The Mountain Man

Greg Ronco
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2141

“You’re an INFJ, Greg.”

“A what?”

“It means Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling, and Judging. The same as me, actually. It’s a rare personality type. Only one or two percent of the population are INFJs. And we share the quality of being very difficult to read, or truly understand.”

I had just finished taking a Myers-Briggs personality test. I was sitting in the middle seat of the family van, and we were driving somewhere on a long road trip, probably to see my aunt and uncle in New Jersey. My mom was explaining the results to me. She and my dad run an independent business-consulting firm, and happen to be legitimate experts on personality types, having written at least one book involving the topic. I was eleven at the time, and just thought it was cool to take a personality test.

I particularly liked the idea of being hard to get. I imagined myself as being enigmatic and mysterious, characteristics I had always been taken with. I liked the idea of being different. Aspired to it, would probably be a more appropriate term. So I was thrilled to have it in writing that I was rare and esoteric.

Unfortunately, fate has a dark sense of irony. My greatest aspiration also became one of the most frustrating ongoing experiences of my life. I am, for some reason, very hard to read. Which is not much of an issue, in and of itself. The problem is that there have been a great many times that I desperately needed to be understood, and found no one up to the task.

Bipolar hit me like a bolt of lightning on a sunny day. I was fourteen, and had accepted a scholarship to a private high school, turning down four other scholarships in the process. I had finished eighth grade top of my class, and was being scouted by division 1 hockey schools. I entered ninth grade expecting similar success, and instead landed in a psych ward.

I’m not sure how it started, and if it could have been avoided. All I really remember is the fear. It was tangible. I woke up on day six of my new school year and couldn’t make it out of bed. The pressure of fitting in with my new classmates, acing high level courses, impressing new teachers and trying out for a new varsity hockey team weighed down on me. I might as well have been trying to lift a mountain, as opposed to my bed cover. I convinced my mom that I was sick and just needed the day off.

One day turned into two, and two into five. After a week, there was no faking it. My parents knew something was up, and that it wasn’t a stomach bug. They reached out to my doctor, who referred me to a psychiatric hospital. And so ended my life as a normal person.

They diagnosed me with Bipolar I. I was given new explanations for my problems, and shipped off to an outpatient facility. When this didn’t help, I was committed to an inpatient unit where I was started on heavy doses of medication. After a week of good behavior, but with no real answers, I was allowed back into outpatient.

Everywhere I went, I was told what I was feeling and why. Psychiatrists, therapists, and residence counselors tossed around words I had never heard of, like “mania,” “dissociation,” and “psychosis.” They told me I had a genetic disorder and that this was the cause of my depressive episode. Though confusing at first, the clinical language itself made sense. I found the terms to be abstruse and detached, but they gave me some insight as to what was supposedly going on inside my newly disturbed head.

It was the providers that I didn’t mesh with. Despite being armed to the teeth with textbooks and research, nobody really understood what I was going through. They said a lot of the right things, and nodded at the appropriate times, but couldn’t seem to get where I was coming from. In my head, everything I went through made at least a little bit of sense, even if I didn’t like it. In their heads, I had an incorrect way of feeling or thinking that needed to be resolved. And I was always wrong. My version of events was never accepted, due to my “over-emotional state” and “inaccurate perceptions.” I was observed, but never listened to.

In spite of all this, I survived my first depressive episode and found myself back in my local public high school. Which was more than embarrassing. I was already a subject of gossip in the town, due to an indiscretion with an older girl that occurred during summer camp several years before. So my sudden reappearance, after two years of Catholic school and the poor excuse of a “stomach bug,” only added to the rumors spread by the soccer moms.

Everyone knew something odd had happened, but nobody asked. For my part, I lied and isolated myself. I was a failure at fourteen. And worst of all, my brain was faltering. Math that used to excite me now looked like Greek (some of it was, at least during geometry), and my reading comprehension levels dropped somewhere into the Marianas Trench. I would find out years later that this was due to my medication, a fact that seemed to slip the minds of the doctors prescribing it to me.

Every week, I would meet with my therapist. He was a carbon copy of Ned Flanders, down to the mustache and vomit green sweater. I hated him from day one, and it got worse from there. Dr. Flanders was very fond of telling me I had “behavioral issues.” We rarely had a conversation that didn’t end with him triumphantly proving to himself that my behavior was just another obvious result of my mental illness.

I never agreed, but how could I be right? I was a teenager, and he had a Masters degree plus thirty years of experience in the field. So I stopped talking during therapy sessions. Which, of course, was also apparently due to my poor mental state, and couldn’t possibly be due to the fact that I thought he was an idiot.

Three superfluous diagnoses later, I convinced my parents to find me a new therapist. This culminated in a fight with Dr. Flanders where he recommended I be committed.

I wasn’t, thankfully. But it took me two years to find a provider I found helpful. She was a psychiatrist, and she did not win me over with medication or a beautiful treatment plan. She won me over accidentally, in a conversation with my parents.

It was our first meeting, and I was sitting moodily in a corner of her Cambridge office, dead set on ignoring her. My parents introduced themselves and ran through some of my history with her. Then my mom asked a question I had heard before, and hated hearing. She asked if this psychiatrist could please explain what I was going through.

I expected a canned answer. Instead, this psychiatrist said, “I want you to imagine your son just like everybody else. He wakes up, eats, goes to school, engages in activities, socializes, and sleeps. Only he has to do it with a 100-pound bag of rocks on his back. When he wakes up in the morning, he has to lift those rocks to get out of bed. When he goes to school, he has to move those rocks to think. And if he tries to ignore those rocks, or cast them aside, they just trip him up and cause more problems.”

I looked up, dumbfounded. No mania, no depression, no problematic thoughts and behavior; just a simple, surprisingly accurate metaphor.

I called this “getting it.” Better terms would be empathy and understanding. After two years, I had finally found someone who got me. We weren’t, and still aren’t, quite on the same page, but we’re at least reading the same book.

I didn’t spontaneously recover from this. I was still in a very troublesome and dark part of my life. At age 17, I found myself crashing into another crevasse, and retreating into another new school; a clinical one.

I didn’t find myself there, but I did find a lot of other kids like me. And for the first time in three years, I felt like I belonged somewhere. My grades went up, I laughed more, and I took up writing. I also connected with a lovely therapist at the school, who patiently sat through my tirades during our weekly meetings. She had a funny of way of making me feel better while saying practically nothing. She also framed everything in a context that made me feel like my thoughts and behavior were in my control, or could be if I tried. It was thanks to her, and this school, that I made it into college on time, with a darn good GPA and a modicum of self-respect.

College was great for a year. I did well in classes, made friends, and got drunk for the first time. It was lovely until the start of sophomore year.

The crash was foreshadowed in the same way as the others: intense fear, followed by more intense avoidance. Only this time, I had no parents to force me into and out of bed each day. I locked myself in my room, skipped class, and almost never slept. I binged on hours of animated TV shows on my computer, and slowly the lines of my reality started to blur. The husk of my body limped on the chair as I took part in the fantasies of a traveler in a far off land, college very much forgotten.

Weeks into this, I finally acknowledged that I was nearing a precipice. My solution was to consume the three weeks’ worth of medication I had neglected to take. I wasn’t trying to overdose. Quite the opposite. I thought I’d be right as rain when I woke up.

Luckily, I did wake up. I was naked, and a University Police officer was standing in my room. Soon the dean and head guidance counselor called an ambulance and brought my avoidant fantasies to a halt. What began after that was the most challenging, humbling, and fulfilling journey of my life. It was the start of my recovery.

Recovery was (is) a messy, risky process. Frankly, I dislike the term recovery because I have never thought I have something to recover from. I have never been able to dissociate my “illness” from me. It was actually this distinction and implicit acceptance that kick-started my “recovery.”

DBT teaches it as radical acceptance, but for me it was a moment of bitter honesty. This moment came a year and a half after my overdose. By this point, I had started to take a more active role in my treatment. I was making good practice of my newly learned CBT, mindfulness, and exposure coping mechanisms, all learned the year before at McLean’s BHP outpatient program. I made it through nearly another whole year of school, albeit on a reduced course load, before crashing again. Although it was less of a crash, and more of a moment of self-policing where I pulled the car over to check if I was being a safe driver. I asked to be admitted inpatient.

I stayed for a week, and enjoyed every moment. I rested, made friends, played Ken-Ken, ate armloads of ice cream sandwiches, and finished two books by Thich Nhat Hanh. I knew something was different, but couldn’t put my finger on it until day four. It hit me while I was reading a passage on acceptance in Being Peace. “I’m crazy.” The words tumbled out. At first I thought I was just being facetious, playing the role, being stupid. But I felt the honesty in the statement, and a warmth.

Acceptance is a funny thing. It’s such a simple idea, but so maddeningly difficult to achieve. I didn’t mean to accept myself in that moment; a gear just naturally clicked. Years later I would realize it wasn’t an epiphany so much as a culmination of the effort I had put into learning to understand and take responsibility for myself. But sitting there in the hospital, it just felt like I had miraculously found that last puzzle piece that had been lost in the attic.

Things didn’t suddenly turn around, like they do in the movies. But they got better. My grades went back up. I made new friends at school. I got reinvested in life. And best yet, I started to challenge myself again. By my last year in college, I was a different person. Oddly peaceful. I would sometimes find myself in my room, homework forgotten, just smiling, and feeling a little like the old wise man sitting in the cave on top of the mountain. Of course I hadn’t found all the answers, but I had learned something fundamental about being a person. About being me.

Self-acceptance is a very human experience, and a necessary one in the pursuit of personal happiness. It’s something that poses a problem to most people at some point in their lives. In my experience, the mental health field does an abysmal job of addressing this truth.

My diagnosis made it much more difficult to accept myself. Instead of learning to love and appreciate my intricacies and peculiarities, I was told to fear them. I was told that being different was bad, and that I needed to fix that. I needed medication and therapy to fix the problem that I experience life a little more intensely than most. I was packed into an evidence-based box, to be pitied and fixed.

To accept myself, I had to climb out of that box. I had to find the silver lining in the darkness that was my “condition.” And when I did, I discovered that life is so much bigger than the little world that clinical psychology provided me.

I am different. And yes, definitely a little crazy. But I am still human. I have dreams, and feelings, and likes and dislikes, just like everyone else. This is something that most providers seem to have forgotten, at least in my case. I find it ironic that a field so focused on understanding human experience misses so much on what it means to be human.

Working with providers was like trying to shove a mountain into a photo album. No matter how many photographs I took, I couldn’t capture the sheer size and breathtaking awe of it. And while I was forced to struggle up that imposing mountain, my providers had only ever looked at the pictures. Yet they called themselves expert mountain climbers because they had been studying that photo album for a very long time. It’s no wonder I never felt completely understood.

I am at peace because I took the time to know myself, and appreciate myself. I learned to love a life I was told would always be difficult. And I like being different. But when I tell people that, I just get a funny look, and one of those smiles that says “Uh-huh, right. I know you better than that.”

But they don’t know. Which is okay. After all, I always wanted to be an enigma.

24 COMMENTS

  1. Great piece, Greg, and it’s not just you who dealt with “mental health” professionals that ignore one’s individuality and unique assets, and actually claim them to be “irrelevant to reality,” and ultimately, in my case, my entire life was declared to be a “credible fictional story,” by my psychiatrist. Of course, that’s when one must walk away. Today’s “mental health” system is actually a defamation of character system and a gas-lighting system, and:

    “Gaslighting or gas-lighting is a form of psychological abuse in which a victim is manipulated into doubting their own memory, perception, and sanity.[1][2] Instances may range from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred up to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim.” The psychiatric drugs are used “with the intention of disorienting the victim.”

    Glad you are “at peace because” you “took the time to know … and appreciate” yourself. Love, including self-love, truly is the answer, not defamation and disorientation. Best wishes.

  2. Hi Greg, I really enjoyed your article – very well written!

    I found out many of the same things you did after being labeled with various psychotic and other diagnoses. Most psychiatrists and mental health workers do not understand that difference – and differences resulting from adverse experiences and life challenges, in particular – are not something to be necessarily fixed, to be numbed, to be viewed as deviancy or illness.

    I also agree with you that recovery is not an apropos word. It’s pretty obvious why it is not – it presumes that a person was “normal”, then fell ill with some psychiatric disease, then needs to recover from that. It imposes the medical-disease model onto subjective human experience, a square peg in a round hole. People do not work so simply or in as black and white a way.

    Glad to see you are working in the peer field, and good luck to you in changing the culture in the system where you work and will work.

    Also, in case you don’t know about it, you might be interested in the group ISPS, which has a conference in Boston soon (http://www.isps-us.org/2016_program.php)

  3. A great piece of writing! Thanks for sharing your experience. As a peer working in a state “hospital” I find it very challenging to work with people so that they can learn to empower themselves and find their own voices so that they can take control of navigating their journeys of life. We have a revolving door in the Admission Department and many people have been here as many as thirty different times.

    My coworkers and I have discussed what it was in our own lives that made the difference for us so that we stopped coming back into the system. We’ve never been able to pinpoint what that very elusive thing was.

    Perhaps you’ve given us one of the keys or answers to our questions when you state that self-acceptance and knowing one’s self is of crucial importance in taking power over our own lives and charting our own courses for our journeys.

    I also am an INFJ. We certainly do march to a different drummer and oftentimes are not understood by others who haven’t spent a number of years with us. Even with all that, being an INFJ gives such a richness and texture to life that being misunderstood is worth it, most of the time.

  4. Very well-written story with some great insights.

    “Self-acceptance is a very human experience, and a necessary one in the pursuit of personal happiness.”

    Simple and true. And it allows us to be more accepting of others. Whereas lack of self-acceptance leads to intolerance of others and suffering.

    INFP here.

      • I agree with that! It has become a common teaching these days, a lot of people say that. We can create Heaven on Earth, if we are inclined to do so. Starts with a loving frame of mind and practicing unconditional kindness towards oneself and others…

        • Your response reminds me of a story that the Dalai Lama told about one of his good friends.

          This friend was a Tibetan Buddhist monk who was imprisoned by the Chinese for 20 years. He was tortured on a regular basis. He was eventually freed. When the Dalai Lama visited with him for the first time after his release the Dalai Lama asked him what was the most difficult thing that he experienced during the twenty years. He said that he asked him, “Was it the almost daily torture?” “No,” the monk said, “it wasn’t the daily torture.” “The worst thing for me was the fear that someday I would come to hate my tormentors rather than love them.”

          • Stephen that story is so fantastic. it pretty much sums up Stockholm Syndrome and why so many still enslaved so much fear turning against their oppressors. Compliance and blind faith in lies is so comfy.

            Julie

          • Right, because love is what heals, and also what creates change most peaceably. Carrying hate, rage, or resentment for too long only turns on oneself, that is inevitable. It eats away at us.

            Same with fear. Fear and love are opposites, so where there is fear, no love gets in. To feel love in a situation that brings fear, we’d have to shift perspective to where we do not feel fear, but more so, where we feel our power to change the situation. That’s true freedom.

            It’s not a matter of embracing oppressors, abusers and tormenters. It is about broadening perspective and expanding consciousness. There are a variety of perspectives from which to witness and experience anything. But if we are saddled with fear or resentment, more than likely we will not see past a limited perspective. It’s a matter of trusting the unknown, and stretching ourselves a bit. It’s challenging, but enriching and practical.

            When we come from a broad and generally neutral perspective, which happens when we are able to simply feel love in our hearts, in general, then we can actually make change, rather effortlessly. But when we perceive ourselves as victims and only that, then effort is the order of the day, because that is a very dense and heavy energy. It not only feels that way in our bodies, but it would actually be measured that way in wavelengths. Our thoughts and emotion, like color and sound, can be measured in hertz.

            http://energyfanatics.com/2013/03/19/how-frequency-vibration-create-structures-matter-life/

            I made a huge internal shift in this regard by learning all of this and applying it, and as everyone who knows me knows by now, it completely changed my life, I did a full 180, like a personal pole shift. First internally, then it rippled outward, totally shifting my life circumstances in a way that really pleased me. That’s how energy works naturally.

            More than anything, I had to embrace my experience of life as a learning path, and that gave it all meaning and neutrality, so I could focus on what I wanted to create, rather than continuously ruminating about what had gone wrong in my past. That’s what leads to repetition of that which we do not want, to constantly be thinking about it.

            Now that I’m more aware of how my process works and am not bogged down with resentment, I am so much more in control of my life, and generally more at peace than I had been, and I can create more consciously and deliberately, rather than by default. Feeling light in our bodies is what gives us malleability, with life being basically unpredictable and all.

            Thanks for sharing that, Stephen. Powerful stuff!

          • I know it’s wrong, but I am full of anger that I can’t seem to get rid of. I know hate is wrong, but I really cannot forgive my persecutors, let alone love them it seems. This is contrary to my religious beliefs, but there you have it.

            This bothers me more than what they have done (and still may do) to me.

          • Hi Rachel, your comment brings to mind the story which Stephen relates in the above comment. In my opinion, I don’t feel it’s at all “wrong” to hate and be angry with people who hurt you. Personally, I don’t believe in right or wrong when it comes to feelings, those are your feelings! And they seem natural to me, given the circumstances.

            I was very angry for a time, and that felt good for a while, it was justified, and I felt at least alive in that anger. However, it interfered with just about every part of my life, including physical health, and I didn’t like what I was attracting from that, so I chose to shift it, in order to lighten up, for my own sake.

            If I were you, I’d give myself permission to be angry and to feel that hate, don’t judge yourself for it, not at all. It will be temporary, but it won’t pass until you allow yourself to be ok with that. That self-judgment is really what makes us feel badly, it’s not good for us to judge ourselves. So see if you can release that, and let yourself have what you feel, own it.

            The thing about certain religious doctrines is that they can make us feel shame or guilt for having natural feelings, if they aren’t exactly positive feelings. We’re human, we want to remember that. We’re built to feel a huge range of emotions, all of them valid, because that is our experience.

            But we do have a higher consciousness, so we can integrate that, and it will lead us to a lighter, clearer space. That would be the inner dialogue. From my perspective, our higher selves help us to grow, they call us up in perspective. So to me, a core part of healing is learning to tune into that aspect of ourselves. Some call it “the God self.”

            Once you can accept your feelings as they are now, in present time and validate them to feel your humanity, then that will start a flow of energy, and you will feel it. Emotions are not static, they flow, like a river, when we allow them to.

            I can tell from what you say that you desire to release this and find a different perspective. Since you are religious, I will put it this way: when we can see it from God’s perspective–neutrally and with no judgment because God loves EVERYONE unconditionally–then you have accessed your higher consciousness, because we are all part of that energy.

            Not that you have to love your persecutors, but let God love them, and tend to them, I believe s/he will. And that is God, on your side. When we focus on the God perspective, our hearts open up, and that releases a lot of that dense negative energy. Could be tears, or something else, whatever would feel like a good, hardy release of energy. On the other side of that are new thoughts, new perspectives, and new meaning to your life experience.

            Once we really and truly get clarity about our life experiences–the good, the bad, and the ugly–then it starts making sense in a really cool way, I think, and we see how it points us forward, onto our life path and soul purpose. That’s the whole point of adversity, to wake us up to who we really are, our spiritual nature, and to why we’re here on Earth. From that point forward, life becomes different, more clear, and we get how to protect ourselves, and how to navigate life’s inevitable challenges in a whole new and more meaningful way.

            This stuff can be hard to put words to, because it is so personal and we attach different meanings to all of this. I hope this resonates with you.

  5. Please don’t think this comment is flip or that I’m making light of your situation but I couldn’t help but wonder what might have happened when you were unable to get out of bed, if your mom had gently told you that you needed to go to school, perhaps giving you a couple of tips to gird your psyche. We assume pathology anytime we experience real fear or other strong emotion when those emotions are adaptive; i.e. they are there to challenge a response which in turn strengthens our ability to deal with future catastrophes.

    The beauty of CBT/DBT is that they are really common sense techniques which have served people well for centuries prior to their being organized and identified as therapeutic. I’m so glad that you came out in a good place but wonder if you had to endure years of ‘Ned Flanders’ and his ilk! Okey, dokey?

    • Alex, thanks for your response. I just realized something. My dad has done his share of marital counseling as a preacher; he often says love isn’t a feeling, but an act of the will. If that is true, maybe hate is too. In which case, just because I’m very angry and have negative feelings about someone–or actually what they did to me–that doesn’t mean I hate him/her. That is a relief, because I don’t see how anyone could go through what I’ve gone through and am going through in wd and go around with a smiley face and good vibes all the time. Unless you were a masochist perhaps.

      • “…love isn’t a feeling, but an act of the will.”

        Hmm, I’m not sure I relate to or understand this. I feel it as a feeling, although I do not consider it necessarily an emotion. I think it shifts the hue on emotions, but it’s bigger than that. But for me, it’s definitely a feeling. I can very clearly tell the difference by the feeling in my body when I am feeling love and when I am cut off from it, that is a very distinct contrast. Not feeling love causes stress in the body, while the feeling of love is relieving. It relaxes the body because we have certainty about who we are, sense of self.

        Our will dictates a lot of things, and sure, we can will ourselves to love, by first setting an intention. Lots to say about this.

        Also, love doesn’t mean going around smiling all the time. That’s more like “bliss” which is different than love. What love does is to create a really high and broad perspective, because we are more open to seeing things differently than we have been. There is tolerance in love. There is also safety and trust in love. There can also be anger in love, just not fear, they are antithetical.

        At least this is how I learned it, and have found it to be completely true in my experience. This is my experience of “love” after a really long time being cut off from it, for a lot of reasons.

        In any event, I think what’s important is to feel aligned with whatever our truth is, and sounds like you’ve gotten some clarity around yours. Best wishes to you.

  6. Thanks Greg,

    Enigma is a good word (I must remember it).
    This is a beautiful and enlightening story, I got a lot out of it. I’m going to read it again and again.

    I don’t (myself) accept problems equate to real madness at all, anyone can loose it, even for a period of time!

  7. I love this article. Good luck in the future and stay away from those places!

    I don’t remember which of those four letters I am, but I recall “determined” as being part of it. I don’t put any stake in that, nor in astrology. My astrological sign also says I’m rather headstrong. I don’t remember any of my DSM diagnoses saying I had any positive qualities at all! All they did was find stuff supposedly “wrong” with me. I saw a psychic when I was 21 in 1979 and I’d say that guy was more on target. A street psychic in Los Angeles. For three bucks. I should have stopped all that self-exploration stuff after that. Therapy seemed too self-indulgent until I got sucked into it.

    I am not surprised that one more person was harmed by the System. Thanks for this great article.

  8. Thanks for sharing your story, Greg! I’m an INFJ too for whatever it’s worth. 🙂

    I’m in the process of learning to accept and move towards truly loving myself. I guess I always thought I did, but of course, sometimes one doesn’t know what one doesn’t know. I’ve been on meds for “panic disorder” and “major depression” since I was in college, 25 years ago. And I’m VERY SLOWLY getting off of them, and “awakening” to experiencing life in MY authentic way. I’m needing to learn to live differently. It’s not easy, but I’m doing it and coming to embrace it.

    I played the roles that were expected of me to the best of my ability for a very long time . . . hero, extrovert, rescuer, leader, perfectionist, business owner, people pleaser, etc., but eventually the house of cards fell. And in the end, really they are all just roles . . . a variety of masks I’ve picked up and worn, and that I’m now learning to set down unless I CONSCIOUSLY CHOOSE to wear them – temporarily.

    As I look into the mirror these days, a picture of my “true face” is beginning to become more clear – for me, this is a “recovery” of my own authenticity. Clarity, courage, compassion and connection. These are the things that I’m finding now actually matter to me.

    Best wishes to you on your journey brother 🙂