January 1st, 2012

Moving ahead with our lives

January reminds us that there is only one inexorable thing and that is the passage of time. The proactive response to this realization is the New Year’s resolution or what we psychologists might view as a behavioral short-term goal or collection of goals, affirming our determination to make the most of the time we have left. This year, before I start making promises to myself that I probably won’t be able to keep, I resolve to give a bit more thought to the challenges that the passage of time brings and what it takes to meet them head on.

When we are caught up in the routines of our busy lives, we scarcely notice that we are growing older. It was not always so. Children are acutely attuned to passing time and often want it to pass more quickly. No one was ever four-years-old but we all remember being four-and-a-half. At some point, we learn that a year consists of 12 months but that fact does nothing to change our internal calendars that measure time by the anticipation of special occasions like birthdays, holidays and the first day of summer vacation.

Society reinforces our wish to grow up and into the privileges reserved for our older and taller peers. Mickey Mouse tells us how tall we must be to ride on the most popular attraction in the amusement park and the government tells us when we can drive a car, drink an alcoholic beverage and vote.

We grow up, get an education, start a career, find a life partner or not and possibly have children. All along the way there are signposts marking the passage of time and challenges that sometimes seem insurmountable. Even when we have settled into our lives, we see time passing in the lives of our family members and friends. Parents and relatives of their generation grow older and decline in health, leaving us one day with memories and the legacy of how their lives have affected our own. We watch children go through the same passages that we have negotiated and realize one day that they are no longer children.

Well established in the lives we have somehow managed to cobble together, we may enter a period where we can pretend to forget passing time as we go about our daily activities. But let our routine be interrupted by a change in jobs, illness, financial misfortune or other unexpected circumstances and we suddenly find ourselves taking stock of where we are in relation to where we want to be. Eventually we see our contemporaries planning and beginning their retirement years and we start to think about the next steps in our own lives. Time passes and, with or without our conscious direction, our lives change. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are always poised to move ahead.

Moving ahead with life can be a scary proposition especially if you happen to wind up in a mental hospital. Younger patients newly diagnosed with mental illness or just coming to accept this unwanted element in their lives are often in a hurry to get out of the hospital and back to school or work. Some minimize the challenges ahead of them or deny that they have a condition that will require lifelong attention and often lifelong medication. Others learn more quickly just what it will take to manage their symptoms and, if they are fortunate enough to respond to treatment, have a good chance of getting back on course.

For our young patients, moving ahead with their lives is something best done quickly before the fear of failure sets in and stalls their progress. Other patients in our hospitals have become frequent visitors, living successfully in the community for varying periods of time until they stop taking their medications or the pills become less effective or any number of stressors combines to deplete their coping resources. They come back to the hospital and, by the time they are ready to leave, they may find themselves facing drastically different situations in the community. The supported apartment that once provided enough structure and supervision may be replaced by a group home with all the challenges of getting used to living with strangers and unfamiliar staff. Who wouldn’t think twice about taking the next step in their situation?

As we admit more people sent by the court for evaluations of competency to stand trial, we encounter individuals for whom the reward of improved mental functioning is the right to be judged for crimes that could put them in a far worse place then the hospital if they are found guilty. How do they move ahead with their lives? And what of the older, chronically mentally ill men and women, who have been in the hospital for decades and are now struggling with other health problems related to advancing age? It is hard to imagine feeling ready or eager to move ahead with a life so diminished by adversity.

Amid the cheer of our New Year’s celebrations, January reminds us that time is passing and we are moving with it. We can stride purposefully into the future or events can drag us there against our will. We cannot stand still. There is a place of contentment that we reach when we learn to enjoy the passing of time, but we need a generous supply of confidence and courage to get there.

Alan Bodnar, Ph.D. is a psychologist at Worcester State Hospital and a consultant in the field of leadership development.

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.

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