Ever since I was hospitalized with major depression some years ago, writing about my illness has been a good way to keep things in perspective and to remind myself how far I have come in recovery. I love to write about progress. My life is so much better than it once was. But I also need to write about my illness — meltdowns, job loss and despair. Writing down the worst reminds me not to take recovery for granted.
However, when I can’t find the words for how bad my depression was, I use a symbol or image. At its worst, my depression was a fire breathing dragon incinerating all that made me happy and all that gave me a reason to get up in the morning.
The dragon is an image for depression’s power to destroy. But what about recovery? Is there an image for the power of recovery to heal and restore? Well, everyone’s different, but my image of recovery is a moose.
An Image That Represents Self-Acceptance
Recovery is about self-esteem, loving ourselves for who we are and not beating up on ourselves for our human imperfections. Do you think a moose is hung up on not being perfect? Let’s face it — moose are huge. A full-grown bull weighs over 1,400 pounds. Awkward and ungainly, they look like an animal made out of spare parts. Nevertheless, look at a moose and you can tell it’s totally at home with being, well, a moose! It’s not trying to be anything other than what it is. That’s why, to me, a moose represents self-acceptance and authenticity.
A moose says, “I’m a moose. Deal with it.” We can follow its example and say, “I live with a mental illness. Deal with it.” In other words, moose are anti-stigma animals. Sometimes society would rather not notice those of us who live with a mental illness and treats us as if we are second class citizens. When this happens, moose show us what to do. They are very hard to ignore and not an animal you want to mess with. They aren’t going to let anybody put them down.
Similarly, when the fight against stigma is serious, those of us with mental illness cannot internalize it, we cannot believe the stigma or let it affect our self-esteem or our recovery.
An Image That Represents Community
My late brother Walter first got me interested in moose and taught me a few interesting facts about them. For example, in the winter the usually solitary moose come together, tramping down the deep snow and creating a “moose yard.” They uncover vegetation and feed together, while also presenting a united front against predators. Another example is that the Canada or gray jay sometimes hitches a ride on a moose’s antlers, paying for the free transportation by eating flies that annoy the moose.
When I was first in the hospital, I learned important lessons from staff and in various in-patient groups. But I learned just as much, if not more, from conversations with other patients. Like the moose gathered in the moose yard, we helped one another through a difficult season in our lives. Since then, I have learned that there is no recovery without help from other people.
For years, I have been involved with Vail Place Uptown in Minneapolis, a clubhouse for people living with mental illness. I have learned so much from members and staff there. If I had them, I’d be happy to give antler rides to my Vail Place friends.
An Image That Represents Our Favorite Moments
One of the best times in my life was the first time I ever saw a moose. I was on a canoe trip with a group from my church. We were paddling lazily across a small, narrow lake to the portage on the far end. As we came to the portage, we saw a huge bull moose knee deep on the edge of the lake, contentedly pulling up huge mouthfuls of vegetation and chowing down. We quietly stowed our paddles and just watched. I don’t think we breathed until the moose finished lunch and clambered up the bank.
When I saw that moose, I wasn’t thinking about me anymore. The huge moose got all my attention. One of my biggest struggles in recovery has been to get out of my own head, where thoughts swarm and self-accusations won’t leave me alone, and pay attention to what’s going on around me. Seeing that moose reminded me how good it is when I’m in the world and not in my head.
Thinking of it now, many years later, I still feel the excitement of seeing that moose. Most of us, even if mental illness has taken a heavy toll on our lives, can remember times when we were happy and living was easy. Remembering good times in the past is one way we feed hope for the future.
Of course, there may be another recovery image for you. But if you can’t come up with your own, you’re welcome to borrow mine. I’m happy to share a moose with you.
Bob Griggs is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. He is active in Vail Place Uptown, a clubhouse in Minneapolis for people living with mental illness. Bob’s recent book “Recovering from Depression: Forty-Nine Steps” tells the story of his own mental health recovery.