[TW: discussion of mental illness, stigmatization, suicide]
It’s early in the morning, and I’m about to get in my already-packed-full truck and drive 12 hours to my new home. Somehow, the conversation over breakfast with my parents turns to the then-recent Sandy Hook shooting.
“I just don’t get how anyone could do that,” I say. “Load up a gun and shoot people. I literally can’t comprehend it.”
“Well honey,” my mom says, “he killed himself afterward. If someone’s unstable enough to commit suicide, who knows what else is going on in their head? They’re just crazy.”
My mind flashed back to another incident, years ago, when I was trying to figure out “what in the world is wrong with me” and was reading books about mental illness. I told my mom about cutting – I wasn’t doing it, though I’d considered it, but I was just explaining to her that it was a thing. She acted like it was the most unbelievable, outrageous, irrational behavior she’d ever heard of. “What? Why would anybody ever do that?” She couldn’t comprehend it so she jumped to her catch-all dismissive phrase that she’d learned from pop psychology: “They just want attention.” And that froze the words I’d been trying to say: “I don’t cut myself but I completely understand why someone would.”
Looking at my mom across the breakfast table, the word “crazy” hanging in the air, I struggle with what to say. I want to say, “Mom, I’ve been suicidal off and on for years, yet even in my darkest moments I would never hurt another living being.” Instead I carefully opt for the softer, “Mom I know people who have been suicidal and they wouldn’t hurt anybody, some of them are even vegetarian. Wanting to hurt people is a different sort of unstable than wanting to kill yourself.”
A few months later, when I posted on this blog about my struggles with suicidal thoughts & urges, the article somehow got around to my parents and they emailed me, all concerned, the whole routine of, “Sweetie if you’re ever feeling depressed or need anything, let us know, we love you.”
Too little, too late. If you’ve been completely insensitive to issues surrounding mental health for my whole life, why should I trust you with my specific problems? One could argue of course that through my struggles they might be educated to greater sensitivity in general. Possibly true, but on the other hand, it’s not my job to teach everyone around me what certain sorts of mental illness are really like, especially given that in doing so I risk losing a lot of people who are close to me. I might be able to educate others, on the other hand, they might also just reject me as “a crazy person” who isn’t worth being around.
I went to a therapist, and I don’t know if I was unclear with her about my expectations or what. But I told her everything that was going on with me: panic attacks, anxiety, depression, PTSD-like symptoms, cycling mood swings that resembled a mild form of bipolar. I described each thing in detail, giving examples, being clear about what I thought it possibly was, and she didn’t give me any diagnosis or any recommendation beyond, “keep coming back to talk to me.” Inevitably, after I saw the bill, I didn’t go back. I understand it takes a while to find a good therapist to work with, but I am frustrated because I don’t have the money to go out and find one.
So I’m not technically diagnosed with anything. That doesn’t mean I’m mentally healthy though, it just means I’m not getting treated. It also means I’m less likely to be taken seriously. After all, if I’m not seeing a therapist or on medication, it can’t be that bad, can it?
It can’t be that bad, when I spend two weeks a time feeling like getting out of bed or feeding myself takes too much energy and who cares anyway because nothing is worth it at all.
It can’t be that bad, when my thoughts are racing, when I’m making plans and commitments and spending money like there’s no tomorrow, when I’m in constant motion, when my mental momentum hits a catapult-like point and I know I’m going to be coming back down soon (but not yet and I’m scared of what I’ll irrationally do in the meantime) so I feel like I’m ducking my head and holding my breath, letting the bomb drop and hoping there won’t be too much debris to clean up afterward.
It can’t be that bad, when I’ve made plans and start getting a panic attack as I get ready, sitting on the edge of my bed or in my car trying to catch my breath and slow my heart rate, talking myself down, deciding whether to go through with those plans or call my friends and say I’m not going, climb into bed with Netflix because at least when I sit at home alone my anxiety goes away for the most part (unless I start thinking about the future or about money).
It can’t be that bad, when unexpectedly seeing the cover of a book I read as a teenager gives me flashbacks, when I can’t sit through a church service without shaking and crying and sitting on the edge of my seat, coat clutched tight, wanting to run away, when reading about the sorts of discipline methods I was brought up with results in me curled in a blanket, shaking, staring at the wall, fighting with all my energy to block out the memories and emotions rising up to overwhelm me.
No, it can’t be that bad. Mentally ill people are dangerous, right? They are all in institutions, in straitjackets, zombies on medication, right? They couldn’t possibly your friend who continually cancels plans, your friend who can be moody and withdrawn for awhile then chatty and outgoing and up all night for awhile, your friend who self-medicates perhaps a bit too much. “Mentally ill” isn’t a person who can sit here typing out a rational blogpost.
But this is what mental illness is for many, many people. It’s not constantly performing “crazy” for the benefit of everyone else. It’s not being someone else’s psych-ward-porn. It’s doing my best to get on through this life with some sense of self intact. It’s trying to build a life that works for me, figuring out how to help myself feel safe when I’m depressed or anxious and how to keep myself safe when I feel invincible and untouchable. Sometimes I wake up wondering, how is my brain going to attack me today? Other days I wake up feeling fine and am caught of guard when something happens, thinking, oh right I’m not normal.
Maybe someday I will be able to get the help I need. But even if I were properly diagnosed, medicated, and going to therapy, it wouldn’t fix what my mom said. It wouldn’t take away the knowledge that she thinks suicidal people are so utterly deranged as to be cut off from normal human thoughts, feelings, and empathy. Even if there were good and accessible mental healthcare for everyone on all points of the spectrum, that wouldn’t erase social stigma. And that feeling of alienation, of being an outcast, of being so far beyond understanding that no one can reach you, is the exact opposite of what a mentally ill person needs.
Once I entered the “outside world,” I thought mental illness would be treated respectfully. And no, people don’t attribute it to “sin” out here, though they do attribute it to personal weakness. People don’t see a mentally ill person as cut off from god, but they do often distance themselves from that person, effectively cutting that person off from social interaction. People don’t think the mentally ill are struggling with demons, but they still think mental illness is as frightening and incomprehensible as demonic possession.
This nation is full of rotting, abandoned mental health facilities. Prisons and homeless shelters and street corners overflow with people who need treatment. And our homes, workplaces, schools, and churches are full of people who, though functional, struggle as well. We’re everywhere, and rarely do we ever receive the help we need. So be kind when you discuss the crazy ones. We’re listening to your conversations, reading what you write, and your words do make a difference.