you are not angry, you’re not paying attention. If you pay too much attention, you will go blind.

How can I be honest about the harsh realities we live with and still maintain a healthy mental outlook?

I may be biased, but I noticed a lot of honesty among the people I met while traveling by bicycle through northern California last week. People that travel by bike, some of them for weeks or months at a time, tend to be pretty honest, and manifest a uniquely personal sense of mental health, whether alone or with friends, gregarious or completely silent. They have no choice because they can’t hide, because their ability to travel and survive is almost entirely dependent on leg power and mental endurance.

On my recent bike trip, I was constantly aware of my privileged place in the world: my physical and mental fitness and middle-class white jewish midwestern upbringing, my financial flexibility as a result of my high hourly rate as a therapist, and the attendant freedom to spend time accomplishing my long-range goals. I also feel privileged that I am, for the most part, free of what seems to motivate and drive many of the people around me, the desire for wealth, expensive things, cars, and offspring. For my own mental well-being, I need to enjoy the freedom I have from worldly pursuits as I sit on a cliff somewhere on the California coast after biking for hours and covering many miles, enjoying a well-deserved rest watching sea otters play. To stay present, I need to really let go from time to time. Several days biking by myself is a chance to let my “empathy capacitors” cool down for a bit so that I can focus more fully on myself and my senses without being distracted by my own thoughts.

I also felt sad much of the time. I detected sadness in many of the people I met and talked with, as well as in myself. It called to mind something I read, something from a book whose title I can’t remember. Funny, when I first read it, I doubted the author’s veracity, but during my trip, it finally made sense to me because I was able to feel the truth of it for myself. I felt sad for us humans. We try, we do good, we know that we’re not living right somehow, but we’re powerless against the giant forces, mostly man-made, stacked against us. There’s an old saying, loving your work means you never work a day in your life. That’s some serious bullshit. Work is exhausting no matter how much you love it, and exhaustion is part of that love. How can I be both honest about our situation and healthy? Not to be smug about it, but I am doing something to challenge our reality, and I am ready to get back to work.

Maybe that is insane.

Dave Leon LCSW is a licensed clinical therapist and founder/director of The Painted Brain. He writes a column about mental health issues for Painted Brain News.

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