When the World Seems Like a Cold Place, it may be Time to Kindle More Fires

This is a very personal blog about my journey to accept my mental illness and to acknowledge how it has helped me to become a much better person, practitioner and teacher.

We all seek meaning in life. We want to do things that enrich us emotionally, intellectually, socially, recreationally and spiritually. Indeed, the world can seem like a cold place when we don’t have this multi-faceted enrichment.

By most measures, I have had a very successful life. I get to work on homeless and housing issues, which is my passion. I set up and provided direction to one of the most successful housing programs in the world — according to the World Habitat Awards. Work I have created has been honored with numerous national and international awards. My business partner John, who is the Founding Partner and COO of OrgCode, is also one of my best friends on the planet. I have been blessed with a terrific family that is very supportive about how I live my life and what I do for a living. I get to tour around and deliver keynote speeches, seminars, training workshops and the like to people who are also trying to make a difference. I get to do meaningful research and quench my insatiable appetite for knowledge by being engaged in academia. Although I am not even 40, yet, that’s another measure of relative achievement that, perhaps, accounts for my sense of urgency.

That is the public presentation of Iain De Jong that many people know. But there is also part of me that I am only coming to embrace more openly. I have a mental illness. Depression.

I live with depression, but it is not who I am. It is part of me. Depression has been with me throughout much of my adult life. I have gone so far as to deny its existence or been frustrated with it or made apologies for behavior that has resulted from it or masked my true mood in some caricature of my true emotional state.

As a child, I completed intelligence tests several times and was deemed to have a genius IQ. One of the aphorisms in life reminds us of the fine line between genius and insanity. I never thought of myself as insane. “Insane” conjures up too many stereotypes that easily triggers my denial. I can personally relate, however, to the odd juxtaposition of genius with compromised mental wellness because I have experienced the joy of being “well” and what I am capable of when I am in that state. As a result of my intelligence, I frequently tried to think my way through my illness. I tried to think myself to “better”. I failed. And then, I left the door open for self-doubt and so I felt that maybe I wasn’t as smart as all the fancy tests said I was. I thought I could be happy through sheer will. That was not possible. But I didn’t give up hope that one day I would self-master an impossible skill of overcoming depression through the power of positive thinking that people who are “well” use so effectively.

I let depression starve me from finding meaning in my life because I didn’t know how to deal with it or respond to its existence. I have worked hard to be what I thought others wanted me to be or expected of me instead of being who I really am. I have spent hours alone staring at the darkness, cursing my mental health, wishing for a different fate. I have cried, though often without tears, and the inwardly focused energy cutting me like a knife. I have faked laughter. I have shown up as aloof or as an uncaring jerk and defended both positions while alienating people even further. I have been a horrible communicator. I most definitely have not always been the best friend, son, brother, partner or father.

I have sometimes wondered what the world would be like without me in it. Oddly, this inner inquiry seemed to occur at times when I was achieving tremendous success in my career or in my personal life…as if somehow the only barometer of success was the dichotomy — to be or not to be. Was I just experiencing luck in my life? Or, was the success actually a result of my skills and contributions? If I was doing such a great job, why did I wonder what the world would be like without me in it – shouldn’t I want to experience even more success?

I have, at times, isolated myself from wonderful people and opportunities. I have denied friendship to many. I have used people to alter my mood rather than enter into relationship. I have gone to great lengths to try and push people away from me. I have thought repeatedly that the world is just a cold, cold place. I have lost count of how many times I have convinced myself that the problem wasn’t with me, it was with every other human being on the planet. How’s that for an ego?

I have been burned badly when I revealed how I felt to some people. One of my bosses was also one of my mentors. At one point when I felt “safe” and in search what I know now was a call for help, I opened up to him and explained how “down” I was feeling — regardless of how confident I appeared on the outside. He told me that this was the sort of thing that I should keep to myself. I may be wrong in my retro-analysis of the situation, but I still link the sudden slowdown in my otherwise rapid career advancement to the revelation of my depression — even though I didn’t use that word. While I now realize that his cautionary advice to me was wrong, I know that his opinion is unfortunately far too consistent with the stigma that still surrounds mental illness and it remains a taboo subject in most organizations. It is okay to talk about other “real” illnesses and be supportive but it is not okay to speak openly about a mental illness. To make things worse, it’s a form of discrimination that is rarely challenged.

Some people see mental illness as a tremendous weakness. As someone who works in a helping profession, it has taken me a long time to appreciate an empathetic relationship. Part of my strength as a practitioner is my experience as a person.

It took me years to finally get the help I needed though I am not — nor ever will be — cured. Part of my journey personally and professionally is to appreciate that if I want to be part of the solution, I need to recognize that I have a direct relationship with the problem. If I think the world is a cold place, then I need to do something about it and I now know that I need to kindle more fires. I need to share my experience. I need to open myself up to the right relationships at the right times with the right people.

About two and a half years ago, life became unbearable for me. It was so uniquely unbearable that I would ask myself several times per day why the heck I still existed — a little too close to Albert Camus. My previous feelings of darkness were more like dusk compared to the deeper shades of black that was experiencing. My response was to build a fortress around my emotions and every nerve ending became raw. Even things like teaching at the University or music that had previously brought me so much joy became disinteresting, even annoying. If I spoke at all, it was to use words as weapons. When I was alone — and isolation is what I was seeking — I would often feel this overwhelming urge to breakdown and cry, but the tears (and relief) wouldn’t come. I worked insane hours. I stayed up late and got up very early so I could work and, more importantly, so I could be alone.

I was lost.

When you are lost, options are few. You can stay lost or you can try to get un-lost. Being “found” or “rescued” through external intervention was not going to work for me, especially when I convinced myself that nobody truly cared. Getting un-lost was mine to own. There is nothing heroic about my journey following that moment of awareness, but it does seem magical as I reflect on it — as well as my momentary hesitation about allowing this blog see the light of day!

After a tumultuous year of emotional pendulum swings, life changes and frustration with how I was presenting myself to the world outside, I eventually ended up on medication — something that I had previously resisted. For the first time, I actually took the time to learn about various medications and their pros and cons. I had a competent and caring physician who worked with me so I would be factually informed about my choices. The decision to go on medication was mine. I wasn’t forced to do it — not even subtly by the people in my life who truly love me.

In less than one month, the dark cloud that had hovered over me for decades began to lift. I feel real again. I can meaningfully connect with people on an emotional level. To be clear, I don’t feel “cured” or “fixed”. I feel as though I knocked down or eliminated a bunch of symptoms. I have no illusions about my current emotional state because the pills will not make my depression disappear completely. These pills have helped me to be in remission and recovery, but that is not synonymous with cure.

In the not so distant past, my time alone was a recipe for disaster. I’m no longer against spending time alone. I try my best to meditate daily and to stay grounded with who I am as a person. I take strength from this quiet time away from what can be a relentless barrage of emails, phone calls, meetings, Tweets, status updates and the like. Alone time can be warm time when it has meaning. Idle time is different and, for me, it becomes lonely time. Like so many clients I have encountered, lonely time seems to bring with it no shortage of temptations to engage in behavior that is actually destructive, self-serving or self-loathing. I am not unhappy when I am alone, but I am unhappy when I am lonely. I now personally understand what clients were expressing to me in the past and that has helped me to grow professionally.

I still think the world can be cold. Which is another reason why I kindle more fires. I do this for people with and without mental illness; with or without a similar life journey as mine; in my personal and professional life. And I am trying to get better and better and better at it.

One way that I think we can kindle more fires is to encourage people to love themselves for who they are. In one of the most important relationships of my life, I learned a very valuable lesson that I’d like to share with you – this person chose to love me not in spite of my faults, but because of them. I will never be a perfect person. Seeking perfection almost killed me. It has taken me more than two decades to realize that self-improvement and imperfections can co-exist. Chances are you will never be perfect, either. It is not trite to say that you can only be the best you that you can be — it is absolutely true.

So, when we look at others in our lives such as coworkers, clients, colleagues and loved ones, I ask you to work on accepting them for who they are while supporting them in their natural quest to grow, change and be better people. Be supportive, not judgmental. Be aware that we are the supporting cast in the play of other people’s lives. Resist the urge to upstage the star of the show!

Another way that we can kindle more fires is to create an environment where others can feel safe to receive feedback for growth, awareness and reflection. I have a shadow that nods when I nod. I have a mirror to see a smile when I smile. I don’t need others in my life to perform those functions for me. When I love and accept myself, I am open to more feedback – even criticism (gulp) – from others. I listen better. I understand more. I accept. I am not defensive. I am more willing to make mistakes and learn from them. I am more willing to forgive others for their mistakes and forgive myself, as well. Both of these dimensions of forgiveness are a gift and inextricably intertwined.

We can kindle more fires by accepting the imperfection in ourselves and others. A mentor once shared with me these wise words, “A mistake is simply another way of doing things.” The way I look at it, every part of life is some form of experiment – and I have come to respect that ongoing experimentation will make me a better person. Some experiments result in new understanding and ways of doing things. Other experiments fail but they inform. No one can ever make me feel inferior without my consent. Therefore, I will own my mistakes and failed experiments and not feel that I am less worthy as a person — I am busy living.

I also appreciate that any feedback I receive about my mistakes has to come from trusted people who have entered into relationship with me. They are offering their thoughts to help me grow because they truly care about me. I still have no patience for people who I don’t trust but who have immediate suggestions for MY self-improvement. I can tell you that being in the spotlight — whether that be the media or at the center of community consultations — has been crippling at times. Negative comments were harder to swallow than they should have been. Outright lies, distortions or misrepresentations of me or my work would keep me awake for days. A misquote would have me wondering aloud why I was doing what I was doing for a living.

More fires will be kindled if we move on from hateful talk, thoughts and actions. Hatred leaves ugly scars, but love — honest enduring compassion — leaves beautiful scars. I cannot change the past. Therefore, I must embrace the hope for a better future that is building within me. I will accept the scars that love leaves behind; even ones that I have inflicted from loving my imperfect self. I cannot immerse myself in a culture that believes in an “eye for an eye”. A world that has gone blind seems like a hateful outcome. I am ready to see and feel the world around me — and be grateful.

Fires are kindled when people have the chance to engage in meaningful daily activities. We cannot, nor should we, pigeon-hole people into certain types of activities over others because we think we know what is best for them. We need to encourage people to find those things to do in their day that stokes their passion. I am thankful for the patience people showed with me until I found the things to do in my life again that brought my life meaning (including this blog that I now realize needs to be posted).

We kindle more fires when we speak truth to power. Over the past few months I have started to speak much more openly about my depression. When I provide training on Housing First or Rapid Re-Housing or how to prioritize services there is always a component on recovery and mental illness. I have begun to self-identify publicly. I do this not only because I think it results in better outcomes for homeless or previously homeless persons, but because I think we need to have the courage to share our personal journey and take mental illness out of the shadows and into the light where we can deal with it intelligently and compassionately. I have started to reveal my illness with my graduate students, and I have been struck by their acceptance and the depth of their inquiries. We need to increase understanding…awareness…acceptance…. and that will result in opportunities for love and compassion.

What has happened to me of late is a release of the shame that I have experienced for a very long time. But, I also know that I have created a safe space where others have felt okay to talk about their depression, too. After one training session I received an email that said, “When you talked about your depression, I finally felt there was someone else who knew what it was like for me.” After a keynote address, a woman come up to me and share how my words helped her embrace her own mental illness rather than be ashamed by it. Two of my graduate students have sought help for the first time in their lives. And there have been many, many more positive examples of the good things that are happening when I bring my mental illness out of the shadows and into the light.

I am a person with a mental illness. I have arrived at a place in my life where I’m okay with that declaration. I am thankful for who I am today. Tomorrow, I may change and I trust that the change will be for the better. Some days, I am impatient with the pace of change, but that is for me to deal with as I mature and gain wisdom.

I am not, nor will I ever be, my mental illness. It is part of who I am but it is not who I am. The surprising paradox is that my mental illness has even become a source of strength for me. I know how to express empathy honestly. I know how to educate people about mental illness more fluently. With time, I may even come to embrace it as a gift. I don’t know what that looks like so, for now, I am grateful that I can articulate my experience and leverage my experience to make me a better person, practitioner and teacher.

Iain De Jong is an award-winning practitioner in housing and human services, lecturer, keynote speaker, researcher and the President & CEO of OrgCode Consulting, Inc.

About Iain De Jong

Leader. Edutainer. Coach. Consultant. Professor. Researcher. Blogger. Do-gooder. Potty mouth. Positive disruptor. Relentless advocate for social justice. Comedian. Dad. Minimalist. Recovering musician. Canadian citizen. International jetsetter. Living life in jeans and a t-shirt. Trying really hard to end homelessness in developed countries around the world, expand harm reduction practices, make housing happen, and reform the justice system. Driven by change, fuelled by passion. Winner of a shit ton of prestigious awards, none of which matter unless change happens in how we think about vulnerability, marginality, and inclusion.

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