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🎧You Need to Toughen Up (or Soften)
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🎧 Listen to Sarah read this installment of Cured:
At a tennis center on Chicago’s southside, my sister and I wait for my nephew’s game to start. Courts of teenage boys face each other in singles and doubles matches. The whack of tennis balls hitting racquets echoes through the space. It smells of sweat and dirty socks.
My sister has found me a chair, so I don’t have to put weight on my broken foot. When she invited me, she was clear: “You need to get out of your apartment, even if just for a little bit.”
It’s not going well—all the healing I’m trying to do. I keep walking on my broken foot. And then there’s the whole recovering-from-twenty-five-years-of-serious-mental-illness thing. My new psychiatrist, Dr. R, recently spoke to me about recovery. In all the years I was in the mental health system, not one clinician mention getting well; the best I could do was “manage” my symptoms. My diagnosis was biological and lifelong—inside me, never to be resolved. Which would have been fine if it were true. Turns out no psychiatric diagnosis is purely biological or necessarily a life sentence.
Three-quarters into the qualifying match, he’s losing. The other player is good. If his first serve hits the net or goes out, he lobs his second, which throws off my nephew’s rhythm.
This tournament will affect my nephew’s ranking and determine whether he qualifies for the state championship at the end of the season.
My nephew is best described as solid—emotionally, physically, mentally. He loses, is disappointed, and gets over it. Within hours, he’s cracking jokes and smiling. Not that things don’t get to him; they just don’t absorb him.
It’s pretty clear he’s going to lose. He uses his shirt collar to wipe the sweat from his forehead and under his glasses and mutters in frustration.
Then he regains focus. Everything comes together: his serve, his backhand, his agility. He plays loose and light as if he’s never had a moment’s frustration or doubt the whole game.
During match point (in my nephew’s favor), they volley for what seems like a very long time. Then he wins. I want to leap out to my feet with joy but can’t.
Before leaving the arena, my sister and I stop to talk to his coach—an older, chubby, balding man. He gushes with enthusiasm over my nephew’s win. “Amazing. He crushed it.” The coach holds up his phone. “This is what we listened to in the van on the way down here. And it did it.”
Onscreen is a YouTube video—black and white—of a guy wearing headphones speaking into a mic. His head is shaved. His face is acutely square, his jaw severe. He has the neck of a serious weightlifter.
My nephew’s coach says, “Jocko Willink. He’s why your nephew won today.”
I get home, google, and learn that “Jocko,” as he’s known, is a phenom. A retired Navy Seal who served in Iraq, he’s published books on leadership and runs a company that serves as a pseudo-military training ground for businessmen who want to lead as if they’ve once been Navy Seals even though haven’t. Jocko’s passion is Jiu-Jitsu. His YouTube motivational speeches and interviews get millions of views. His podcast has tens of millions of downloads.
If he helped my nephew, maybe Jocko can help me.
Within a week, I’m deep into the world of Jocko. I dip in at first, catching clips of his motivational speeches on YouTube. Soon, I’m listening to the full one-to-two-hour podcasts. My fascination morphs into infatuation and then fixation.
Most of his guests are soldiers or leaders who’ve experienced hardships I couldn’t begin to fathom. Jocko’s three-hour interview with Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Ron Shurer, a staff sergeant who served as a medic in Afghanistan and then in the secret service and was also battling cancer, holds me rapt. On another episode, Jocko interviews a vet who’s a quadruple amputee who runs a center for other quadruple amputees and their families. Another interview is with a vet who’s a double amputee and runs multiple marathons each year to raise money for a nonprofit.
When Jocko addresses us, his devoted listeners, he’s all grit. He says life is war. We need discipline and to take responsibility for our actions. In his gravelly voice, he tells us to “crush it”—“it” being any project or task. He urges us to “get after it.” We have to be ultra-aggressive, ultra-confident, and uber-in-control.
Jocko is problematic in many ways. He refers to women as “girls,” talks way too much about Jiu-Jitsu, and often comes off as melodramatic. At the end of his show, he sells Jocko-sponsored-and-made merchandise like T-shirts and krill-oil supplements and (for reasons I can’t begin to grasp) soap.
It’s bro-culture in the extreme, but in a way, it works. Telling myself to attack, push, pursue gives me the courage to stop obsessing over my broken foot, my broken brain, my brokenness. When one of his listeners emails to say that he’s considering suicide, Jocko says that suicide is never an option because when you’re on your last bullet, you shoot the enemy, not yourself—the enemy being something along the lines of whatever difficulties you’re facing.
Sitting in my apartment with my broken foot elevated, unable to walk (my long, long walks were the one thing helping me in my mental health recovery), he becomes an abrasive balm. He seems to have what I want: the power to heal.
According to mental health professionals and patient advocacy groups, Jocko’s toughen-up approach is ill-advised when it comes to mental health recovery. The patient advocacy group Mental Health America (MHA) warns that “tough love” can backfire. Pushing through is the equivalent of walking in the boot, putting weight on a broken bone.
Self-love, self-compassion, and vulnerability are the preferred methods of mental health care. I learned a lot about this triad in my first partial hospitalization program (PHP). In the PHP, we’d sit in a circle in a frigidly air-conditioned therapy room and learn “skills” to deal with our respective issues or mental illnesses. The staff recommended books by self-help gurus, psychologists, and researchers. The favorites—and I mean favorites—were self-compassion icon Dr. Kristin Neff and vulnerability guru Brené Brown. Neff defines self-compassion as “being warm and understanding toward ourselves.” Self-love has lots and lots of definitions, most of which have to do with “an appreciation of one’s own worth.” Brown’s version of vulnerability entails embracing uncertainty, allowing weakness, and revealing our inner thoughts and emotions to others.
But herein lies the crux of the vulnerability paradox: those who visibly embrace their weaknesses are strong whereas those who don’t are weak because we don’t expose our weaknesses. And it seemed easy for Neff and Brown, two privileged women who’d never experienced a mental health crisis (let alone too many to count), to tell us to embrace what American culture deems weakness and make ourselves vulnerable. As far as I was concerned, I’d been weak and vulnerable enough.
My nephew’s tennis season continues and he’s on a winning streak. I get texts from my sister telling me how he’s won this match and that match.
When a black wave of depression comes over me, I harden against it. No, I say. Not happening. When anxiety seizes me, sending sweaty, sickening rushes of panic through my body, I do the same. No. Not happening. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. But I say it every time until it works more often. When darkness envelopes me, I don’t stop to show myself compassion. I don’t “turn towards it.” When I feel afraid, I don’t “lean into it;” I steel myself and move on.
Healing is in my control. I’m going to do it despite the hum in my chest and surges of energy and the dark pit in my stomach and my pounding heart and my numb lips and cheeks and the sense that I’m not really there.
I’m in my apartment grading essays when a text comes in from my sister. It’s a photo of my nephew. He’s outside, a tennis court in the background. His green T-shirt is soaked with sweat. In his hands is a trophy. He’s won the conference title.
I don’t know what he thought or said to himself to win all those games. All I know is that every day, he was on the court, playing.
I hobble to the kitchen and fill my espresso maker with water and coffee grounds, seal it, and turn on the stove. My ankle aches. Teaching the day before, I stood too long at the podium, wanting to give the presentation standing up, the way I would have before I broke my ankle.
Later, I’ll realize that I was already tough—long before Jocko; I’d just lost sight of it. People with mental illness are seen as weak by those who don’t understand what it’s like. People with mental illness are some of the strongest people on earth. You have to be fierce to be in that struggle—regardless of whether one heals.
Enjoying ‘Cured’? Read the prequel, ‘Pathological’ (HarperCollins):
Read all available chapters of Cured.