The Best Lessons of Our Lives

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We have erasers because we make mistakes. I doubt that there is a human anywhere on earth who has not made a variety of missteps during a lifetime. Such moments often haunt us and if we are lucky they teach us. No matter how cautious we try to be there are times when we seem to be bumbling and stumbling through life. We choose the wrong answers in the multiple choice tests that we face. 

I suppose that if I had to pick one incident that I most regret it would be not following my instincts and my heart in the care of my mother when she first presented symptoms of mental illness. I knew that she was not going to get well without medical help from a professional but I had no idea where to turn for such things. I was after all just shy of my twenty first birthday and had never before seen someone in a deep state of psychotic paranoia. As my mother’s condition devolved day by day I was frightened by the state of her mind so I turned to our family doctor for help. He gave me the names of two psychiatrists that he trusted noting that they were equally talented. In the end I just randomly chose one and made a phone call that would forever change my life. 

After the doctor had heard my description of my mother’s behavior he insisted that I get her to the emergency room of the hospital where he worked as quickly as possible. She had deteriorated to the point of taking to her bed and living in a state of darkness caused by both her depression and the fact that she had shut out the light of the sun with blinds and drapes pulled tightly shut. It was late July in Houston when the heat was unbearable and her home was not air conditioned, so keeping all of the windows tightly closed made the rooms feel like furnaces. No amount of cajoling convinced her that she needed some fresh air because she was so afraid of what she thought lurked just outside. In her mind forces were conspiring to falsely accuse her and her family of vile acts and every passing car was loaded with spies. She even believed that her sisters were attempting to poison her. I knew that we were losing her to some vile disease that was more frightening than anything I had ever before witnessed. 

Thanks to the love and kindness of my mother’s best friend, Edith, we tricked her into going to the hospital and she even agreed to sign the admission paperwork. I felt relieved thinking that my work and responsibilities were done, but I was so wrong. Within a few days the doctor called me in for a consultation. Some of my mother’s siblings agreed to attend the meeting with me. There we learned that the doctor wanted to use electroshock therapy to treat her. My instantaneous reaction was to refuse but he appealed to my love for my mother and the guilt I had for letting her condition deteriorate so much before seeking help. Somehow I felt pressured into doing something that felt was so wrong and instead of having the courage to insist that he try other measures I folded. It was a decision that would taint the loving relationship that I had always had with my mother and would furthermore cause her to distrust me from that day until the end of her life. 

By the time I found the courage to attempt to call off the therapy it was too late. The doctor did not return my calls until after he had administered the first shocks to her brain. He insisted that turning back at that point would be dangerous to her and so we saw it through and I vowed to never again ignore the whisperings of my heart. In the next four decades my mother would express her feelings of betrayal and her fear that I would force her into treatments that she saw as barbaric and hurtful. No matter how I attempted to apologize and protect her the damage had been done. 

Eventually I had to learn to forgive myself because I was never going to get to a point of reconciliation with my mother. I tried to put myself inside her shoes and understand how I had played into her greatest fears. It would be up to my brothers to convince her of the need for any future treatments of her bipolar disorder and I would have to accept that she no longer trusted me as she once had. I knew that I had been very young and inexperienced with mental illness and had questioned myself when confronted by the doctor. That would never happen again. I would have the confidence to ask questions and insist on therapies that were more in keeping with my mother’s needs. I became her advocate by becoming unafraid. I knew that I had grown. I was able to accept that I had done my best in the moment and I understood that stewing over how I might have done things differently was of no merit. The time came to move forward and I did.

Our mistakes do not define us. We have opportunity after opportunity to learn from them and change. We really can erase a wrong answer and try again. Our paper may appear to be a bit messy with signs of working and reworking of a problem but the idea is to overcome the errors we have made and then move forward. Life is rarely perfect and each of us will make both small and life changing missteps in our journey. We become better versions of ourselves when we face our mistakes, admit to our errors, determine how to do better in the future, apologize to anyone we have hurt and finally forgive ourselves for being human. No one should become stuck in a pit of guilt. Instead we must attempt to grow and change. Our mistakes will never be completely erased but they might become the best lessons of our lives.

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