On Mental Illness & The Three Legged Stool Carved By Drunk Men


We all have friends who are struggling with mental illness.

And some days it’s us.

Why do we struggle with it? Why do so few get the support they need? Why do so many of those trying to support burn themselves out?

And what do we do about it?

I think it’s important to understand the nature of the situation in which we find ourselves.

The Three Legged Stool

We must have a place to sit that can hold us.

Imagine a big log, a tree stump laying as a part of a circle around a campfire. There are lawn chairs and buckets people are sitting on but the most solid, with no chance of it tipping over accidentally, is that stump. It’s simple. It’s reliable. You can sit on it. You can lean back against it. It won’t let you down.

Flipping it would take more energy than you have right now. And breaking it would take an axe and a great deal of labour.

But imagine a man who is drunk (on wine, power or forgetfulness) with a chainsaw slowly carving it into a stool with many legs.

The whole thing is suddenly more fragile. It could break more easily. It’s not as solid.

Imagine that another man comes on another night, drunk (on grief, shame or frustrated entitlement) and carves it down to three legs.

Every few nights, you never know when, another drunk man comes and carves away more from those legs until they can barely sustain someone’s weight; until the balance must be carefully maintained lest too much weight end up on one of the legs and it breaks.

And then imagine that, all along the way, trying to make the best of it, people are carving beautiful, ornate designs into those three legs which, while adding to the beauty, further weaken their structure.

I want to suggest that this modern world’s relationship to mental health has become this three legged stool.

The first leg is the person who is struggling.

The second leg is the community or friend group around the person struggling.

The third leg are the therapists, healers and professional support.

In my experience, you need a minimum of three legs for healing to occur.

If the person struggling has a lot of reserves and resources inside them then it’s a thick and strong leg. If they’re deeply depleted and beaten down by life, it can be a matchstick’s thickness unable to bare almost any weight.

If the friends, family and community is overflowing with a good number of healthy people then it’s a thick and strong leg. If it’s just one person, who’s running on fumes after years of trying to help their friend on their own, then that leg is thinner than a hatpin and likely to give at any moment.

If the therapist or healer is deeply skilled then it’s a thick and strong leg. If they’re naive, unskilled, arrogant or burned out, it’s a thinner than a crochet hook.

If you take out any one of those legs, the stool will fall over. If you take put too much pressure on the one or two legs remaining, they are more likely to break and to break sooner.

Community: The Story We Live In

“I talk about prayer and transformation and healing but it’s very hard to heal people in an unhealthy and unhealed culture.” – Jim Rohr

The role of family, friends and community in healing can’t be overstated.

To leave it all to a healer, therapist or weekend workshop is a set up for a profound failure that only makes things worse. It leads to hope and then the dashing of those hopes until a deep helplessness sets in that ‘nothing will help’.

If a person is struggling and has a therapist but no community or support group, it’s likely that every good piece of work they do together in that therapy room will be undone when they go home.

In the following series of excerpts from his book Returning To The Teachings, Rupert Ross speaks of the experiments and practices of restorative justice in indigenous communities around the world, the role the presence or absence of the larger community plays in it, willing or not, and the way that, in many of these communities healers and counsellors seek to weave friends, family and community into the healing process itself.

“To some observers, their relapse says that the children themselves are just hopeless cases, for whom nothing can be done. To the healing people I have come to know, it says something different that there are very few of us – children or adults – who can ever hope to sustain internal harmony if everything that touches us shrieks with discord…. Including families and others in the process is not an ‘extra’ that in times of tight budgets can be carved away as an unaffordable luxury. Instead, including those people is seen as a precondition to the effective and lasting healing of individuals… In fact, the understanding is that society itself must be dedicated to maintaining the same balance. There is only so much each person can do to stand against the prevailing winds if the winds are ill… What they need is a long, steady period of observing trusting relationships in action all around them. They need to feel them, to hear them, to sit quietly at their fingers for as long as it takes to start believing that people really do treat each other that way… you have to actually show them, then give them the experience of relationships built on respect (and the six other attributes) instead. That means you have to involve them in processes built of real-life manifestations of respectful relationships, not simply talk about them… The Healing path is not something that ‘sick’ people need, and totally ‘healthy’ people supervise and the rest of us can largely ignore. No one ever ‘accomplishes’ healing in their own lives. Instead, it is a path we must all walk on throughout our lives, constantly striving to create healthier balances and relationships.”

The Spinning Syndrome

If you have a person struggling with mental illness and a community with no therapist or qualified support, you end up with everyone burned out. The person struggling sees the wreckage but still needs help. They keep reaching out but less and less people respond when they do. The one struggling is discouraged. The community is burned out. Everyone heartbroken but too exhausted to know it.

Imagine your emotional struggles are like a spinning vortex inside of you. It exerts a constant centrifugal force inside of you that throws you off balance.

You do your best to keep steady and not fall over but you keep losing your balance. Sometimes when you fall there is no one around, sometimes there are those positioned just right so that catching you is easily done, sometimes you fall down and hit a table with carefully laid out food or land on people. When you’re a grown man, but still young, your body can contain the spinning but, as we age, two things seem to happen. The first is that our body gets weaker and the spinning gets stronger. We hurt ourselves and others more with the falling. We curse ourselves for not being stronger but this syndrome, this spinning, it never stops, it only gets stronger.

And that’s the best case scenario. That assumes that everyone around us has an interest in keeping us upright but, of course, that’s not always the case. Some people hate us, as I know you know, some don’t give a shit and some… are so driven by their own selfishness that… it’s not exactly that they hate us or don’t care about us but more that… our needs and feelings are invisible to them. Maybe they don’t get how deeply unbalanced we are inside and how precarious our standing is… maybe they do and don’t care, maybe they are too trapped in getting what they want to notice.

And so we walk through life with a force inside of us that makes it hard to not fall over, and very difficult to get back up, but we lack the supports to stay standing when we finally manage the herculean task of rising (again) and we are actually under siege by some.


There are two options: the first is to try to become stronger – and some manage this for a while. It’s often a solitary sort of path – the rugged individual, the self-made man, the gritting and bearing it. In the short term, this is often all that we’ve got. It’s what gets us through the night.

The second option is to work to slow or stop the spinning.

Or we learn a way of moving with the slower rotation that, while it’s still present, can work in our ways and beauty can still be made of it. A horizontal spin might always throw you off kilter but, if it can be reoriented vertically… well, there is the mystery of why bicycles don’t fall down. When the spinning eases or is reoriented we find that we don’t have to be so strong as we thought.

That second option is the only one that truly works in the long term.

And that second option… We can’t do it on our own. We need to go to those people whose work it is to help people address the spinning inside because trying to slow down a spinning wheel, if you don’t know what you’re doing, can take your fingers off or flatten you.

And, of course, your friends are not qualified to help you (they aren’t shamans, elders or therapists). And your therapist can’t be there for you on the day to day like your friends and community can be. And, if you’re not willing or able to seek help (because you’re too tired, too shattered or too proud) then it won’t work.

All three legs of this stool are needed.

The Stool vs. The Stump

I understand that a stool might be beautifully carved and designed. But, to be clear: this three legged stool is an impoverishment. It’s a bare minimum. It’s the very least we can get by with. We need so much more but, in the absence of a village, this is what we are left with.

And, if we don’t have three legs, this is what must be fashioned if there is to be any hope of healing.

Even if we have three legs, it is precarious. Most of us know that our stool could collapse at any moment. For too many of us, it’s happened before. And most of us have seen it happen to others more times than we can count. Everything seems to be going well and then…

That stump is a village. It’s the elders, medicine people, the traditions, the stories and songs, the food, the land, the rich cultural patrimony, the animals and the unseen. It’s all of that. Having only three legs is like only eating three foods for your whole life. You may not die but you won’t be as healthy as you could be. You’ll end up deficient somewhere. Village is a tapestry. It’s a deeply intricate and beautiful weaving.

The drunk man is colonization, the Wetiko and ‘progress’ in its many forms that hack away at the natural born beauty and strength of village life until only a few spindly legs remain.

The carving beauty into the stump is the modern insistence on personal style. Such ornate designs carved into the log of community and village would do nothing to diminish its stability but when added to the ever diminishing stool – slowly being whittled away by the gods of linear time – only assist in the process of weakening what little remains.

Note: This is just as true for couples who are struggling in their relationships (whether monogamous or polyamorous). They are often left to their own devices as one leg of the stool to make their relationship work. Everyone who came to their ceremony and, as witnesses, promised to be there for them when times got tough, are the first to vanish. Most people in relationships don’t have therapists or elders to whom they can go. They are deeply on their own.

It Happens When You Relax

It happens when you relax.

You’ve just finished nine months of stressful work and you go on vacation and you get sick.

You do some heavy lifting one day, more than you should have, and feel totally fine. You wake up the next morning… totally fine again. And then you bend over to pick up a pencil and your back seizing with a level of pain you’ve never experienced before. You get out of the shower and it hurts to breathe. It happens because our bodies have grown out of balance, a few of our muscles are overworked and others underused. One part of our body is compensating for another and doing a job it wasn’t designed to do. Many of us, due to our sedentary lives, have whole groups of muscles that are barely used at all. This three legged stool is like that. Imagine living life with only three muscles. A village has a deeply woven musculature that is much more robust and utilized than this modern world.

It happens when you relax.

Most homes have, at some point, had a chair in them with a broken leg.

What breaks it?

It happens when you relax, leaning back when relaxed, self-satisfied, content and too much pressure is put on one or two of the rear legs.

Where That Leaves Us

What’s important to remember here is that it’s not relaxing that’s the problem. It’s the weak, and ever weakening structure of the chair or stool itself.

If you have the community and the therapist together, you have people resting but, without the inclusion of the struggling, it’s just ignoring problems.

If you have the one struggling with a therapist but no community, you have good work being done that their environment will undo. Even the best therapist will burn out.

If you have the one struggling with a community but not a therapist, it’s unlikely the spinning will ever stop. Over time, the friends burn out in trying to help.

It seems to me that many people have, for a long time, been missing a leg or two on that stool. And it’s no wonder that they struggle. The wonder is that they don’t struggle more. The wonder is that we are baffled by why they don’t do better.

When you’re missing a leg on the stool it just puts too much damn pressure on the other two.

And some poor bastards only have one leg on that stool.

Sometimes the only leg on the stool is the person struggling. They are, or at least feel, utterly alone in the world and it’s a wonder many of them have lasted as long as they have.

Sometimes it’s the therapist or healer. The person struggling doesn’t want to heal and there are no friends or community. It’s hopeless.

Sometimes it’s the friends, family and community dealing with someone who has given up entirely and there’s no professional, worthwhile help around. It leads to burn out and resentment.

Each of those three must choose to be ‘in’. If any of them are there because they ‘have’ to be, or were forced or coerced into it, the wood on that leg will be too brittle to bear any serious weight and the whole thing will come crashing down.

And, it’s rare that you find a stool with three solid legs. Finding good friends and community? Many people have never experienced this in their lives (and they don’t even know it). Finding a good therapist or healer? This is an incredibly rare thing.

We all deserve a proper stump to sit on around the bonfire of our mutual days – a cross-section of time born from living culture, held together by the invisible veins, sap, fibre and life and protected with a ring of bark that only grows more beautiful with age.

We deserve something so solid and sure.

That we are left with only three often spindly legs to a stool is not a sign of progress. It’s a sign of damage. It’s a sign of trauma.

It’s a sign of what has been lost to centuries of war, famine, devastation, fleeing and colonization.

That we can balance, for a time, on one or two of those legs is not a mark of accomplishment. It’s a sign of danger and the meagerness of our situation.

And, certainly, there are those who have done their best to make beauty from the mess of this – they carve ornate designs into the legs and yet… something is missing. What we see as sleek, minimalist design is our poverty showing and, in doing so, making the structure even weaker.

The beautiful, minimalist internet memes are to deep, cultural wisdom what this stool of the modern world is to deeply wrought village life.

What might be needed might be is to look around where you live for what stumps remain. Old, reliable, ignored for too long.

You can build a village around a stump like that.

And, if none can be found, what might be needed is to plant the seed of culture so that those to come might have a tree that could grow large enough and be cut for such stumps in the future knowing full well that it will be a lean season for this generation.

We must have a place to sit that can hold us.

About the Author:

Tad Hargrave‘s business, Marketing for Hippies, works exclusively with “green business,” local business, sustainable business, social entrepreneurs, holistic practitioners, life-affirming and otherwise conscious entrepreneurs who are struggling with their cashflow, not attracting as many clients as they want and who don’t “love” the idea of marketing (even if they love their business). For almost a decade, Tad has been touring his marketing workshops around Canada, bringing refreshing and unorthodox ideas to conscious entrepreneurs that help them grow their organizations and businesses (without selling their souls).

Tad currently lives in Edmonton, Alberta (traditionally known, in the local indigenous language of the Cree, as as Amiskwaciy (Beaver Hill) and later Amiskwaciwaskihegan (Beaver Hill House)) and his ancestors come primarily from Scotland with some from the Ukraine as well.

You can find more of Tad’s blogworks HERE.