Ep. 30 – Dr. Sharon Smith – Friendship: Medication For Mental Health
- A description of the ‘preceding’ and ‘precipitating’ factors that affect mental healths
- A framework for safely and lovingly challenging disruptive patterns of thought in ourselves and in our friends and family who are struggling with their mental health.
- The healthing potential of ‘soul friends’
In this episode mental health specialist and Vicar, Dr. Sharon Smith, explains how we infuse protection and preventative care into our mental health by the giving and receiving of friendship. Whether or not we’re diagnosed with a mental health concern, all of us move between emotional flourishing and languishing. When we are “known” by another, a quality of relationship Dr.Smith describes in her conversation, our patterns of thinking can be safely and lovingly challenged. And this can make the difference in how we thrive.
Dr. Sharon SmithDr. Sharon Smith co-founded Sanctuary Mental Health in 2011, with the goal of helping organizations around the world move towards inclusion and well-being. Since then, Sanctuary’s leadership has grown to include teachers, theologians, psychologists and people with lived experience of mental health challenges.
Dr. Smith has spent much of her professional career as an occupational therapist in acute and community care settings, both in her country of birth, South Africa and where she now resides, in Vancouver Canada. She is passionate about raising awareness and reducing stigma around mental health and now serves as Reverend Dr. Sharon Smith, as a Parish Vicar in British Columbia.
Website: Sanctuary Mental Health
Facebook: Sanctuary Mental Health
Instagram: Sanctuary Mental Health
Transcript | Dr. Sharon Smith – Friendship: Medication For Mental Health
Rachel Cram – Okay, well here we go. Dr Sharon Smith thank you so much for coming into the studio today. When I first met you you were speaking to my staff in 2014 and I still remember so much of what you had to share and that’s what made me want to bring you in today and I’m looking forward to hearing from you again.
Dr. Sharon Smith – Thank you. It’s lovely to be here.
Rachel Cram – You have worked very much in the area of mental health and that’s what we’re going to focus on today, because I think it’s fair to say that all of us will be affected whether personally or with someone we love by a mental health challenge in our lifetimes certainly. And your doctoral work has backed that up. But before we get into all of that I’m going to start with a question that I open all our interviews with. Are you ready?
Dr. Sharon Smith – Go for it
Rachel Cram – Aristotle stated, “Give me a child at seven and I will show you the adult.” Is there Sharon, a story or an experience from your childhood that has shaped the adult that you are today?
Dr. Sharon Smith – There sure is. I was born with club feet. I’m from South Africa and that’s where the accents from.
Rachel Cram – Lovely accent!
Dr. Sharon Smith – But, I was first hospitalized when I was about two and a half. And it was old fashioned, Catholic hospitals and my parents weren’t able to stay with me. So for seven days I was in hospital and they would only be able to visit during visiting hours. So just for the afternoons. And we as a family didn’t realize how much that traumatized a little girl of two and a half. And so I actually had separation anxiety. And I didn’t know it until my 30s and actually was working on my own mental health issues, and realizing gradually through some visualization with a spiritual director and a mentor that there was this early memory of being in a crib, which actually looked like a cage in those early sort of memories. And have experienced freedom from anxiety as I’ve explored some of those early memories.
Rachel Cram – Well our early years are so formative right? They shape our mind but not always into the form we might want or need.
Dr. Sharon Smith – Yeah. Our minds can be scary places because we have learned a pattern of thinking through life that unless it’s externalized and challenged in a safe loving place we will continue to think our world into being in a particular way. And for me, it’s a spiritual practice that every week for half an hour, someone gets to hear what’s going on for me, and I offer that as well. And part of the reason for that is to undo ways of processing and thinking and replace them. And so I have a bit of a network of people who, we’re saying what’s going on and we’re being as honest as we can. Because if I can’t be honest with one person, who can I be honest with really?
Musical interlude #1
Rachel Cram – I find it interesting you use the term spiritual practice for that. Spiritual is such a misused word right now I think. Can you define what you mean by that being a spiritual practice for you. Because I sense it being more than something to do with religion.
Dr. Sharon Smith – Yeah. So I did my doctorate in the area of spirituality and the other doctoral students used to always joke and say, “Sharon’s trying to nail Jello to a wall because it was so undefinable. But I used a framework where it was defined through somebody’s way of understanding their world.
So a world view; an understanding of the world that is ever evolving, that is first given to us in the place of our birth and then continues to be refined by the people and the places and the books and movies that we get exposed to through our lives. And then that world view, the limits of your seeing keep getting opened up more and more.
And spirituality functions within that as a way to connect ourselves to ourselves, a way to connect us to the communities around us, and in a way to connect us to the visible natural world. And then in some people’s world view to connect us beyond that to the invisible. And for some that would be a god or a higher power or the universe or whatever language people feel comfortable using. So spirituality for me functions within our world view as the energy of connection.
Rachel Cram – I love that. What a meaningful description of spirituality. Thank you. And hearing your emphasis on connection helps clarify my next question about your doctrinal research, because I believe as part of your doctoral studies you also looked at mental health and language that you use that I really appreciate is how humans flourish and how they languish. What drew you into looking at mental health with such interest?
Dr. Sharon Smith – Yeah So let’s start there. Some of it was my own inner struggle of trying to make sense with that traumatic experience. Both my parents are children of alcoholics so that came into our home as well. And then I married a man who died by suicide. And so mental health sort of chose me. I don’t know if I chose it? But it was a way I found myself needing to understand more and more. And so really came into the field I think first unconsciously in my 20s but then more consciously in my late 20s 30s of coming with real questions around the pain that those around me were experiencing. So that led me into that area. And I looked particularly at the spiritual lives of people living with schizophrenia.
Just to say what my understanding of schizophrenia is, is a condition that begins in someone’s late teens and into their early 20s usually. And it is experiences that someone has that are unexplainable.
Rachel Cram – Can you define experiences a little bit more?
Dr. Sharon Smith – It’s a disorder of the perceptions, of our perception. So someone might see things that other people can’t see, or hear things that other people can’t hear, or even have inner movements, like they sometimes feel snakes in their stomach, or inner sensations. So, perceptually, it’s a perceptual disorder
Rachel Cram – Is that related to that time in their life? You’re saying it starts in your early 20s. That seems to be a time of perceptions really changing naturally for people. Is there a reason why schizophrenia comes in at that point in life?
Dr. Sharon Smith – There are many theories as to why. I think one of the most dominant theories is that for any mental health issue really there are precipitating factors and predisposing factors. So the predisposing factors are things that we are wired with. So it’s our genetic component, it might be our brain chemistry. So the things that we have internal to us. The precipitating factors are things that happen around us that create a situation where we are more vulnerable. And then those two things come together. So it might be someone’s level of capacity or resilience and then the stressors that might come their way. And when those two things meet.
Rachel Cram – So you might be predisposed but no trigger may ever occur so it may never materialize in your life
Dr. Sharon Smith – Exactly. Or, you may get to a certain point where things that happen around you become quite chaotic and you lose your ground.
So for example, I remember a client that I worked with who grew up in a very loving secure home. He was exceptionally bright at school and so he got a scholarship to go to university. But university was in another province. This is in South Africa and he had to travel to go. And he left this secure home, this place where he knew, and everything was taken care of right. Laundry was done. Lunches were packed. He didn’t have to think of anything. And suddenly he got to move to another province and he became very disoriented in that place and the beginnings of schizophrenia started. He started to hear voices at night calling him.
And then what happens with the condition, is that gradually you start to try and make sense of what you’re experiencing and that leads to some beliefs that might not be real. So the medical world would call those delusions; fixed false beliefs. So if he’s hearing these voices, then he assumes that there’s a devil inside of him. Or he’s hearing these voices and he believes that someone is breaking into his place in the middle of the night and broadcasting. So the delusions are a way of making sense of experiences that are beyond what you can explain.
So in somebody’s life, if they’re predisposed.
Rachel Cram – So he would have been predisposed?
Dr. Sharon Smith – He would have been predisposed but it never showed itself.
Rachel Cram – And would his family have been aware of that?
Dr. Sharon Smith – Well as soon as they started to recount stories of an uncle and a grandmother,
Rachel Cram – Right.
Dr. Sharon Smith – As you were saying earlier, before mental health issues became something we were comfortable talking about, we just would say, “Oh that’s just Auntie so-and-so. That’s just how they are.”
Rachel Cram – Yes
Dr. Sharon Smith – And we’d have some words to describe her quirky behavior. You know we’d put language to it.
Rachel Cram – Yes.
Dr. Sharon Smith – But when something happens like with this particular young man that I’m speaking of, then as the family starts to bring their history into a different light you begin to realize that there were other members in the family that perhaps were struggling and nobody knew what the inner world was like because they just made assumptions based on their behaviour.
Musical interlude #2
Rachel Cram – Now listening to that story, as a mother, I can think, “Oh, I just want to keep my child’s world so safe then, and so structured.” And of course we can’t live like that. And there’s so many places I want to go in this conversation. But just to know what that young man, could you backup his life into structure and safety to help him regain the ground of mental health. Or, how do you approach that?
Dr. Sharon Smith – Well, why do we revisit what you asked earlier on flourishing and languishing. Because if I do that then I’ll revisit the story and let’s put him back into this. We’ll continue using that framework.
Rachel Cram – Fabulous. Fabulous. I’d love that.
Dr. Sharon Smith – So flourishing and languishing and mental illness and no mental illness function on, if we could imagine, a two way continuum. So you’ve got a line that runs vertically. So, north to south. Flourishing is at the top languishing at the bottom. And then let’s say you’ve got an east west line and you’ve got mental illness on one side and no mental illness.
Rachel Cram – OK so you’ve got four quadrants.
Dr. Sharon Smith – So, you’ve got four quadrant
Rachel Cram – Two at the top two at the bottom.
Dr. Sharon Smith – Yeah
Rachel Cram – OK.
Dr. Sharon Smith – And so the latest research in mental health recovery has shown that all individuals, whether you live with the predisposition of a mental illness or not, so wherever you are on that horizontal line, you can still move up and down the vertical line.
So you can flourish in life. And by flourishing we mean, having a wellness that enables you to socially connect with people, that enables you to contribute the gifts and skills and unique qualities that you have, as well as looking after your own self and self care. And then also resting and enjoying life in our leisure activities. So flourishing is that place where we’re in a sweet spot in all of life.
Rachel Cram – So that’s in the north.
Sharon Smith – That’s in the north. And that’s kind of where most of us would just love to hang out and be. Right? But we know that life drops us down into that part below
Rachel Cram – You head south
Dr. Sharon Smith – You head south. That’s right. I’m going south and that area is called languishing. And in that place we diminish as people, and often it’s because of something we were experiencing, so a form of suffering. So it could be a grief experience of losing a partner, losing a family member. It could be losing a job and losing confidence in the mix of that. It could be immigrating and just not knowing how to fit into this new environment that you find yourself in.
So anything can drop us from a flourishing to a languishing period. And then if you’re not predisposed to a mental illness, within us there is this capacity, and some scientists will call it resilience, to bounce back. To gradually find our footing and move back towards flourishing. Now for all of us that takes time and so the grief experience for example zero to five years they usually say, within that time you’ve integrated the experience back into your life and you now can continue.
Musical interlude #3
Rachel Cram – So, to recap. If we’re not predisposed to a mental illness, then, our resilience, our capacity to handle grief or loss and incorporate it into our life, that is what’s going to move us up and down the flourishing to languishing line?
Dr. Sharon Smith – Yes, that’s that movement.
Rachel Cram – So what if you are predisposed to a mental illness.
Dr. Sharon Smith – Well, take this gentlemen I was speaking of at the beginning. Let’s give him a name. So let’s just call him Matthew for now. So Matthew moves to another university, another province, for a time. And while he was flourishing when he was with his family, when he makes the move he becomes disoriented. He doesn’t know how to connect. It’s a foreign place. He’s now got more tasks to do than he’s ever had to do. Plus he’s got the university courses and lots of expectations because the finances have been provided by a granting agency. And so he finds himself languishing. And what that looks like is that he can’t sleep at night initially because he’s worrying. He can’t concentrate and focus because he’s just so aware of everything that he has to do. And so his capacity for his studies, his capacity to self care, his capacity to connect with others is reduced.
And so he finds himself languishing. But because he’s predisposed to a mental illness, he finds himself languishing with some particular symptoms and some particular experiences and the languishing for Matthew pushes him into a place where he starts to hear voices and experience the other symptoms of schizophrenia. So hearing voices, beginning to believe things that can’t be proven, so these fixed false beliefs. Not being able to hold conversations anymore because his inner world just becomes really chaotic. And loses interest, loses interest in life. And so he finds himself languishing but with some particular symptoms around that.
And why this model is helpful is because it just puts us all as humans, going between flourishing and languishing. And I think the conversation shifts to one about ‘capacity’ and not one about, ‘you have a mental illness and I don’t.’
So for someone who is languishing who doesn’t have a mental illness, they might need different things to be able to move back up to flourishing again. They may not need to stop their work, stop their studies. They may need to take a three month vacation, sort some things out in the home. Maybe learn a new skill. Maybe really get some rest. Maybe take vitamins. You know, so what someone without a mental illness needs to regain flourishing is different from what Matthew would have needed.
Rachel Cram – OK. And I noticed when you’re doing this you move your hands into quadrants. So you started at the top flourish, then we slid down to the bottom to languishing. And then when you talked about his mental illness kicking in you moved over into the bottom left hand quadrant. Is there a name for that quadrant?
Dr. Sharon Smith – Yeah. No there isn’t.
Rachel Cram – So in that bottom left hand quadrant you are languishing with a mental illness.
Dr. Sharon Smith – Exactly.
Rachel Cram – And so on the right hand quadrant, you’re languishing without a mental illness.
Dr. Sharon Smith – And so what it’s saying is all human beings can languish, whether you live with a mental illness or not. And it’s saying languishing is not a static place. You don’t land there and stay there. So the model offers just tremendous hope for anybody. So when you find yourself languishing, you’re on a continuum towards flourishing. So you are just positioning yourself somewhere and you require certain things around you and possibly in you. So if you live with a mental illness you may need to take a chemical that will help you reset yourself again. You may require psychotherapy, psychoanalysis to help your inner world re-establish itself so that you can shift back to flourishing again.
Rachel Cram – So the bottom two quadrants are languishing with a mental illness and languishing without a mental illness? And the top two ones must be flourishing with a mental illness or flourishing without a mental illness.
Dr. Sharon Smith – Exactly.
Rachel Cram – When I remember you talking about this before, I remember the realization of how much that makes it a picture for all of us because we can be somebody who is flourishing with a mental illness and we could be somebody who’s languishing without one and it doesn’t really make a difference. Now I know that simplifying it.
Dr. Sharon Smith – No, but Dr. Corey Keys, who’s the sociologist who actually put this model forward and published it, those were the two quadrants that he mostly focused on. How often do we talk in life about somebody who lives with a mental illness, who’s flourishing. And those folks, they hold wisdom for the courageous journey of what it looks like to identify that you’re languishing and to identify the unique things that you need to regain your wellness again and flourish.
And then the quadrant of someone living without a mental illness who is languishing, was also a unique thing to discover, because it just says that not all languishing is as a result of mental illness. And so we’ve got some work to do around understanding our family and social systems that can put pressure on an individual such that they languish, whether they actually live with the predisposition for a mental illness or not.
And so it also takes the spotlight off the individual. And what we’ve tended to do, especially in psychiatry, is make mental illness an individual’s issue. And it’s not. It’s a systemic issue.
Rachel Cram – Reflecting back to a comment that I got through your literature, Sharon, that all of us in our lifetime will experience either personally or with someone we love, a mental health crisis. In those situations, whether it’s for ourselves or with someone else, what is the best form of connection? How do we reach out?
Dr. Sharon Smith – We need each other. There is so much energy and health that can happen when somebody has two or three or more people around them who love them and care for them through all of life. But it’s not only the one way. It is also being able to contribute into a friendship that someone can actually regain their sense of worth. So let’s say, I might not be explaining this very well.
Rachel Cram – Are you saying that we need to be able to give and receive?
Dr. Sharon Smith – Yes, in a relationship. And when somebody is living with a mental illness, let’s call somebody Ann. Let’s say Ann is a friend of mine and Ann is living with bipolar mood disorder. So she’s experiencing highs and she’s experiencing lows and sometimes gets into moods that she cannot function well and contain herself and puts herself at risk. If she doesn’t have a friend with her in those crisis moments to be her sane voice to her, to name what’s going on, she’d be lost. So someone who
Rachel Cram – So an advocate are you saying?
Dr. Sharon Smith – Yes. Yes. So
Rachel Cram – And can that truely be a friend or are you looking really for someone with experience and training for a role like that?
Dr. Sharon Smith – I personally believe that a friendship is the most valuable piece because you’ve got trust and you’ve been able to see each other in all of life. So not just when Ann is really depressed or really manic but you know Ann when her mood is at a place where it’s modulating normally. And Ann knows you know her there. And so when you see Ann manic, you’re not only seeing the mania, you’re seeing your friend Ann. And I think that makes a huge difference.
Rachel Cram – Those kinds of friends can be really hard to find.
Dr. Sharon Smith – Really hard to find. And I think what’s also hard is, let’s say Ann goes into a manic place and I journey with her into that place, which is costly in friendship. It means I give up some of my time. It means I might take Ann kicking and screaming into the emergency. It means I might make phone calls she doesn’t want me to make.
Rachel Cram – You’re opening your life to some chaos.
Dr. Sharon Smith – Yes, but that’s the crisis place. Then Ann starts to recover. And now our friendship has to shift. So I as Ann’s friend, have to learn how to release my need to care, the one who knows what’s going on and care and love and give, and step back and let Ann find her ground again by herself and move into a relationship stage which I call confidence building where Ann is now in a place where she can discover what it means to be Ann again. And she can discover that in the context of our relationship, in the context of our friendship. But that takes work on both sides.
Rachel Cram – Well I think as we look out into our communities those friendships are hard to find when you have two people without a mental health concern. So even more difficult when you have one or both with mental health concerns.
Dr. Sharon Smith – That’s right.
Rachel Cram – When you came to speak with my staff at Wind and Tide Sharon, you brought up this term item Anam Cara, which is an Irish term. And it stuck with me for all these years. It’s a beautiful definition for a particular kind of friendship, I think one that nurtures us toward flourishing, I love that term flourishing, in life. Can you describe that?
Dr. Sharon Smith – I discovered the word Anam Cara through the writings of John O’Donohue. John O’Donohue was a Catholic priest and then moved out of that world to be a spirituality writer and a motivational speaker within the business world and within organizations. And he died way too early. But he has a wonderful way of articulating what it means for us to be human together. All of us, just trying to find our way.
In John O’Donohue’s book, which is called Anam Cara, he describes it in this way. “In the celtic tradition, there is a beautiful understanding of love and friendship. The old Galic term for this is Anam Cara. The idea of soul love. Anam is the Galic word for soul and Cara is the word for friend. So Anam Cara in the Celtic world was the soul friend; someone to whom you confessed, revealing the hidden intimacies of your life. With an Anam Cara, you could share your innermost self, your mind and your heart.
Rachel Cram – So, rich and life sustaining friendships. And we all want people like that.
Dr. Sharon Smith – Yes we do.
Musical interlude #4
Rachel Cram – I think a reason those kinds of friendships are hard to find is because sharing “your innermost self” as you say; we don’t always know our innermost self. We’re not aware.
Dr. Sharon Smith – Exactly. And I think through the movements of flourishing and languishing, whether you live with a mental illness or not, we need people to see us and to verbalize what they see.
One of the psychological paradigms that I often pair with Anam Cara is the Johari window. I think it was in the 1950s or 60s two psychologists Joseph and Harris, that’s why it’s called Johari, put this framework together. And it really is what things we are aware of for ourselves. I’m all about squares and lines today.
Rachel Cram – So you start to draw the diagram and I’ll describe it.
Dr. Sharon Smith – So it’s a window that has four quadrants.
Rachel Cram – Okay. Back to four quadrants.
Dr. Sharon Smith – Back to four quadrants. Apparently that’s what we’re doing.
Rachel Cram – Ok, ok, we can do this. I love this. These quadrants describe the four stages of awareness in ourselves. Right?
Dr. Sharon Smith – Yes
Rachel Cram – Do they all have a title? These four areas?
Dr. Sharon Smith – They do.
Rachel Cram – Ok, that’s a good way to go at it then.
Dr. Sharon Smith – Ok, why don’t we do that.
Rachel Cram – So I’ll describe your diagram of Johari’s Window and then you’ll expand? So, the first quadrant is called the arena. What stage of awareness are we at when we are in the arena?
Dr. Sharon Smith – Well I think as humans, I realized for myself and I know this for others, that we find it difficult to put ourselves fully out there with others. So there’s actually just a really small part of ourselves that is known to us and known to those around us. And if we want to call it the arena of our lives and that’s the place where we function in a known way. So I’m aware of it and others are aware of it.
Rachel Cram – And those could be things we’re proud of, things we’re not proud of but they’re known.
Dr. Sharon Smith – They’re known.
Rachel Cram – OK. The arena.
Dr. Sharon Smith – Yes, that’s the arena.
Rachel Cram – OK. And we’ll post a diagram of this on our social media platforms so the listener can see.
Dr. Sharon Smith – Yeah. So there’s that area but then in these areas where things we know about ourselves, they could be really shameful parts of our past, they might be a particular way we think, but we’re worried if we verbalize it and let people know about it that they will distance themselves from us. And so we keep it just to ourselves. So it’s an area that is known to us but not known to others.
Rachel Cram – So would that be things we don’t want seen? In there?
Dr. Sharon Smith – Yes. Things we’re ashamed of. Things we might be afraid of saying because other people may think we’re being snobby or snooty, so it could be something we’re really good at but we don’t want to tell people because we don’t want them to feel badly around us. And this is called the facade. And we use that language don’t we, we say, “Oh, it’s just a facade.” So we’re pretending. We’re wearing a mask. We’re keeping something to ourselves and not letting others know.
Rachel Cram – Keeping it hidden
Dr. Sharon Smith – Keeping it hidden.
Rachel Cram – OK.
Rachel Cram – And that doesn’t do much for vulnerability within a friendship, creating that Anam Cara relationship, because it’s about the arena. But the facade holds us back when we stay in that place. Yeah.
Rachel Cram – So, the arena is where we are known. The facade is where we hide. What’s the next one? What’s the next quadrant of awareness?
Dr. Sharon Smith – The next is when people see things that we don’t see. It might be known to others because they witness it. They see us behaving in a certain way but we may not realize that we’re behaving in a particular way.
Rachel Cram – So like a blind spot
Dr. Sharon Smith – It’s a blind spot. Yeah, it’s a blind spot
Rachel Cram – Is that what it’s called? That area?
Dr. Sharon Smith – It is. You got it.
Rachel Cram – OK. Ding ding.
Dr. Sharon Smith – And that also can prevent the Anam Cara relationship from sealing because as soon as we enter into a place where we’re keeping things from each other, we are not really connecting.
Rachel Cram – So in that case, the person who is keeping the things is the person who sees the blind spot, not the person who has the blind spot.
Dr. Sharon Smith – Who has the blind spot. Right. And it’s nerve racking right? Broaching that place where we sit down with somebody and we have to have a hard conversation and say, “You know, I’ve noticed that when you do this, I feel like this and the impact on me is this.”
Something along those lines of giving and receiving of feedback. And being a witness into each other’s lives creates more authentic humans and it creates more authentic relationships. It’s really hard to do that.
Rachel Cram – I think we want to think that we want to know our blind spots but it can be much harder to hear than we expect.
Dr. Sharon Smith – Yeah. And they need to be done in an environment of love. I mean sometimes someone who I find it difficult to be with, might point something out but where I process it is with my Adam Cara. I process it with the people who I know love me and accept me.
Could I be able to say, “You know, Joe said this about me this morning. What do you think?” And they may say, Well…”
Rachel Cram – Here we go.
Dr. Sharon Smith – The truth will set you free but first it’ll piss you off. So I think there’s something there about forming these friendships.
Rachel Cram – And what was the last quadrant?
Dr. Sharon Smith – Well the last one is unknown to them and unknown to me. And that is the mystery of life that keeps calling us forward into greater awareness of who we are.
Rachel Cram – That’s beautiful.
Musical interlude #5
Rachel Cram – So, just as a quick recap, with these levels of awareness, there’s the arena, the facade, the blind spot and then this mystery area. Is that something that we have to anticipate?
Dr. Sharon Smith – In some ways. I wonder if in spiritual traditions there’s some wisdom that gets held there. So the mystery might be God, or God of our understanding who holds the knowledge that’s beyond us. You know, beyond our knowing, there is someone or something,
Rachel Cram – That we keep leaning into?
Dr. Sharon Smith – That we lean into and opens us up to more.
Rachel Cram – And so as you lean into that last area, the mystery quadrant, does that affect your response to the other quadrants? Does that help you drop those masks and avail yourself to the blind spots? To move more of your awareness, into your arena?
Dr. Sharon Smith – yes.
Rachel Cram – And that’s how you build your arena?
Dr. Sharon Smith – Yes. And some traditions, like I think of Buddhist meditation for example, one of the reasons of becoming still and listening to what’s going on in our minds, right, trying to keep our minds quiet is when you quieten down you actually become aware of the things you think about.
But when we’re chatty and we’re doing everything we’re doing, we’re not fully aware of what’s going on within ourselves. And so meditation can be a practice that actually grows our awareness; exploring the parts of ourselves that are unknown to us.
Rachel Cram – Thinking back to the language of flourishing and languishing, I think that’s not typically where we go when we want to flourish in life. I think we tend to go for more noise and more action.
Rachel Cram – Distraction. Yes. I am a firm believer that most of the resources that will help us through a languishing period will be grown within us, whether we live with a mental illness or not.
Rachel Cram – Can you give us some examples of the types of things that build our resilience? You’ve talked about friendship. Are there other examples?
Dr. Sharon Smith – So friendship would be a communal practice that will build our resiliency. Anything that grows our sense of our own strengths. So when we slow down and confront the fears, the fear of ‘I can’t be alone,’ or the fear ‘that I can’t do it,’ or the fear ‘that I’m going to fail.’
And then paying attention to how we think. Paying attention to the story we tell ourselves of our past. And then our bodies. If we don’t keep our bodies healthy through eating well and exercising and self care and rest. Those will build resilience for us as well. So resilience is mind, body, spirit, in community. And there are things we can reach for in all of those areas to build resilience.
Rachel Cram – Now Sharon, you have this beautiful book of poetry in front of you by David Whyte, who I love. And you keep picking it up and putting it down, so I am thinking you want to read from it, which I would love. And I don’t want to get to the end and think we missed the opportunity. Do you feel like reading something? Is there something that fits?
Dr. Sharon Smith – Yeah. You know actually, The Bell and the Blackbird, it’s lovely because it talks, in fact this might be a good place, I’ve been speaking about resiliency inside and outside you and this is actually all about that. It’s actually an image that comes from the Celtic tradition where the bell is a symbol of what draws you inward, into those quiet spiritual spaces where you grow in self-awareness. The blackbird is something outside yourself in the community that’s singing along, that draws you outward but that also grows your self-awareness. And so this poem is based on both going inward and going outward. So I’d love to read it if I can.
Rachel Cram – I’d love you to. Thank you.
Dr. Sharon Smith reads poem…
The sound of a bell
or a blackbird calling
from a corner of a field,
asking you to wake
into this life,
or inviting you deeper
to the one that waits.
either way wants you
to be nothing
but that self that
is no self at all,
wants you to walk
to the place
where you find
you already know
how to give
every last thing
that is also
you have always
carried with you
as you walk
by every corner
of the world
Musical interlude #6
Rachel Cram – There are so many phrases to pick up on in that poem.
The word courage jumped out at me there. Is there a story you could share about courage? It’s tricky picking up from a poem. Does courage work for you there? Do you like that? Is that good for you?
Dr. Sharon Smith – I love the word courage, I just have to find out what kind of story.
Rachel Cram – Can think of somebody you work with or I just remember you sharing some pretty amazing stories about people. And maybe you could just reflect back even back to that you know
Dr. Sharon Smith – Would it be too gritty if I spoke about my late husband?
Rachel Cram – No, that’s fabulous.
Dr. Sharon Smith – Okay, I’ll do that. So that line in the poem that talks about whether we go outward to follow the blackbird or whether we go inward to follow the bell, either way takes courage. And you know what I think of courage I think of the theologian Paul Tillich who talks about simply the courage to be. And often when someone is languishing, just to exist takes a huge amount of courage.
I lost a partner to suicide in 2005 and his journey through the years of us being together was really marked by courage. You know, on the days when his negative thinking and the depression spiral was too overwhelming and not able to get out of bed and get himself going, to somehow in the mix of all of that still muster up courage in the middle of the day to emerge and face the world. Even if it was to do something small like go and pay the rent or mail a check or anything along those lines. You know, the amount of courage that it takes to take those first incremental steps of recovery, when the world’s expectations of us are so huge having been somebody who was active in a career and a big social network and loved life. To a diminished world where all he could do was muster up courage just to do the next thing. So I’ve seen that courage. And then the courage to go inward and visit a counselor and have to work through all the pain and where that pain’s coming from. I think the journey of recovery takes a tremendous amount of courage.
Rachel Cram – You mentioned society’s pressures. What role do you see that playing currently with mental health?
Dr. Sharon Smith – I worry as society continues to speed up and to create more and more expectations of a human being. From very young, it seems we’re no longer given a reprieve. You know when we were young we used to not have to meet so many expectations. And now as parents we are preparing our kids to meet the world and because there is so much more waiting, we’ve got to start our preparation early.
Rachel Cram – What do you think it looked like before? What was, what was the golden age of young?
Dr. Sharon Smith – Isn’t it funny how we all have the golden age of young? Well I mean, I remember going to school and coming back and not having anything planned in the afternoon. And not having to worry about time or about when things needed to happen. And the next thing would be that mom would call us for dinner and that would be the next thing. But I had space for imagination and for play.
And then as adults we haven’t learned how to play if we didn’t play as young people. And play as adults is so important. To have a day when we don’t do anything. I mean for some of us that’s unheard of.
Rachel Cram – It can be frightening actually.
Dr. Sharon Smith – It can be. Yeah. So learning to unplug from some of the things that are maybe precipitating the extra stressors on us. I use electronics a whole lot but I think that we have not put some ethics and values in place that help us and guide us in the usage of electronics so that we know when it’s OK not to use them. And when we use them.
Rachel Cram – Well, it’s still so new. We’re learning so much and I think 50 years from now we’ll look back and know what was wise and what was not. But at this point it’s all experimental, isn’t it?
Dr. Sharon Smith – It totally is. You know I teach at UBC, and I notice among the young 20s age group, where they’re monitoring their phone usage more. So they do phone piles when they go out for lunch. They put their phones in the middle and they don’t use them when they’re together. And I’m noticing how this generation is critiquing my generation. Where we haven’t learnt the balance yet and it is creating a lot of stress.
Rachel Cram – That’s really hopeful
Dr. Sharon Smith – Isn’t it? Yeah yeah I think so.
Musical interlude #7
Rachel Cram – Sharon, there is so much that you’ve shared and I hesitate to want to wrap up because there’s so much more I want to ask but I’m going to need to head that direction. So can I ask, is there one piece of wisdom that you would want to offer when we think about creating a home environment that supports flourishing health?
Dr. Sharon Smith – I would say, if we can grow in our ability to share honestly with each other, how we feel, how we think, what we are experiencing, in such a way that we leave the answers up for discovery rather than closing them down with, ‘this is why,’ ‘this is what’s going on.’
Rachel Cram – Can you give an example of what you mean by that? Of leaving open for discovery?
Dr. Sharon Smith – I’m thinking about, let’s say a child has a dream. And they bring the dream up around the breakfast table. And the dream maybe scares mom and dad a little bit. Perhaps it was a dream about moving to another country, or maybe a dream that is outside their comfort zone. And our knee jerk reaction would be to say, “It’s only a dream, you know a dream you had last night in the middle of the night. Wonder if you ate something?” And diminish it.
To be able to entertain that and even to verbalize, “Well, a dream like that actually makes me feel a little afraid. How does it make you feel?” And so to be able to hold something in the conversation and be honest about the way it makes us feel and see where it goes. Because that sort of imaginative life and way really can build resiliency for somebody, as well as that style of communication connects us more intimately with each other.
Rachel Cram – And you’re hearing a parent express to their child, their true feelings. Which obviously there must be some boundaries on how far you go with that. But language like that is important.
Dr. Sharon Smith – And it’s modeling. It’s modeling that it’s okay to have hard feelings and good feelings, as long as the child is not becoming the deposit of the parent’s feelings. Right. So there’s an avenue where the parent is working with their feelings with other adults. But with a child they can model, It’s OK to express it this way.
Rachel Cram – And it’s okay to have some ambiguity.
Dr. Sharon Smith – Yes. We are moving more and more into uncertain times and if home environments can find ways to be comfortable with uncertainty, we’ll be preparing children for life that awaits them.
Rachel Cram – There is so much more I want to ask you. But I think we have to wrap up for today. Sharon, thank you so much for your time.
Dr. Sharon Smith – You’re welcome. You’re welcome.