What’s Different This Year?

Contemplating the year’s accomplishments.Happy_New_Year Clock

At the end of every year each member of my immediate family writes on paper what is important to him or her at that moment in time and what he or she wishes to accomplish in the coming year. We seal these declarations into an envelope and save for the same time next year. Then we open those we’d written the year before.

Younger children quickly see how friendships and desires can be fluid, that what they think is important may not be over time. And they see what is lasting in their lives. Most importantly, this ritual shows how much progress one makes in a year, in little things to the more obvious, from penmanship to passions over a particular movie, toy, or fictional character. One year my son had drawn a Star Wars inspired battle scene on his annual letter, a passion surpassed months later after playing on his first baseball team. A troublesome friendship my daughter desperately and heartbreakingly wished to save had all been forgotten and replaced by ones much healthier. Simply seeing how much better my son became at expressing himself from the previous year, with more accurate spelling and grammar was affirming, not to mention humorous, for him.

Change and growth requires an ability to relinquish one’s ideas about how life “should” go.

This annual exercise always reminds me of the myriad of ways we can grow over time, imperceptible until we step back and take inventory, but no less important than the shiny, sparkly accomplishments for which one can congratulate with a Hallmark Card. And we can continue to change, learn, and grow at any age. Just ask Phil, my ninety-six year old friend who recently joined a gym and hired a trainer to learn a few new moves. The prerequisite to growth, however, is a willingness to be open and willing to change or even just bend a little regarding one’s outlook. Change and growth requires an ability to relinquish one’s ideas about how life “should” go.

Celebrating what may seem like small accomplishments to many of us is how parents of children with serious mental illness (SMI) or disabilities learn to look at the course of a year. These parents learn very early that expecting offspring to adopt a parent’s dreams is never healthy and that setting realistic expectations is the best path to experiencing success. One parent tells her son who is diagnosed with schizophrenia, “Look how far you’ve come in three months, six months, a year!” He once wandered the streets and believed his girlfriend was the Messiah but now he chooses trusted family members to advocate for him and more recently worked a part-time delivery job. A young woman who once had severe depression and spent most of a year on her parent’s couch returned to school and works full-time helping others. A man who spent many years in and out of treatment facilities or living homeless, admits he has mental illness and complies with a bi-weekly shot of his meds.

The act of acknowledging one’s illness and staying on meds, or holding down a part-time job may seem like ridiculously small steps—even dangerously low expectations compared to graduating from high school or college, but not when you consider that living with SMI while symptoms are raging or in early stages of recovery is like the difference between running five miles versus running five miles through knee-deep molasses and barbells strapped to your thighs. Either way, the runner needs to be congratulated.

This time last year, I’d set a goal to bring to completion the first phase of the Behind The Wall project my sister, Elin Abercrombie, and I began. We’ve almost hit our goal. Admittedly, I was beginning to feel a little sorry for myself that I’d not accomplished what I’d set out to do in the timeframe we’d planned. But then I thought about all the intangibles I’d gained over the year through the work that we did complete. It’s an embarrassment of riches, really.

Elin and I have become acquainted with and inspired by some of the most heroic parents imaginable. From these quiet heroes we learned how to be better parents and humans. We heard stories of indefatigable patience and unbelievable strength. Parents we interviewed were once forced to explore the emotional limits of their souls and returned to tell us about it. I learned to hear these stories, and the experience of doing so changed my outlook on parenting, humanity, and life. All this came from a simple act of listening and hearing, a skill I only recently developed, and while there’s more work to do on our project, it has had remarkable personal impact. My sister and I have also developed new friendships, a community, and now understand deeply that no one should have to feel alone.

As the year winds down and we contemplate our ritual, the goal setting and annual review, I will be thinking about the big and little ways each of us has grown. Sometimes, it’s the little things that are most profound.

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As always, we welcome your comments.

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