Mental Health: Mind, Body, Spirit
There are many life events, including a cancer diagnosis, that can erode the quality of one’s mental health. I think of my own mental health as being comprised of three general categories of well-being: psychological, physical, and spiritual. The best indicator for me of good mental health is positive, honest self-talk. When the voice in my head gets negative, or when I start deceiving myself, I’m headed for trouble. Over time, I’ve learned to use all the resources available to me to maintain good mental health.
“Out of the darkness, into the light.”
In 1993, I was forty-four years old, married with three children, a teacher with a good job teaching high school English, living in a comfortable home in a beautiful coastal town in California. On the outside, everything looked good. On the inside, I was falling apart. Long term alcohol use had turned into alcohol abuse, and by the time I realized it I didn’t have the power to control it. My self-talk had turned toxic. Anxiety and fear became so great that there were mornings when I didn’t want to get out of bed. I started seeing a psychologist who guided me to a doctor. I was honest with him and after a physical he told me what I needed to hear: I was an alcoholic.
The next morning, after a few too many drinks the night before, I woke up and had a moment of clarity. I was determined to never drink again, and so far, twenty-six years later, I haven’t. I continued with therapy, I increased my exercise and I started and maintained a spiritually-based program of recovery. I also spent a period of time using anti-depressants until my self-talk became healthier, contained much more light than darkness. In fact, my mantra for that stage of my life became, “Out of the darkness, into the light.”
Finding emotional support through therapy
Eleven years later, my career and private life thriving, I was now the principal of the same high school, starting my third year in that position. It’s a demanding job. A serious personnel issue, that included false allegations about me, pushed me back to the edge of high stress anxiety. I thought I could handle it, but one day I was overwhelmed and had a full-blown panic attack.
Once again, my self-talk had turned against me, and I was powerless to redirect it. I returned to a therapist, went back on an anti-depressant, weathered the storm and continued as principal for another seven years. After two years I weaned off the anti-depressant and haven’t needed it since.
Battling heart disease
Despite regular exercise, a balanced diet, and normal blood pressure, in the summer of 2010, after a very stressful year on the job, I experienced symptoms of heart disease that led to the discovery of two blocked arteries in my heart. A stent was installed and I started taking a statin to reduce my cholesterol. For the first time in my life, mortality became a constant consideration. My self-talk remained positive and honest, but I was beginning to see the handwriting on the wall, and I initiated conversations about retiring, which I did in June of 2011, a few months short of sixty-three.
With more exercise and an even better diet, I lost fifteen pounds in less than a year and felt great. Nonetheless, after a big high altitude backpacking trip, I had a mild heart attack in September 2012. Another blockage was found, another stent installed. My intuition about self-preservation, the product of being open and honest with myself, may have saved my life.
My journey with prostate cancer begins
Then, four years later, my journey with prostate cancer began, which I’ve covered extensively in fifteen articles for ProstateCancer.net. Once again faced with an existential crisis, I sought help from a therapist, and continue to see him periodically when I feel uncomfortable, not just about cancer but about life, particularly the aging process. Exercise continues to be fundamental to maintaining good mental health. I weigh the same as I did when I ran track in college fifty years ago. And I’ve just had cataract surgery. What a revelation! I can see real colors again!
My spiritual beliefs come from my program of recovery from alcoholism. Very simply, they echo the old Beatles song: “I am you and you are me and we are all together.” We all play a small but important part in a big cosmos, but when we form a community based on love and service the sum is greater than the parts. If I focus on the microcosm – me, the guy with alcoholism, heart disease, and cancer – I’m doomed. My mental health turns to mental illness. If I focus on the macrocosm – a small but important piece in a big cosmic puzzle – I’m redeemed.
When the three voices of my mental health – mind, body, spirit – are in harmony, my self-talk can be a beautiful melody.
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