One of my favourite books I read last year was The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn Saks – an autobiography of a woman who suffers from schizophrenia. I liked this book so much I recently re-read it.
The reason I liked this book so much, I think, is that it gave me insight into a mental illness that I previously knew very little about, that seemed alien and scary to me – and actually made it surprisingly relatable. I was surprised by how often the author’s descriptions of her illness and struggles just didn’t feel that far from my own experiences, or at least not far from experiences I could conceivably imagine having. When she describes feeling a loss of control over her thoughts and sense of what was real, it just didn’t seem that weird to me – I think our brains are constantly exerting a lot of effort to make sense of things in a sensible way, to filter out what’s real and what isn’t, and it’s just not that surprising to me that sometimes this breaks down. In a way, it’s surprising to me that this doesn’t break down more often, and reading this book left me with a sense that the brain – and therefore our grip on reality – is much more fragile than I thought. I’ll try to write more about this, and particular parts of the book I found interesting, at a later point, but for now I wanted to comment on the ending paragraph in particular, which really struck me the second time around:
“If you are a person with mental illness, the challenge is to find the life that’s right for you. But in truth, isn’t that the challenge for all of us, mentally ill or not? My good fortune is not that I’ve recovered from mental illness. I have not, nor will I ever. My good fortune lies in having found my life.”
I really like this focus on finding the life that’s right for you – and the idea that this perhaps is more important than any mental illness diagnosis. It’s easy to draw a false dichotomy between ‘mentally ill’ and ‘normal’ people, and then to simplistically assume that people in the former category are those who struggle in life, and the latter get along just fine. But I think finding a life that’s right for you – a place to live, ways to spend your time, people to surround yourself with – is hard, and hard for everyone, regardless of whether you suffer from any mental illness. Mental illnesses make these things hard in specific ways, and often make these things harder than they are for the average person. But as Saks says, for all of us the challenge is really the same – the obstacles are just different.
I think I like this point because it relates to a general impression I have, that finding the life that’s right for you is incredibly hard, even in the most basic sense. And a large part of how happy we are comes down to these very simple things – like living in the right place, having work that’s fulfilling, and having good relationships. These things seem obvious and simple but I think they can actually take years to get right, and we somehow feel like they should be easy. But we don’t think about them explicitly that often – we fall into jobs, homes, relationships, without thinking, and then wonder why we’re not quite happy. I want to spend more time thinking about the kind of life I want to live – down to the level of what I want my average week to be like – and how to make that a reality.