Some days, it’s all a bit too much. It starts with a nagging voice in the back of my head and it ends with a deep drop in the pit of my stomach. And suddenly (or sometimes, slowly), nothing is OK. That’s the thing about living with a debilitating mental illness – you just never know when you might lose control. All I’m left with on days like this is a constant, dull ache and a loneliness that is both empty and impossibly heavy. I can’t always pinpoint what it is that makes me feel this way – and, for many months now, I’ve managed to use techniques I’ve learned in therapy to avoid any relapses into full blown depression. But today…it’s all a bit too much.
It’s a strange thing, this whole living with mental illness thing. I always find myself telling young people I mentor, or my friends who suffer from similar illnesses, that there is no shame in being a sufferer. Just as you don’t blame someone if they have a serious physical health condition – it is never the sufferer’s ‘fault’ if they have a mental illness. Sometimes, however, I feel like I repeat these things to convince myself, more than the people to whom I’m speaking. Because, in reality, I know that there is a horrible stigma surrounding mental illness, and this stigma silences me more than I’d care to admit. I know that after finishing this post, my cursor will hover over the “Share” button much longer than it should. But, this is me – diving into the deep end.
Tonight, I really wish I could call someone and talk to them. But the one person who might understand lives 5,000 miles/5 time zones away, and is probably asleep. I wonder what it says about me that in the 2500+ people I know well enough to be friends with on facebook + twitter, I feel like I have one single person who I can be sure will pick up the phone if I called right now…I suppose this is why it is important for me to share this post and break my own silence.
A few years ago, I worked for 13 months with US veterans who were returning from their second or third tours of Iraq and Afghanistan. I worked mainly as their first respondent psychological contact and relayed any psychological issues they were having to the mental health professionals that our organization was affiliated with. Time and time again, the issue of the lack of understanding from family and friends would come up. Not simply the lack of understanding about the experience of war (which is, admittedly, near impossible for any non-combatant to ever fully comprehend) but also an inability to understand the experience of living with PTSD, living with depression, living with Dissociative Identity Disorder – basically, living with mental illness. Our training expressly forbade us to ever share our personal health history (physical or mental) with our patients, so I had to constantly fight the urge to stand up and yell “PREACH!” during so many of my sessions. Those feelings of isolation and self-censorship and invisibility in front of those you love were all too familiar.
I’d like to believe that people care about each other. Despite all the proof in the world that suggests otherwise (especially, right now), I’d like to believe humanity is compassionate and empathetic. Even on days like today, when I’m tempted to hate the world as a result of my own isolation and also everything that is happening globally – I can’t. But, I also believe we can do a much better job of caring for and protecting the people that we love, especially the more vulnerable folks who suffer from mental illness. To me, it’s quite simple – just as you would try to understand and empathize when someone you love is physically hurting, do the same for someone when their mental illness takes over their spirit. Oftentimes, know that their body is pushing desperately hard to stay alive, while their mind slowly closes in on them.
“Understanding” means not belittling them when they are ‘irrationally’ sad or anxious or frightened. Understanding means never calling them “crazy”, even in the middle of the worst fight. Understanding means being attentive to when they are acting differently, embracing the fact that your loved one probably doesn’t quite get why he/she is acting or feeling this way – but being compassionate anyway. Understanding means never knowingly provoking them into reacting badly. Understanding means never pushing them purposefully into situations which may trigger flashbacks and result in psychosis or psychological distress. Understanding means respecting silence and distance. Understanding means knowing that your loved one carries around a condition that might make them feel like they’re constantly on the edge of drowning. Understanding means being patient, supportive, and kind so that they don’t actually drown. Understanding is encouraging them to seek professional help and/or spaces where they can be vulnerable and share their experiences, without ever feeling judged or maligned. Understanding is giving someone time to heal. Understanding, above all, means making your loved one feel safe – reminding them that they may be different from you, but that that difference does not make them weak.
It was 38C (100F for you Amreekans) and super sunny here in Southern California. Your bog-standard “beautiful day”. The thing about mental illness though is that I went through today feeling like I was in the middle of a torrential downpour, alone without an umbrella or any shelter in sight. (Sorry for my use of the hackneyed weather metaphor, it’s been a long day :P) Logic (or urban legend) might tell you that writing down all my thoughts would make me feel better and I should end this post on a happy note – but the truth of the matter is, it doesn’t and I won’t. The dark rain clouds (sorry, again) and all-encompassing sadness haven’t mysteriously disappeared because of this blog post. The trauma from my past and the damage it has done doesn’t magically erase itself because of me sharing my thoughts. Sadly, that’s not how mental illness works. This post won’t make me or (chances are) anyone else feel miraculously happy – but, the thought that even one person might read this and start a conversation with me or themselves or a loved one about mental illness is more than enough for me.
In the mean time, I’m off. Retreating under the covers with a good book and good music (this and this, tonight) has forever been my favorite escape. Tomorrow is a new day. I can’t guarantee that it will be better, but I will certainly be stronger.