ON MENTAL ILLNESS: The Predicament of Trying to Adapt When Older

Jack Bragen
Monday October 08, 2018 - 12:36:00 PM

Adapting to changing life conditions is one of the hardest things that people face. It is especially hard for those who have the limitations brought about by living with a psychiatric condition. 

Aside from mental illness alone, antipsychotic medications and the apparent protection of being institutionalized are two more factors that can hinder the ability to adapt. Institutionalization often means that mentally ill people do not have as many or as difficult responsibilities in comparison to non-afflicted people. 

To give you something for comparison, look at people who have been incarcerated in jail or prison for ten, twenty or thirty years. They've learned how to defend themselves in a caustic, horrible environment. But then, when they are finally released, they have no concept of how to function in society. This is one reason that many people keep going back to prison. Some even feel safer and more comfortable there, because that environment, for years, has been the only thing they've known. 

Mentally ill people are often subject to outpatient institutionalization. This is one of the reasons that I have mixed feelings concerning participating in mental health treatment. When we are unaccustomed to dealing with the world in the manner of most adults, it leaves us relatively helpless. 

Because of living on meagre disability benefits for years, many persons with mental illness are financially and legalistically illiterate. Because of not being toughened by the need to work, and instead being softened by therapy, it is a lot harder to adapt when the going gets rough. 

When I depart from my comfort zone of barely leaving Martinez, California, and do something wild, such as driving at nine at night, I might be subject to a panic attack. This is one facet of my agoraphobia. Since I stay home a lot, I need to produce and maintain a lot of psychological armor when I must deal with the outside world. Another way of putting it; I put up an energy field when I go anywhere--which, after a while, becomes depleted. 

Adapting to change requires neuroplasticity. A person's brain has to be able to change its connections between the neural routes. A person must be flexible. If someone's mind and/or brain is "crystallized" into a set pattern from which they are incapable of departing, then she or he may not be able to adapt. 

If a person, whether they are a psychiatric consumer or not, has the same routine almost every day, and has the same living conditions, for a span of decades, it is not very good for the person's ability to adapt, should things change or become harder. 

If a person has a pattern that is solid, and if they must change that, it can involve a great deal of discomfort. Sometimes when getting free from a holding pattern of this kind, it must be done in relatively small increments. 

Our minds are not just about thoughts, about intellect, or about processing information. The mind is about physical exercise, it is about exploring new things, it is about getting out, going places, and doing things. If you are in a forest, you need your mind. If you are on a deserted island you need your mind. If you are threatened by a person or by a bad scenario, you need your wits. 

If your life doesn't require you to adapt, your brain might weaken. If you get too comfortable for too long, you could mentally lose ground. 

When mentally ill people get older, sometimes a lot of bad things happen. When we get past fifty, for some, the body begins to fall apart due to decades of taking psych medications and living under other unhealthy conditions. These could include a poor diet due to lack of income or the lack of adequate food preparation, could include smoking, could include lack of physical exercise, and could include inadequate self-care. 

When older, there are a lot of things on which we can't rely, that we took for granted until they were pulled out from under us. Such as, we may no longer have parents to help us out of a bad predicament. We may no longer be physically able to move our furniture in case we have to change our place of residence. We may no longer be able-bodied, and thus we are unable to fall back on laborer jobs, should we become desperate for income. 

So, what is one to do about all of this? I am trying to figure that out. I am currently trying to adapt to harder conditions, and I do not know if I will be successful. I'll keep you posted.