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Introspection: A Key Ingredient for Mental Health

Can uncertainty be key to inspiration?

Anyone who's heard me speak about mental health knows about my Top Six (, my personal tactical plan to maintain mental health. When I wrote Struck by Living, I was determined NOT to write a self-help book. I've read more self-help books than I'd like to admit, and the pomposity of suggesting a vanilla-based cure for depression really ticks me off. When I was suicidal I read these cure-all books, only to realize I'd done everything the book suggested and STILL felt suicidal. In a strange way, this confirmed my incurable situation and spurred me closer to suicide. The last thing I wanted to do was encourage suicide, so I left out my maintenance plan in my book.

When I speak, I present my plan as MY plan, not a rubber-stamp method for health. I believe that each person is so unique, each environment is so unique that the only individual who truly knows what works is that individual herself. We all can use a little help discovering a path to health, but once we get there, the right methods resonate. After explaining my own method, I challenge the audience: find your own.

When I developed the Top Six, I purposely left off one critical component: introspection. For me, introspection means time alone writing, meditating or in prayer. I left this component off because far too often people who are mentally ill believe they can pray themselves into health. Sometimes people CAN pray themselves to health. Oftentimes people die trying.

I had the strange experience this weekend of reading my recently deceased mother's journals. Almost every entry talked about how depressed she was and how purposeless she felt. As I read the last entry, I couldn't help wondering what her life might have been like with the right antidepressant. I did convince her to take an antidepressant in the last year or so of her life, which did seem to help. But for most of her life, Mom chose to endure with her faith. Ironically the one drug my mother, the addiction counselor, took faithfully every day was alcohol, a depressant. In her situation, it seems her focus on faith versus her own biology kept her locked in a depressed state.

At the risk of encouraging people like my mother who might reject medication that might transform their lives, and the risk of alienating people who don't believe in God, I left out God altogether in my Top Six. I've realized recently that this is an omission of great importance. For me journaling, prayer, or taking a few minutes each day to think about my life's intersection with something bigger than own my life is critical to my well being. This time doesn't have to be religious, include lit candles or music, but for a lot of people, that helps. Pausing for a few minutes each day to be open to a higher agenda, to something more than my own busyness, helps me discover that spark that makes life worth living.

If I am certain of my own agenda, my schedule piles with "important" work. But without unstructured time - time without a tangible outcome, my work becomes myopic. I often overlook a more productive, easier solution. Without uncertainty, there is no room for inspiration. Busyness lances uncertainty, but leaves no room for inspiration to whisper in my ear.

I'd like to leave you with a quote by Thomas Merton that Brother Pete Mahoney (a friend of my mother's) sent me after reading my book. Merton's quote made me pause. Hopefully for you it will do the same.

The Violence of Modern Life - Thomas Merton

"There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist fighting for peace by non-violent methods most easily succumbs: activism and over-work. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his work for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of his own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful."

For more information about Julie K. Hersh or her speaking engagments check out her website

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