I have a mental illness and I hate it.
Actually, to be perfectly clear, I have several mental illnesses at once. I have Bipolar Disorder. I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I have Chronic Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I may have more, or fewer, depending on who’s diagnosing. But those are the major ones that come up over and over again.
I don’t know if these illnesses are mostly the result of nature or mostly the result of nurture. I think to be classified as illnesses these days, there has to be some chemical or brain-centered component. At least a predisposition to view things a certain way. This is the old break between neurosis and psychosis: one was at least assumed to have a basis in brain chemistry while the other was not. But science knows so little about the brain and how it works, I’m not sure anyone can really make the determination what’s inborn an what’s learned, or even what the difference is.
Anyway, I’ve had most of this stuff going on, to a greater or lesser degree, as far back as I can remember.
This is another strange way my brain works: That last sentence made me laugh, because I thought of the intro to the “Goodfeathers” segment of The Animaniacs.
I have a mental illness and I hate it. I don’t know if other people actively hate their mental illnesses. It’s funny. I’ve spent time as a patient in various locked psychiatric wards, and the topic has never come up. I never thought of it myself until just the other day, or at least never put it into specific words. I thought of my mental illness as frustrating, or difficult, or hard work, or something to overcome. I’ve asked the gods, the Universe, whatever powers you like, “Why is this my fate? Why is this my burden?” But I never before said the words: “I hate this illness and what it has done to me.”
I think it’s important to say these words, because my experience is that some people, people who have not had to cope with a mental illness or with loving a person coping with a mental illness, people who have not walked this road, assume there is something to like about it. Some benefit to it. I believe this comes from the psychological hypothesis that we do not practice behaviors unless we get some benefit from those behaviors, which is often used to rationalize bizarre and toxic shit away as “non-beneficial coping mechanisms.” And there is some truth to it. I can, myself, recognize that things I once did to protect myself may no longer be viable options. However, it gives the false idea that all mental illness is a choice. That we could choose not to have it, if only we understood how it hurts us. This attitude is really prevalent in the United States (and, I guess, Britain), where we want so much to believe that everything is a matter of will and effort and nothing is out of our control. But believe me, it’s not true. Most of us who suffer mental illnesses do understand how much is wrong. It doesn’t make any difference. As Mark Vonnegut said in The Eden Express, “Knowing I was crazy didn’t make the crazy stuff stop happening.”
And that’s The First Thing I Hate: I know. I am self-aware. I can see how I think and compare it with how a normal person thinks. I can see how I react in a situation and compare it to a normal person’s reaction. And I cannot make it stop. Pretending I’m normal does not make me normal. Practicing positive thinking or substituting other social behaviors does nothing at all for my overall mental health. They never become natural. They are always practiced, something acted, a role I play. My underlying feelings and experience do not change. There is no “faking it” ’til I “make it.” There is just faking it over and over and over until I can’t do it anymore. Until I realize my mental illness gets to say a lot more about my reality than my desires and my ego do, and I stop trying to fight it. Until next time.
The Second Thing I Hate: There is always a next time. Try as I might, I cannot accept this. I detest the idea that this illness limits me and defines me. I detest the idea that there are things I cannot do. I understand that everyone is different and comparisons are odious. Yet, I see things that other people my age have accomplished and I get so angry. So I push against my limits, which inevitably results in my falling into the kaleidoscope of delusional thought, where I have no idea what is real and what I have made up for some possible arcane reason of my own. And the only way out is to stop pushing, which in my mind equates to letting the mental illness win.
The Third Thing I Hate: People judge me. Mental illness is, for the most part, invisible. I don’t look like anyone’s stereotype of a person with a mental illness. I’ve got news for you: Almost no one does. But—this is hard to say, because it seems in my head to dismiss others, or at least I think that’s what people will think of me—I have it harder than some, because I’m smart and articulate. I had the advantage of a good education. I have incredible insight. Yet I cannot succeed at anything that can be measured by any normal social yardstick. I spent virtually the first fifty years of my life using every spare speck of energy fighting my mental illness. I have no kids, no career, no savings account. I have nothing to show for my efforts but the fact that I survived. Very few people give you credit for this, and no one pays for it.
The Fourth Thing I Hate: I hate stereotypes and the fact that I don’t fit any of them. Even the mental health professional who work and have worked with me do not understand my reality, and even they subscribe to stereotypes. I spent my adolescence being told I had “nothing wrong with me,” despite my personal experience to the contrary. Because at that point definitions of mental illness had not caught up to the fact that even white girls from middle class families can suffer suicidal ideation and “something wrong” does not necessarily mean babbling and drooling and not knowing who’s President. Even now, when I go to my regular evaluation and my case worker asks me if I’ve experienced any hallucinations, I do not know how to answer. No, I do not experience visual and aural hallucinations as a rule. But I experience emotional hallucinations. I know in my soul that I am in trouble, that people are going to find me out and come to punish me, that I am bad and wrong by nature. This knowledge is as real to me as the sky being blue. In times of extreme stress, I experience confusion and delusional thinking, but it’s not like believing I’m Napoleon or anything like that. It’s spinning wheels, not being able to make the pieces fit together in a way that satisfies me and so I keep pulling them apart and rearranging them and every single way I put them together has truth and fits and I can’t know what’s real. What’s true.
The Fifth Thing I Hate: There are lots of things I could put here. I hate not being able to contribute to my family’s well-being the way I would like, because a lot of normal activities, like participating in a job on any kind of regular basis, drive me to the place where I honestly think dying would be a better option than having to do it anymore. I hate looking at people twenty years younger than me achieving things I would dearly love to achieve and knowing that, despite my talents and education, so much is out of my grasp. I hate the fact that I lose a grip on what is going on in my life sometimes, because my brain normalizes abusive situations and so I let things I should avoid go on too long. Or I avoid things I should participate in because I know my brain normalizes abusive situations and I don’t trust myself to know what’s actually happening. Everything’s a huge crap shoot to me. Things randomly occurring while my brain goes through contortions to put them in context and make patterns. Things others might find moderately stressful send me into the thought spiral of doom.
But I think, really, the fifth thing I hate is being so tired all the time. Of fighting and never winning. Of being on this roller coaster for life, with yeah, maybe some improvements—after all, they did eventually invent a medication that works for me and it only took thirty years—but never actually being able to escape the cycle of good days and bad days. Knowing there will always be days when all I can do is remind myself to keep breathing until tomorrow. I don’t get that happy ending, that one wonderful reward for all my hard work in living. There is no uplifting lesson, no moral. There’s just this: my life.
And yeah, I’m writing this on a fairly bad day. I took on something that’s proving too much for me (I think) and it’s pushing all my buttons about myself and mental illness and life. It’s the worst thought spiral I’ve been in since the last time I was in the hospital. Which is to say, I’m in an incredibly unpleasant place right now.
But that doesn’t change the fact.
I have a mental illness, and I hate it.