Choice: a tricky word for people with mental illness

Last night, I visited one of my best friends. If I told you he was fighting colon cancer, he’d be the first to correct me about that.

As he was reclining on his lounger, watching MSNBC, and doing his best to look comfortable despite two catheters, a deep incision in his abdomen, and his now having to wear Depends, John, almost out of nowhere, says “I don’t see myself as fighting cancer. I see myself as someone with a choice. I can look toward the sun, or I can look away from the sun. I’m looking toward the sun.”

With that, my eyes watered. I couldn’t get what John said out of my mind–especially the word “choice.”

As someone managing chronic depression and anxiety, “choice” is a tricky word, one which can easily cause me to become defensive. That’s because there are still too many people who believe that my illnesses are my “choice,” and that they’d be gone “if I really put my mind to it.”

No, my illnesses are not my choice. But what I do about them, and how I handle them? Well, those are choices.

John also has depression and anxiety. Maybe that’s why, when he saw my eyes water, he continued. “I came so close to ending my life on my own. Maybe that’s why I think about choices the way that I do.”

In an odd way, John’s cancer is giving his mental illness a run for its money. If his mental illness has told him that he wants to die, he now very much wants to live. John still doesn’t know if his cancer is incurable. If he has two more years on this earth, he will be very lucky.

Maybe that’s what makes what he said all the more meaningful to me. I know damn well that there will be days ahead where he’ll find it difficult, if not impossible, to look toward the sun. I know he knows it, too. But, just by being his honest self, John has really inspired me.

 

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