So, I was at a collage-based social event the other night, sitting around a table with a group of women aged 15 - 80, and all new to each other. As we commenced the happy work of image seeking, cutting and gluing, we were encouraged to go around the table and share our personal art histories.
As often happens on Whidbey Island - where the schlumpy looking bearded man picking up trash by the roadside happens to be an Academy Award winning screenwriter, and the 'sweet old lady' who you sometimes see in overalls at the market happens to be an heiress whose philanthropy has powerfully improved the lives of writers, families, and children, and the broody looking dude in front of you in line at the coffee shop happens to be a world-famous poet - the stories that emerged around the collage table were astonishing.
There was a professional musician turned composer and teacher turned jeweler and artist; a former art critic for the Seattle Times; an art teacher and caterer; an community-developer and fine artist... each woman's life was fascinating, complex, and multi-layered.
And four out of the ten women around that table used the word "schizophrenic" to describe themselves and their lives.
Now I know that in groups, words can 'go viral' - getting picked up and entering the bloodstream of the conversation before anyone knows what happened. (I was in a graduate seminar once where literally every person in the room used the phrase 'not to beat a dead horse, but...' until the Professor finally implored us to leave the poor dead animal alone already...)
But I left that art social event feeling like it is time for all of us powerful, multi-faceted women to find a different word to define ourselves than one that connotes a severe and debilitating mental illness. Somewhere along the way, too many of us have bought into the crazy idea that healthy adulthood means complete devotion to a single vocation forever and ever until they carry you away. Too many of us missed the memo that "complexity" is not a disease, but a gift, and "multiple passionate interests" is not a defect, but a strength.
Here is my plea:
If your life story includes more than one career; if you have a smorgasbord of different passions and activities on your plate at any given time; if your life journey has taken you down wildly divergent pathways - STOP apologizing and STOP demeaning your 'muchness' by implying that it is a form of mental illness.
Next time you have the opportunity to tell your life story, instead of describing yourself as 'schizophrenic' how about describing yourself as
- "Irrepressibly curious"
- "brave enough to try lots of different things"
- "a multi-modal creative"
- "alive and growing"
- "unwilling to stagnate"
- "determined to get the most out of this one life"
- "self-loving enough to listen to my own evolving heart"
I have a sneaking suspicion that until we step up and own our 'too-muchness' as a strength, until we model pride in the kind of eagerness to learn and experience and be alive in our own lives that underlies our choices, until we challenge the notion that there's something sick about changing course or tackling something new...until we do these things, we will unconsciously continue to feed a narrow, disabling and deadening vision of what "real life" is supposed to look like.
My 15 year old daughter was in that room, exploding with potential to be a whole range of amazing things. I hope she'll remember those women's stories as examples of what it looks like to be bold enough to try them all over her lifetime. And I hope that, later in her life, when she finds herself around a table of women, she will tell her story proudly and without apology - regardless of how many different twists and turns she might take as she follows her curious, creative, evolving heart.