I literally took the long road home to find my purpose in life, and it rode in on a bipolar diagnosis and a lifetime of long-distance running. My discovery road included many twists and turns in order for me to notice what matters most in life, and then it delivered me to exactly where I needed to be. Along the way I learned that what fuels my soul is reaching out to others and making a positive impact in their lives in some way.
After that initial bipolar diagnosis, I turned to running in an effort to offset the fear and anger that I was experiencing. Over time, I noticed that along with the sense of accomplishment that every run gave me, I also regained a sense of myself as a healthy, competent person. The feelings of freedom and play that I felt while running made the world feel possible to navigate again, if only for a few hours. The phrase 'change your mind' took on a whole new meaning for me, as manic highs became more manageable and depressive lows less brutal after running. I felt centered again when I was running, like a low budget little meteor skimming along the ground. I felt less broken and less damaged, and it was a comfort to realize that although I had a fragile mind, I had a strong body.
Launching from those early running days, I have since been fortunate to hold onto a lifetime of running as a competitive athlete, a coach and a sport psychologist. This life path continued to shape my identity while also offering me both joy and solace. I soon discovered that in the process of working with athletes to help them to achieve their competitive goals and to minimize their mental and emotional barriers to a solid sport performance, I felt more healed and healthier myself.
I soon learned that the best antidote to the feelings of defeat and helplessness that mental illness hit me with was simply to make a positive difference in someone else's life. Running gave me a deep sense of accomplishment, which then elevated my mood, and improved my perspective and cognitive levels just enough to be able to step back from my own challenges and to focus on others.
There have also been times of simply trying to survive the debilitating symptoms of bipolar disorder. Abnormally elevated moods, energy levels and erratic behavior, extreme depression, feelings of hopelessness, self-loathing, and helplessness hit hard every time. Yet even during the worst times of multiple hospitalizations, ECT treatments, medication changes and never- ending difficult therapy sessions, I find that even a short and easy run can awaken me enough to be able to extend some part of myself to another human being. I've learned that there is always a place to begin, and my purpose is still there, quietly waiting in place until I can fully tap into it again.
Here's how mental illness doubled its role in steering me to find purpose in my life. Because I am hard wired for struggle, I found that although I can never fully understand another's personal health diagnosis or other life pain, mental illness has given me the ability to tap into a deep well of empathy for the pain that another person is enduring. My purpose then, has become recognizing when someone else is going through a difficult time and then to respond in the best way that I can at any given point in time. Barring times of crisis, on most days, even when I'm being challenged to reign in the turmoil brewing in my mind, my heart and soul can still be blissfully untouched by all of the discord, and can remain a safe harbor for my purpose in life.
I realize that for many of us, the only purpose we can aspire to at times is to focus on our own personal recovery and the management of our symptoms. Yet I also believe that for all of those other life periods in between mental health crises, we can continue to expand upon our purpose in life, letting it grow and ripple outward. The choice is ours to make, even when we feel the least empowered in lives that are influenced by mental illness.
My hope is that you will consider asking questions of yourself and then use your honest answers to support a new vision of yourself and your life. Perhaps zeroing in on our purpose in life is not so much about 'finding' it as it is simply uncovering it...It's been there all along, waiting for us. Sometimes we hold peace right in our own hands.
Written By Pam Landry