My life needs a purpose

What am I supposed to do with myself now?

Published January 30, 2013 1:00AM (EST)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

Thank you for reading this letter.

I am 60 years old and I want a purpose. Being a mother has been my one real purpose. My adult children are secure and joyful and don't care for maternal meddling. I worked for pay for 12 years. It was a job not a career. I have been on disability for two years for problems related to being ADHD and bipolar -- mostly depression, although ADHD greatly impairs both my long- and short-term memories. I have found both homeopathy and Western medicine to be helpful.

I know most important for everyone -- and especially us aging boomers -- is social contact. My first obstacle is that I am an introvert. I scored 89 percent on the Meyers-Briggs. My apartment is in a building designated for recipients of Social Security and disability benefits. It is a nice, well-maintained building. My immediate neighbors are lovely. I rarely leave my apartment except to do laundry or grocery shop.

My second obstacle is my resistance to riding buses to get anywhere. The grocery store is in walking distance -- even for me. My habit is to walk to the grocery store and then take the bus while it circles back to where I live. This is my most consistent -- although passive -- socializing. When I first moved here I planned to volunteer at the library on this route. I planned to volunteer for the good guy in the presidential election. Neither ever happened. I stopped going to the library altogether when I got a computer. My days mostly consist of reading online papers/magazines and talking to my cat. I used to have several email friends from decades ago. During the time I didn't have a computer, I let those contacts go by the wayside. I have maintained a friendship with a local lady but now she is in crisis that will probably extend into many years.

My current low level of activities match my level of introversion and level of physical energy. But I want a purpose. It seems my choices are limited to accepting a non-productive life or maybe, just maybe, finding something purposeful. Do you have any suggestions?

Thank you,

Not Aging Well

Volunteering at the library was a good idea. Maybe you didn't act on it because of the depression and the difficulty of leaving the house and carrying out a plan. I know how that is. Lord, do I know how that is. But redouble your efforts. Try again. Do it. Persist through the discomfort and fatigue. It will be hard at first but will get easier. It will be worth it.

And then do all the things you can to connect with others who have bipolar and ADHD. If there are groups in your area where people of like diagnoses gather, go and gather with them. If there is a way for you to volunteer to help people with bipolar and ADHD, then volunteer. That's my answer: Your purpose lies in helping people with problems like your own. The people I know who seem to have a purpose are the ones who are doing things for other people or other creatures. They are growing things or making things for people or helping people recover from disease or learn to grieve or helping put the dead to rest.

There might be other purposes, more complicated and subtle ones, but this is the kind of purpose that makes sense to me.

Now, yesterday I had a problem and the problem was I had 15 minutes before an appointment and I had finished the column and  felt up in the air as I often do after I finish the column so I turned on the TV. I could watch Dr. Phil or I could watch Dr. Oz. Dr. Phil was letting a mother with a square face berate her daughter in the most awful way and I thought, If he's a doctor, shouldn't he stop her from talking in this awful way to her own daughter? So I switched to the channel that had Dr. Oz, who was talking about homeopathy. He had a guest on who was explaining that homeopathy uses a little of the bad to make good. If you have fever, for instance, you give belladonna, which usually gives you a fever. Somehow this is supposed to work.

Now please bear with me while I attempt to make a tenuous and subtle connection between homeopathy and recovery and the search for purpose in life through helping others. People with addictions and certain behavioral problems help people with problems like their own in order to get well. The logic is that somebody with a problem like your own really understands you in certain ways better than anyone else. Like a bank robber can talk to a bank robber. Only another bank robber can really know what it's like when that I'm-gonna-rob-a-bank feeling comes on, and when it comes on he can call a fellow ex-bank robber and say, "Fred, I'm feeling like robbing a bank and I don't want to do it," and Fred can say OK, just for today, don't rob the bank, and let's talk for a while, and get together for coffee later. And if there is a meeting of ex-bank robbers this afternoon in your neighborhood, you could go there and just be safe and hang out and wait for the feeling to pass, which it generally will.

The connection between applying a tiny dose of the thing that injures in order to help bears some subtle relation to the idea of one person with a particular malady being uniquely helpful to another. What is the logic there? Is it recognition and recalibration? Does the intelligence of the body sense a mirror of itself? Does a biological process see itself in the mirror, the way we see ourselves in the mirror when we do therapy, when we, literally, reflect?

This is tenuous for sure. I like to stay away from facile explanations for mysterious properties of nature. We may assume intelligence and purpose and order when that is just wish fulfillment, when it is just our own dubious  cleverness. There may be no connection between the way homeopathy works and the way peer counseling works. Yet something is poetic about it, and attractive: In a group of fellow sufferers, you might say each is a weak solution of the same disease. Applied to each other, somehow they help.

There occurs in people in recovery an act of recognition akin to the immune system recognizing a toxin. We can walk around each other's diseases and get a better view, as if modeling shirts for each other.

Or perhaps I am stretching coincidence into meaning. It wouldn't be the first time. But basically I am suggesting that you take conscious, deliberate steps to engage in helpful interactions with people who have problems similar to your own. It will be hard at first but keep at it. You will be helpful to them and that will be your purpose.

Just one more thing: I like Dr. Oz better than Dr. Phil. At least Dr. Oz is a doctor.

By Cary Tennis

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Adhd Adult Adhd Bipolar Bipolar Disorder Depression Dr. Oz Dr. Phil Homeopathy Introversion Since You Asked