Well my dear ones, it is May and thus, I have learned, it is Mental Health Awareness Month.
I would love to make a series of posts during this month about mental health–personal posts, informational posts, and advice-offering posts. Let’s start the month off right by goal-setting. I’ll stick to small potatoes; May 2017 is a Busy As Hell month for me in all parts of my life. So the goal is: three posts, one in each aforementioned genre.
A brief foreword
If you have known me for a moment or a lifetime it is likely not News that I have a deep interest in psychology, and in mental health / illness specifically.
When I was but 10 years old, scouring the internet for brain-stimulating material, I spent many hours reading through the “Psychology” page of Wikipedia. I remember clear as day digesting articles such as “Insomnia,” “Schizophrenia,” “Sleep Paralysis”, and “Depersonalization Disorder” (ironically, I remember this one really, really clearly because it scared the Hell out of me–and yet here we are, folks).
At 11 I made my own website about schizophrenia as part of an independent study–it was titled, appropriate to online speaking conventions of 2004–“schizophrenia o rly”. The website is now defunct, but I can still remember the graphics clear as day. And typing up information about “positive” and “negative” symptoms. Ah, cherished childhood.
And now here I am, a 23 year old version of Me (v.23). I have continued to amass knowledge on mental health / illness, some from reading, some from hearing others speak, and some from experiencing it myself. I continue to write about the subject online–through freelancing jobs, Facebook posts, and this blog–and talk about it at length with dear ones and on my YouTube channel.
But usually, I’m writing from the standpoint of Analytical News Sharer, or Politically Charged Yeller, or Wise Omniscent Sage. It’s rare that I’ve ever really made myself publicly vulnerable and shared The Truth Of My Suffering (except this one time, kind of). I mean, I like to think I’m pretty open about my woes one-on-one, but normally that’s in the form of venting or hitting a boiling point where I’m either really expressively frustrated with the world / myself, or really darkly sad. It’s not usually in the form of self-compassionate honesty, truth-telling, and personal experience sharing.
So here is my go at that. Here’s my news, nerds. A brief insight; an unmasking of my madness.
What does it look like mum, your woe?
I have been told at various points by various people that, in my darkest moments, they would really have had no idea I was struggling. I have sat through meetings at work one-on-one with my supervisor and/or colleagues, dissociated to Heck or having a panic attack, and no one has batted an eyelash. Not because they don’t care about me, but because they simply don’t see it happening.
In college, at the height of my madness, I got a 4.0 and won 3 academic awards while holding down 2 jobs (albeit very part-time ones). I had conversations with professors where they shared their life experiences with me, all the while I was barely able to comprehend their words as my brain repeated over and over again “Am I real? Is this real? Can they tell something is wrong? You’re going to start hallucinating and then you are going to start bashing your head into the pavement outside of the student union and you will, thus, never get into grad school. BTW die!” And all the while they saw a person, engaged and attentive and fully alive.
It’s weird, because I’m pretty feckin’ expressive, but I guess I’m also really good at hiding or downplaying my shit when I think it’s not welcome (which is normally most times, especially now because adulthood is a pressure cooker of lies and boredom and bad jokes). Sign me up for Hollywood and pay me $500k because I’m an A-list actor in the making.
Do you see how I am dillydallying? See my attempts at humor to deflect from divulging personal emotional honesty? WELL, HERE GOES. Here’s what MY woe looks like. Not the woe of people who I think deserve to feel it more than me, or the woe of some abstraction of humans taken from an academic journal article.
This Is All Mine
Today, May 8, 2017, I stayed home from work. I said I wasn’t feeling well and would be in by 2:00 after my appointment (not specifying what sort of appointment it was)–but decided to instead take the full day off. I stayed in bed for much of the day, left to go to therapy, and then came back and returned to my spot under the sheets. After spending all night and most of the day in bed, my back felt stiff and achy. I ate McDonald’s at 8:00 because I didn’t want more leftovers, because in this state, leftovers make me feel sad. So does McDonald’s, but at least it reminds me of times my caregivers expressed their sympathy, understanding, or regret. At least it tastes like comfort.
Many weekends are spent this way, laying in bed until I find motivation to do something other than scroll through the internet or stare at the ceiling, immersing myself in imaginings of other versions of my life that feel more rewarding than the current version–a coping mechanism I picked up somewhere along the way that someone dubbed maladaptive daydreaming.
I get lonely and I pick fights in order to feel engaged or connected.
I cry on the way to work. I cry at work. I cry after work. This rarely-to-never has anything to do with work, but everything to do with reflecting on how much unrecognized by others and un-felt by myself pain I was in growing up–and still am.
I am sobbing in bed and my partner crawls in beside me. He holds me and I apologize for making myself his responsibility. He says, “Molly, I’m holding you while you cry. You have nothing to apologize for. This really takes bare minimum effort from me.” I am soothed. But I still say, “Do I need to go to the hospital?” “No, you just need to cry.”
I am 8 years old in a new house that I didn’t want to move into, and I convince myself that our house is going to be robbed. I pace around the house crying when my parents go to dinner, convinced they are going to die in a car accident. I know they are going to die. The teacher at my new school has a day where someone comes into the class to make “worry rocks” with all of us. We write our worry on a piece of paper and the rock will absorb the worry and make us feel better. I break down in tears, telling the visiting rock-maker my fears. She suggests I ask my parents to get a home security system. I ask. We do not get one. I continue worrying; someone has to be prepared when an armed stranger breaks into our home, and I am convinced that thinking about it will prepare me.
At 18, my hair is falling out after weeks of not being able to eat. I’m starving–literally. I want to eat, but every time I put food near my mouth, I feel like I am going to vomit. I try to force it down, but it hurts. I ask the doctor if I have mono. I do not. One doctor talks to me about the importance of losing weight and exercising. I compromise my strongly held stance to be Anti-Weed and smoke weed in order to “get the munchies”. I do not get the munchies. I get chronic depersonalization.
At 21, it is one of my last days in Germany and I convince myself I have a blood clot in my leg and I am going to die on the plane to Italy. I go to a doctor, burst into tears when I get into her office. She coldly tells me to calm down and to take ibuprofen. Later that day, once the valerian I take wears off, I am afraid of the blood clot again and I can’t stop thinking about it. I obsess over it despite all my efforts not to–walking, talking to friends, getting lunch at the cafeteria around others. So I go to the ER. But I leave because I can’t figure out how to get in. I take more valerian. It wears off. I go back to the ER, at 11pm. They tell me I’m fine. My friend takes me to get an ice cream, and I take more valerian.
I am remembering deeply wounding things that have been said to me, I can hear them echoing in my mind clear as day. I am screaming in the garage of my childhood home, crying, and hitting myself in the head until the memories quiet down.
I am drunk on Thanksgiving and threaten to jump out of a moving vehicle.
I have creative ideas that spin through my mind but tell myself they are embarrassing. I tell myself I have no idea what I’m talking about, to let the experts handle it. I have nothing to offer anyone. I am selfish. I am a bitch. I make everything about me. All I ever do is solicit sympathy–I’m doing that right now. I am a liar. I have a victim complex. I believe these things, even when I don’t say them, even when I don’t think them. I believe them.
I am 19, in bed, petrified. I am staring wide-eyed into the darkness. I am listening for a hallucination to begin. I am looking for a hallucination to crop up in my vision. I am waiting for the psychosis to set in. According to doctors, I have never experienced psychosis (except for when I smoked weed, arguably), but I am convinced I will. I can’t tell if I’m awake or not. I can’t feel my name. I can’t register my face. As I fall asleep, it feels like I split into two different people, and at the realization of this, my heart starts pounding and I think I will die of a heart attack, right then and there. I decide I want to die, that this will never go away, that I will never be able to live happily again. But, my brain tells me, there is no escape; death will just make it worse because then you have nothing to distract you anymore. No social media, no food, no people: just infinite darkness, just unfiltered experience. The next day, I drag myself to class anyway, begging silently for someone to make this stop.
I spent a lot of my life silently begging for someone to see my suffering, and to make it stop. This never happens. A younger version of me convinces myself that this is because no one truly cares about me. I feel disconnected and alone. I compensate for that by trying to see other people’s silent suffering, and trying to save them from it. In the long run, this does not help them. This does not help me. I hurt more. I hurt them too.
I am 22 in the check out line at the grocery store. In some lane behind me, there is the chirping of an unidentifiable machine. Logically, it is an out of order self-checkout. It beeps at regular intervals. My entire body is overcome by ice cold panic as the world zooms out of my vision, turning gray and foggy. My mind goes blank and I can’t make sense of anything except to think: “That beeping is your heart monitor; you’re in a coma and have been for years. None of this is real.” I continue to move my oranges along the scanner.
At my worst, I misread people’s intentions. When I enter alone into a new social setting, I assume people are ready to criticize me, unless it is made explicitly clear that they are interested in what I have to say.
I still can’t talk about my personal life at work comfortably. I’ve been there for over a year and a half. When I start to open up about myself, I stop. I believe adults think my experiences are stupid. I shrink under the fear of criticism, of punishment, and of judgment. I work with 13 faculty members at one of the most eminent social work schools in the country, supporting them in their administrative tasks, chatting with them regularly. None of them know I’m interested in studying psychology or social work, because I am desperately afraid of them telling me I have no idea what I’m talking about. But I am desperately in need of someone seeing me for who I am, and for seeing potential in me. It is emotionally paralyzing. I often feel emotionally paralyzed.
Some days still look like a dream. Even today did. I feel 10 steps removed from reality, living life behind glass. I cycle between bouts of productivity, anxiety, and dissociation. Long-term planning feels impossible; how will I know if I’ll still be up for that in a month? In a year? In a decade?
Such is my darkness
Not all days are dark days. But my dark days are, truly, dark.
And at 23, I’m finally unlearning much of this distorted thinking. It comes and goes, but self-compassion is definitely beating out the self-defeat and self-loathing.
I share this because, when we talk about #FightTheStigma~~!! around mental health, I don’t want to just hear people say “Yeah, depression is real! Anxiety is real! Your experiences are valid! It’s hard to get out of bed sometimes–and that’s ok!”
No. It’s not just having to wrap yourself in a bunch of blankets and zone out watching Netflix all day while eating pizza or donuts. Symptoms of mental illness don’t all look like internet comic strips alongside pastel colored words of affirmation. Those are great, but it’s not that cute or fun to look at all the time.
I want it to be common practice that we feel safe to open up and cast light on our shadows. Part of why we suffer is that these must stay locked away in order to maintain a secure social standing of Worthy, of Good.
Stigma exists in diagnoses and treatment, yeah. But there’s a stigma around “negativity” at all in our culture.
Sorry my droids, but a symptomatic mentally ill person will be negative.
Myself and others will not always be the sagacious bards of wisdom and understanding that healing enables us to be. Healing from trauma is not a linear thing. Some bits get healed, then something else happens to re-open the wound. Some bits get healed but others still have not.
Some days are light days; some days are dark.
Fight the stigma of dark days. Let people share their agony, their rage, their sorrow, their fear, their madness. Be receptive to it. Be sympathetic to it.
Let yourself share the full truth of your experience. Not the one spun to an audience that demands a happy ending; that demands sugar-laden pain. Let yourself be tonic water for a day, quinine and lemon in a dark foggy glass. Make America Amenable To Bitter And Sour Tastes Again (or Finally?), Literally And Metaphorically.