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Posts Tagged ‘Volunteering’

HappierWe often enhance happiness to the greatest extent when we pursue activities that provide us with meaning and pleasure and that help others.”  “Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment” by Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph. D. 

I want to state, for the record, that I am no longer suicidal.  While there was a brief period of time when thoughts of taking my own life did occur to me, days when I did in fact lay in bed praying to God not to wake me up in the morning, those were, while perhaps not entirely, at least predominately, drug induced.  I say that lest you interpret my recent behavior as (covertly) suicidal.  

By recent behavior I mean that I spent the afternoon at an information session for the Prison University Project, a half day long meeting to explore the prospect of teaching college level courses to the inmates at San Quentin. 

Why, you ask, would anyone in their right mind (okay, so I’m off the hook right there) willingly place themselves into a real life episode of “OZ“? 

First of all, in my quest to manage my bipolarness without medication, I have discovered that one of the things I need to do is get out of my own head.  Let me clarify that, in case there is any misinterpretation; out of my head, not OFF with my head.  And secondly, I believe that one of the reasons I (and others like me) have such a hard time managing the disease is because we are incredibly self-centered, and not because we want to be.  We have to be.  The very nature of the disease demands that we spend the better portion of our lives trying to establish some mental equilibrium. 

By self-centered I don’t mean narcissistic, I mean we practice self-preservation.  What might appear to others as self-obsession, the constant monitoring of drugs, moods, circumstances, alternatives, of things we must do, or not do, are simply ways in which we try to maintain some sort of status quo that others simply take for granted. 

Anyway, why the Prison University Project?

  1. San Quentin is (practically) in my back yard, making it an easy commute, etc.
  2. If I’m going to volunteer my time, and if I’m going to commit to something on a long-term basis, it needs to be something that will both stimulate and challenge me.
  3. I like the fact the students are not only disadvantaged, but motivated.  The program is not easy (the students are held to the same academic standards as any other undergraduate student) and they participate freely in the program.  They want an education.
  4. I enjoy reading, writing, and teaching.  All of these things have made a huge difference in my life.  I was raised by a single mother on welfare.  I know what it’s like to be disadvantaged.  And I know what a difference knowledge and the ability to communicate effectively can make in a person’s life. 

I must admit that there is (was) a certain amount of terror associated with the idea of being locked behind bars, sitting next to a criminal (whose reason for incarceration is likely something I will never know) and being totally at the mercy of the prisoners and guards.  No weapons obviously with which to protect myself.  No contraband with which to negotiate.  But worse than that, no cell phone.  I panic if I have to drive five blocks to the grocery store and I don’t have the ability to communicate via satellite in case my car breaks down.  Having gotten so used to the ability to connect with someone anytime, anywhere, the thought of being untethered to my iPhone, its contact list and apps, is more frightening than the idea there’s a chance (regardless of how slight) that I might actually incur physical harm. 

I will tell you this; the information session was fascinating.  I fully intended to have the shit scared out of me in the way they do at skydiving class.  Before they let you jump out of a plane they spend a good hour or two telling you how dangerous it is.  “Are you sure you want to do this?”  But everything I heard today only made me want to participate even more.  I’d start tomorrow if they’d let me.

I felt good just sitting there, just knowing that the opportunity of assisting someone else in realizing their dream of education and a better life was available to me.  

I believe in education.  And I believe in second chances.  I dropped out of high school in my senior year.  A decade came and went before I earned my GED.  It took another two decades of enrolling in one or two classes a semester at community colleges and universities before I finally graduated (magna cum laude) with a bachelor’s degree.  Five years later (and thirty-five years after my early departure from high school) I earned a Master of Fine Arts degree.  

There are many who would have written me off.  In fact there were many who did.  Poor.  Product of a broken home.  High school dropout.  That is all they saw when they looked at me.  Let me tell you, those judgmental looks, those condescending comments by people who were often wealthy and educated (not always a sign of good breeding) did much to contribute to my low self-esteem. 

It took me a very long time, but I prevailed.  Living well, as they say, is the best revenge. 

Why have I chosen to share this with you?  Because of the warm, positive feeling that still flows through my body several hours after the information session ended.  The mere thought that I might be able to contribute, to give back to society, in a way that is meaningful to me, gives me hope that I have found yet another tool to put in my arsenal, another way to keep the depression at bay. 

I am not a particularly altruistic person.  Bipolar disorder has a way of making you feel like you are not even capable of contributing to your own wellbeing.  And while in theory I understand the concept of helping others, the occasional Thanksgiving Day spent serving up turkey and mashed potatoes at Glide Memorial Church never did much for me.  Never made me feel like I was making the world a better place. 

“…do something regularly to make a contribution to the larger good.  Based on what I know about depression…that means more than writing a check.  It means taking the trouble to get involved, on a personal level, in a way that challenges our comfort.” “Undoing Depression; What Therapy Doesn’t Teach You and Medication Can’t Give You,” by Richard O’Connor, Ph.D. 

I would say that teaching in a prison is likely to do both, contribute to the larger good, and challenge my comfort. 

Here’s to shaking things up, to stepping out of our comfort zones, and to doing good deeds.  If the reality feels half as good as the anticipation, I’m sold.

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