my dharma journey to mental healthiness

1965. Daddy and me with packs, matching black cowboy hats, backpacks, getting ready to hike to Half Dome in Yosemite Park.

Like most of the world, I was ignorant of my mental health challenges for most of my life. That changed thanks to the VA, and I have been left with an important realization about my life.

I had a new insight a few minutes ago. Nothing huge, but it is meaningful to me:

You are damn lucky in this world to learn what your true mental health challenges are.

I am nearing my 66th birthday, and for most of that time, I had no idea that my life was being controlled – undermined, to be more precise – by anxiety. The word “anxiety” wasn’t even part of my personal lexicon until less than two-and-a-half years ago. But the moment I heard the word as part of one my early counseling sessions, it clicked.

Nothing has been the same since.

Of course, learning that anxiety is my primary challenge and always has been is not the same as becoming mentally healthy. What it’s like is learning what direction is up, where north is, how to stand and not fall down as often; there are all kinds of metaphors possible, but the main point is this:

At last I knew why my life has never worked.

This understanding is a lot different from how I had viewed my life to that point: I was a complete and utter failure. That was as unfair to me as expecting me to be able to run a 5k race with a broken leg. (Again, pick your metaphor.) I hated myself, and I did not enjoy life very much, and then, out of nowhere, I had a viable alternative.

All because I discovered the root cause of all my mental health challenges.

How fortunate I was.

A side note on my good fortune. This wasn’t god or the universe or my own gumption. I learned the underlying source of my life’s misery thanks to the Veterans Administration and the availability of mental health services I was able to connect with. Yes, I was able to start becoming mentally healthy thanks to the United States government. The Feds. Without them, without the millions of taxpayers and all the thousands of elected officials, appointed bureaucrats, and paid staff, I would like still wandering in the mists of my ignorance about the truth of my own life.

How fortunate I was. Thanks, VA.

Everyone has mental health challenges; being a human with emotions, memories, consciousness, and other humans around you isn’t easy. The number of people with mental health issues that undermine their life’s quality, and the quality of life of those around them, runs in the billions. That number has increased in the past few years. The availability of mental health care was poor before this, and has not improved even though the need has never been greater.

I got into the VA system, I got a counselor (my last in-person appointment at the VA before the lockdown began in 2020 was to get assigned to someone to help me), and then that counselor helped to get me on the path towards mental healthiness. The Portland VA has something few others do, and that’s a Mindfulness Institute. My counselor helped me to begin to understand what my challenges are, and the mindfulness programs gave me the tools to start to live my life on my own terms.

Talk to me for more than five minutes, and you will learn that I am a gung-ho advocate of mindfulness.

My life is still far from where I want it to be. I still “fail” far too often, but I can now accept that I am not failing but doing the best I can given my life’s history. I have options. I see a clear path ahead. I have material resources that provide a sufficient foundation for forward movement.

I still struggle with anxiety. Sixty years is a lot of shit to undo, but at least I know what it is I’m dealing with.

How fortunate I am.