The Theory of Everything

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Yes, this post will touch on the phenomenal biopic about Stephen Hawking referenced in the title, but I promise you, this is a very personal essay.

Let me get the cheap plug out of the way. “The Theory of Everything” stars Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking and deals with his personal life as well as his battle with motor neuron disease and his considerable achievements in science. It was an amazing story and Eddie Redmayne was astounding as Dr. Hawking, as evidenced by his sweeping most of the acting awards that season, including the Oscar. I recommend it to you if you haven’t seen it.

Now, the reason that ties in to my personal blog post is because of something that Dr. Hawking said on January 7th, in front of a crowd of 400 people. In the midst of a typical lecture, he provided the following quote.

“The message of this lecture is that black holes ain’t as black as they are painted. They are not the eternal prisons they were once thought.

“Things can get out of a black hole both on the outside and possibly to another universe. So if you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up – there’s a way out.

This reminded me of a time several years ago when I seemed to have it all together. I was working, my wife was working – a status that, due to our multiple mental illnesses, has been fleetingly rare in our relationship – and we were comfortable. There was no money stress, there was no panic about what would happen if one of us lost our jobs, we were living well. And the longer that state existed, the easier it became for me to fight my personal demons.

One of the commonalities of most mental illnesses is the concept of cognitive distortions. These are types of thinking that lead to negativity and self-doubt. I’ve listed them before some time ago on this blog, so regular readers who don’t suffer from mental illness have some idea of what these are. The usual technique for dealing with cognitive distortions is to refute and replace the “stinking thinking,” a process commonly called reframing. For instance, if you happen to make a mistake with something you’re doing, and your brain reflexively thinks “I’m a total screwup, I can’t do anything right,” your reaction should be to think to yourself something like “actually, no I’m not; I’m capable of doing many things well and without mistakes – and besides, mistakes are one way to learn to grow.” In the midst of a deep depression, it is extremely difficult to reframe, because in that moment, you can’t believe the positive replacement that you should be using. Oftentimes, you never even get so far as to think to reframe; you just go along with the crap that your brain is telling you, and that drives you even more down.

During that time when we were both working, however, the lack of money stress helped to put me in a better frame of mind, and it was a little easier to start reframing with a good deal of effort. After a few months, I realized that reframing was happening automatically, and the self-thoughts I was experiencing were almost all positive. It was a very good time. Then I lost my job, and she lost her job, and life came crashing down around us. Financially, we’ve never completely recovered, although we make enough to be self-sufficient with the basics.

I used to think that my self-worth came from the things that I was doing with my life outside of the workplace, in an attempt to avoid my father’s trap of almost obsessing about work all of the time. (Case in point: Shortly after his first triple bypass, while he was still in intensive care, he had his briefcase and a phone installed in the suite so that he could continue working.) I resolved not to get my sense of self from the workplace.

Now in my mid-40s, I can see the effects of not prioritizing work life. I’ve struggled to keep a job most of my adult life, in large part due to the difficulty I have with my mental illnesses, and the lack of professional direction throughout my life has pained me. I realize now I do best when I’m working, especially if it’s a permanent job. (My employment history is littered with temp assignments, so many that I couldn’t possibly remember them all.)

Now, I’m not saying that I’m not going to get better until I get a job, because right now it’s beyond my capability to even go to the store on my own, much less hold down a full-time job. But that needs to be the overall goal, because it will do wonders for helping keep my symptoms at bay – so long as I’m doing well on the job and not making a lot of mistakes, something I’ve unfortunately got a history of doing due to stress.

Being on disability helps financially for now, but the boredom of sitting at home is stifling. I’ve gotta start making progress or I’m going to lose my mind.

As Dr. Hawking so eloquently put it, “if you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up – there’s a way out.”

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