May is Mental Health Month. Mental Health America’s theme for 2016 is “Life with a Mental Illness.” My posts this month will cover personal experiences and opinions dealing with my own mental illness issues, which may be triggering to the reader. I am also simply a person in recovery- not a medical professional and my writing should not be taken instead of or in lieu of the advice of a health expert and/or professional. Feel free to join in on the conversation by posting in the comments below or sharing with the tag #mentalillnessfeelslike. Stop the stigma, start the conversation.
Secretly, I kind of love when someone throws out a blanket mental health term as a completely inappropriate adjective. We’ve all heard this, most often in the context of the “crazy” ex. Last summer, it was darkly amusing to hear a good friend call their ex not just “crazy” but “bipolar.” After reminding him that I am, in fact, bipolar, I proceeded to shut down the conversation by sharing my pre-medication experience and empathizing with this “crazy” stranger. And maybe his ex is bipolar and maybe that’s why she did some things that he found to be confusing, hurtful, heartbreaking, manipulative, and/or cruel. That’s often the context I hear the word “crazy” thrown around- when someone baffles us or hurts us or is maybe just inconvenient. Because “crazy” is a cultural term of convenience, one that so quickly strips the subject of logic and potential empathy.
Hopefully I don’t need to explain why mislabeling others or using disorders as figures of speech is not only ignorant but furthers the stigma of mental illness far more than we realize. While I don’t correct this every time I witness it (with how pervasive this in our culture, it would be exhausting) I or someone else touched by mental illness definitely hears it. Sometimes there’s just that perverse pleasure when I hear someone derisively call someone “crazy,” “bipolar,” “alcoholic” or any other term that actually applies to me (“ah yes, please tell me more about this mental illness that you have no idea I’ve experienced.”) Sometimes it just frustrates me to hear someone use “anorexic” to describe someone’s appearance or “OCD” to describe type-A tendencies. It depends on the context, I guess, though neither reaction is at all positive.
And let’s be clear here. I 100% admit that I have used the descriptor “crazy” in the aforementioned way far more often than I should. It’s so much easier to see someone who is purposefully trying to hurt me and reduce them to this societally-accepted caricature of capital-C Crazy without a cause or a cure. Admittedly, I’m currently writing this haltingly, as I have my own unresolved situations and scenarios that are applicable to this topic. But I also know that there is someone (or more likely, quite a few someones) out there who has the same mixture of resentment, contempt, and disdain in their guts when thinking of me.
In previous years of active addiction and the Great Manic-Depressive Swing of 2014, my symptoms brought about a wide-range of casualties, whether I intended it or not. And so I know from a breadth of firsthand experience that hurt people hurt people. I know that very little of people’s actions and decisions are a reflection of me or my choices. In realizing this, it’s become natural to not react, which for me is a revolutionary act. Does my understanding make someone’s attempt to hurt me into an okay decision on their part? Hell no. Does that understanding make me okay? Yes, minus a few grumbles I can iron out on my own time. Does that attempt make the other person crazy? Well, that’s an entirely different topic. Someone choosing to be toxic or cruel is not automatically synonymous with someone who is also crazy.
What I mean to say is this: these crazy people we keep incorrectly referencing- these folks with mental illnesses- are… well, people. I’d be shocked to find someone whose life has not been touched by mental illness, whether it’s their own or a loved one’s. I have had such an extraordinary response to my posts on here, both in person and online. Opening up about my recovery has been one of the best decisions I’ve made in the past few years. However, it has produced a fear: am I accurately portraying the experience of life with a mental illness? Not to say that I’m the Lorax speaking for all the trees; mental illness is far too varying and subjective to be confined to a single narrative. But I have made a point to only write about topics that hold a certain resolution for me. At the beginning of WHSH, I decided this because hope is such a powerful tool but then again, so is my pride. So for the sake of humility and honesty, the material here may appear darker than usual. But I promise the hope is there. Just hear me out, okay?
It’s been a whirlwind couple of months, y’all. I not only got into graduate school to work on mental health advocacy but I’ll have some of my family close by again once the fall semester starts. After almost two years of tedious first and second dates- which, to be fair, has led to some great friendships and interesting stories- I met a very unexpected but wonderful person. I had an astonishingly positive yearly review at work, I attended a local music festival, I won tickets to another festival, I’m volunteering doing something I love at yet another major music festival, I had a job interview this past week, I’m planning an international 2017 trip with my boyfriend, I feel increasingly closer to my friends and family, I’m choosing every day to not practice toxic relationship habits I’ve had in the past, I’ve handled some strange and stressful situations with grace, humor, and a clean conscience, and it’s been over a month since my last depressive swing, which came and went without consequence. I am what most would consider stable, successful.
Everything in my life is eerily good right now. But that doesn’t make me any less crazy. It doesn’t cancel out my mental illness. Sure, it’s so much easier to cope with my set of mental health circumstances when things are going my way. I’m far less likely to have a severe flare-up of symptoms but that doesn’t mean it’s not a part of my daily life in some way, however minor. Good day or bad day, happy or sad, I still have a mental illness.
So while I really do appreciate when people tell me I’m strong for my recovery, I get this sinking pit in my stomach every time I hear one of those compliments. Because I feel that I’ve misled neurotypical folks who read this blog or interact with me or have just heard my story. This life I have isn’t an end product, a happy ending, or a finish line. It’s not about strength or perseverance. Whether I’m in calm waters or the middle of the storm, I’m just doing what I can to keep on keepin’ on. The people that we sensationalize, glamourize, or demonize with the word “crazy,” that’s all we’re doing. We’re just trying to do the best we can with what we have at our disposal. And a good amount of us are flying under the radar. That’s right, friends. The legendary crazy folks- we’re walking among y’all every damn day.
Each set of the above pictures was taken on the same day, sometimes within the span of a few hours. The left images show me in the midst of a depressive swing, some deep and some quickly passing. The right shows the image that I present to the public. In the first, I had just run to the store. In the second, I was in the car, about to start my car and drive to work. In the third, I was going to a party with some friends. They aren’t false or forced but they sure aren’t the whole picture. Can you guess which images I chose to post to social media and which I chose to omit?
Here’s the thing: both are a part of life with a mental illness.
Mid 2014 to early 2015 was quite honestly one of the hardest times in my recovery. I had to figure out how to talk to my parents about my severe depression because I was battling with suicidal ideation on no insurance. I was embroiled in the tail end of a toxic relationship with someone who was not a mental health professional and therefore not equipped to deal with all the shit I was heaping on him. Fellow recovering addicts and alcoholics were obviously baffled with how to handle my inexplicable crying jags in support group meetings, which was an extremely alienating feeling that I do not blame them for in the least. After finding a psychiatrist, it took about six months to adjust to my medication. Every time a depressive swing hit in that time, I felt like not only a failure but completely incurable, chronically hopeless. I considered it a victory when I felt up to wearing eyeliner, much less washing my hair. My days were spent trying not to cry too obviously at my desk during office hours and then coming home to collapse in bed. I often questioned if I was well enough to properly take care of my pet- yet knowing he needed me was sometimes the only thing that kept me going another night. There was this incredible physical weight that made it difficult, if not impossible, to walk at times. And of course, there was the bizarre juxtaposition turned awful cycle of extreme exhaustion and unrelenting insomnia. Can you guess how much of this time I shared about on my blog or social media channels?
Here’s the thing: it’s a part of my life with a mental illness. It’s not the entirety of my recovery, no, but an important part that I can’t afford to gloss over.
The following pictures were taken over the course of December 2014 to April 2015. I had hoped to one day write a post of this nature but didn’t actually commit until viewing a friend’s presentation this past Friday on selfies, the self we portray, the self we feel, and the self others see. It’s important to own all parts of our story, not just for others but for ourselves. Even if it’s not completely resolved, even if it’s ongoing and ugly and messy and nonlinear. That’s what life with mental illness looks like sometimes.
Successfully coping with a mental illness in the eyes of society doesn’t make that mental illness any less real, valid, or present. And flying under the radar, managing to hide an onslaught of relentless symptoms, that doesn’t make our recovery any less valid either. So often in the recovery community, not to mention social media as a whole, we only see the shiny, pretty parts of the process. Sharing these parts are so important because it gives others hope that we do recover, that we do lead some wonderful lives despite our brain chemistry.
But I personally feel that it also can suggest that my life with mental illness is all sunshine and cups of coffee, which isn’t entirely accurate. Recovery can be ugly and painful and embarrassing and uncomfortable. And I think it’s important to remember that despite that, it’s worth it ten times over. Recovery is feeling all of it- our perceived good and bad- and continuing onward despite. Recovery is a continuing, ever-evolving sum of all the parts, not just the ones people deem “crazy” and not just the ones that we consider pleasant enough to advertise. You are worth so much more than just your struggles or your victories. I’ve found they can end up being less mutually exclusive than we think.
Be kind. Live authentically. Practice gratitude. Hustle daily. Work hard. Stay humble.
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