I came across this analogy a few years ago, just a few months before Anton died, in a BBC 2 documentary called Alastair Campbell: Depression and Me. During the programme, Alastair is trying to ascertain why he suffers from periodic depression, and visits a Genetic Counsellor in Toronto, named Dr Jane Austin, who has a cool way of explaining the role of genetics in mental health. You can watch the full documentary here
This picture is supposed to be an empty jar, which represents your life.
(Sorry about my rather pathetic watercolour of a jar; I couldn't think of a better way of illustrating it.)
This is the same jar. The knobbly black bits inside it represent the genes we are born with.
They are part of us and contribute to our personality and the way we perceive the world. They provide some of the vulnerability factors that influence our susceptibility to suffering from mental health problems.
More important than these genetic influences however, are the environmental factors that can contribute to poor mental wellbeing, symbolised by the multi-coloured shapes here. The difficult experiences, the bad or unhappy things that have happened to you during your life so far.
They have all happened, and they are in your jar now.
There's no way of removing them.
When your jar gets full of the bad stuff, the genetic factors and the environmental factors, that's when you can be thrown into an emotional/psychological breakdown of sorts, an episode of mental ill-health.
So if your jar is full, what are your options? Well we haven't mentioned the protective factors: sleep, nutrition, good social support, useful coping strategies, self-care....
….Which allow you to grow your jar, so that it can accommodate more of the difficult experiential or environmental factors that might come along.
It reminds me of our friend Tony's comment after he lost his daughter Alice "I remember thinking to myself at some stage that there was no way I could make the pain of Alice's death any smaller; and that what I had to do was make the rest of my life bigger in some way".
And its similar to the Accommodation Model of grief which I've mentioned in an earlier post and which shows our grief as a shaded circle (what I call a black hole) around which our life eventually grows. The shaded circle never changes, it stays just the same size over time. The loss is always with us. But gradually, as we continue to live with the loss, we start to grow our lives around it.
I can now see this happening in my own life, which has had to grow bigger in order to accommodate the black hole of loss. The bigger white circle includes many things that were present in my life before we lost Anton, such as our youngest son, his fiancée, our grandson, our friends and family. But there are also other things that weren't there before.
This blog is a big one; it fills the gap created by my stopping work, gives me a sense of achievement and generates meaning in my life. The friends I have made amongst other parents who have lost their children are there too. The strengthened connections I have with Anton's close friends. The renewed closeness and love I share with my own friends and family. The work I do with refugees and the friends I have made there. The learning I have done and the many additional connections I have made since I became a bereaved mum, have all enriched my life.
Anton loved to hear about my work as a psychotherapist and thought it was a very special thing to do; I know that he applied similar care and consideration in his own work, and tried to help those he worked with. I like to think that he is aware of and approves of these new ventures of mine. And that can bring a smile to my face.
References Lois Tonkin TTC, Cert Counselling (NZ) (1996) Growing around grief—another way of looking at grief and recovery, Bereavement Care,15:1,10,DOI: 10.1080/02682629608657376