Life is Hard

 Benjamin Franklin said: “There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self.” Do you think you know yourself well?

Well, technically Benjamin Franklin wrote this in 1750 book Poor Richard’s Almanac.

I just completed an intake process for new mental health providers yesterday and one thing that struck me was how I was permitted to direct the narrative of “my story.” Typically, these assessments include lots of questions like:

“What medication did they prescribe for you in 1992?” (Answer – ummmmm)

“Do you have the contact information for all of your providers going back to 1996?”  (Answer – no)

There’s little room to narrate my own story in my own words because of the desire to collect data. I get that, but can you name all of the medications you’ve ever been on ever with dosages and side effects?

And when you talk about your childhood, do you interject something unpleasant with a memory of listening to 3WS with your mother while she danced around the living room with a dust cloth and a sweeper? Does that fact of how easily that lovely memory comes to mind offset some of the traumatic experiences? Isn’t that part of resiliency? I’m not one to deny my past especially in a healthcare setting because I realize heredity and environment have played a part in forging who I am today. But sometimes I do want to make sure I’m being robust in my storytelling.

I grew up in a steel family, but my father mostly worked in the coke ovens during his career. So coke and slag are actually more interesting analogies for me than “steel.” Coke becomes hard through man-made process and it is essential to steel production. It destroys the environment. It creates slag. Slag was used to build “mountains” in West Mifflin and entire shopping centers (Century III Mall) were built on slag heaps. They are now crumbling both physically and metaphorically. Slag and coke both have all sorts of scientific uses that no one knew about when those heaps were poured out of train cars a century ago.

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Knowing yourself is akin to the strength of coke. It isn’t a perfect substance and while it can fuel an entire economy, there are costs often left to the next generation. As I look back at previous generations, I often wonder and wish they had been more forthright about “things” that they keep secret. I think it would have been better to know the truth, but perhaps not. Perhaps facing down one’s demons can be too destructive to manage if you aren’t buffered by the privilege of family support, money, race, etc.

Interesting note – there was definitely no “take your daughter to the steel mill” day in the 1980’s. My father never brought hope coke or slag or anything like that – I asked him to do so and he refused to have “that crap” in the house. So buffering us from the very element that surrounded us and fueled our lives was still important.

I think the trick is to look back at the good moments – like the music – and still validate the not so good moments. Letting go of the hurts and injustices and grievances is different from simply “not knowing” them or pushing them out of our mind. The other trick is to not expect yourself to get this work done by age 35 or whatever. It is a work in progress (like coke), not a finished result that matters.

I can’t recall every provider I’ve ever seen or every medication I’ve ever tried, but I do have a general sense of dates/times/pertinent medical details, etc. That’s enough to be an active part of my treatment plan. It is enough for me to roll my eyes when I receive anonymous comments (with IP addresses, but ahem …) taking pot shots at me for being disabled.  It’s an imperfect degree of knowledge, a rough surface, some pores, some discoloration and even some sharp edges. But it fuels my life and makes me appreciate that strength is not always measured in diamonds and steel.




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