Many of us who have been diagnosed with breast cancer divide our lives into B.C. (Before Cancer) and A.D. (After Diagnosis). But this post isn’t about that. It’s about a chapter of my life that simply ended because it was time. It was inspired by two people I’ve come to like and respect more than I thought possible just knowing someone online: Marie O’Connor, who blogs at Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer, and Greg Smith, who blogs at gregsmithmd.
Marie recently invited people to blog about/comment on their “other life;” who they are when not dealing with breast cancer. (My blogged response centered on poetry.) Greg is a compassionate psychiatrist (and one heck of a good writer). They both got me to thinking about my former life as a mental health worker. That life ended long ago; I started writing professionally for a living in 1989, but for the nine years leading up to that I was employed at a community mental health center in Nebraska.
I worked there while moseying toward my journalism degree as a part-time student, working my way up from receptionist to secretary for our medical director to providing direct service. My dream was to become a community mental health educator, and I got to do a bit of that through an internship.
Most of the people I worked with were schizophrenic. Some of them are smarter than I could ever hope to be. One of our guys sent a physics or math-related proposal to MIT, and they were interested until they saw his return address at an inpatient facility. Some had the double whammy of mental illness and mental retardation.
Try to imagine that the organ that’s failing you is the organ you use to perceive the world around you. I went through a minor punk phase back then and had purple hair. I’ll never forget the client who asked me one day, “Is your hair purple?” The question makes perfect sense when you realize it’s coming from someone who can’t trust what they see.
Some of the bravest people I have ever met or will ever meet were people dealing with that disease. I remember the woman who went off her meds when she found out she was pregnant. She knew what was coming and it scared her, but she didn’t want to harm her baby. I remember the man, as old then as I am now, who told me he’d love to have a wife and family but had to accept that’s never going to happen. He wasn’t bitter, but wistful.
Some of the best memories of my life are from that time, in that place. The lessons I learned there have served me well in life. My clients were wonderful, valiant, funny people. (Yes, people dealing with mental illness have a sense of humor. One of my clients, a gorgeous young man and talented artist, had obsessive-compulsive disorder. I still remember his joke about being in church one day and wanting to yell at the priest after reciting the Hail Mary, “You didn’t say it enough times!”)
What does this have to do with breast cancer? Nothing and everything. Since then, my professional life has involved writing, first for technology magazines, then in agency and corporate PR. I’m blessed to be able to actually do something related to my field of study. But it doesn’t provide the same warm fuzzy that you get from being in a helping profession.
This is where breast cancer comes in. It’s a community full of wonderful, valiant, funny people. And I never would have been a part of it if I hadn’t been diagnosed. Reaching out to people through social media and my book gives me a rush I haven’t had since those mental health days. This is one reason I’m grateful for my experience, and why for me it was an overwhelmingly positive one.