What happens in our collective mind when we hear the words ‘mental illness’?
That term has changed and evolved dramatically in the past 50 years, more and more rapidly, until in the past decade, in our very present, it has raised vivid crimson flags marked Newtown and Aurora and gun control and massacre.
Mental illness is no longer the elephant in the room; it is the dragon in the Supreme Court, the hellhound in Congress, the fire-breathing, incendiary beast that roars a call to arms on both sides of the political aisle.
But what does a mentally ill person look like?
Are they all deranged, gun-toting isolationist types with Messianic complexes and dangerous temperaments?
Statistically at least, we know better than that. If you’re a US citizen over the age of 18, you have a one-in-four chance of having a diagnosable mental illness (though whether or not you’ve been diagnosed is another story). So the chances are good that a mentally ill person looks a lot like the face staring back at you out of the mirror.
Mood disorders, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, PTSD, ADD, ADHD, eating disorders, autistic spectrum disorders, social phobias, and the list goes on—these affect millions of Americans. They affect people you know and love, whether or not you’re aware of it.
I certainly wasn’t aware—or if I was, I tiptoed around it, and around my friends who had been handed these diagnoses. There’s one thing that hasn’t changed much since the Victorian era—our willingness to talk about mental problems.
I knew a few friends who went to therapists—I was in fact seeing a therapist myself—and had been prescribed an antidepressant for what I thought was clinical depression. However, it wasn’t my favorite thing to talk about over a glass (read: a bottle) of wine. I figured the drug was doing its job and I was doing mine—continuing life as normal. But it never occurred to me that life as normal wasn’t really what 75% of Americans, along with my therapist (who wasn’t really getting the full story from me, for various reasons) would consider normal, at all.
I struggled in junior high—that was the first place I began to notice it, though life wasn’t exactly easy before that either—because when puberty struck, things began to go haywire.
I dropped into deep, dreamy, melancholic places in my mind where death fantasies ruled. I was always dying in strange, lonesome, heroic ways in my daydreams—just your average introverted kid having fantasies about saving the world or being martyred for the sake of others.
But when I dreamed at night, things were different; I was actually killing people. Not accidentally, and not just once in awhile, but in recurring, bloody, deliberate, up-close and personal ways. The victims were always men, and they always died in horrible agony. I stabbed them with knives, ran over them with trucks, tore their throats out with my bare hands, bathed myself in their blood.
Let me make clear that these weren’t nightmares: I awoke refreshed, exhilarated, empowered—ready to take on the day. For an eleven-year-old girl, this was true power. I felt capable of anything after those dreams, though outwardly I was still somewhat shy and reticent, and once the powerful feelings faded I’d go back to my typical quiet, easily-bullied self.
High school brought me out of my shell. I made a few friends, tried a few different sports (basketball was a radical failure but I came away from it with a best girlfriend who was as extraverted as I was introverted).
Soon a pattern began to emerge. At times I was my normal shy, quiet, uncertain self, but now, at times, a new self began to emerge. This one was passionate, fearless, hilarious; she spoke quickly and laughed loudly, was boisterous in class and obstreperous in the hallways. My new gal pal and I quickly formed a small crowd of friends. Everybody knew I was weird and funny and prone to rocket off into crazy jokes and stories and fits of belching.
I loved attention. I’d swoop in on people’s study groups and cafeteria huddles, red-faced and talking a mile a minute. During these phases I had trouble sleeping because I was coming up with schemes for what I’d do and say the next day to make people laugh and garner attention for myself. I was irritable at home, and to keep from getting into fights with my mother (who was single and raising me by herself) I’d shut down into silence, or at best, mumbled communication.
I was often in my room alone, writing about death, fantasizing about it, trying to contain a rage that I didn’t understand. I bit and scratched myself to let it out, or if that didn’t work, I beat my dogs (and then bit and scratched myself to alleviate the horrible guilt I felt afterwards).
College brought no relief from the uncontrolled, elemental nature of my outlook on life. Instead, those years marked the first real depression I’d ever faced. Life had begun a subtle but very real downward spiral.
I never touched alcohol or drugs all the way up through college, but after a whirlwind marriage and divorce marked by emotional and sexual abuse, I set out in earnest to make up for lost time. I experimented with nearly everything, but alcohol was by far my favorite—it calmed me, eased my inhibitions, soothed the beast that seemed eternally present, coiled and snarling, at my core.
By this time, I’d clued in that I needed some therapy. Things were starting to go haywire—I was starting to dip into Badmind, as I called it. I was 27 and having strange hallucinatory moments, where the world would change shape around me, or I would change shape around it—grow instantly enormous, so large I couldn’t enter a building; or instantly tiny, so tiny I couldn’t reach a door handle or find my way out of the car.
This intrigued me and terrified me. The killing dreams continued; I loved them because they made me feel so powerful, but I wondered if there might be something wrong with me—if maybe these dreams were something I should worry about. Was I capable of hurting someone?
In 2004, I moved back to Alaska. By then I had lived everywhere—Washington, California, Arizona, West Africa, Connecticut, Texas—never in one place for more than six months to a year. I was drinking heavily to mitigate the agitation I would feel on a daily basis, which I wrote off as just normal frustration from living life as usual. I waited tables, worked at coffee shops and maxed out my credit cards with trips to India, Africa, Europe and wherever else I could get to.
I felt best when on the move, but Badmind was starting to catch up with me more and more often. I found myself doing things that could get me killed—thoughtlessly, recklessly taking my life into my hands, hurting myself on purpose, making decisions that left me vulnerable, that hurled me onto the precipice between life and death.
I started to feel that life was too small for me. That the planet was too small for me. I started fantasizing about going to the Horsehead Nebula, or to Jupiter, or Io, one of Saturn’s moons. I started telling people stories about things I’d done or said that weren’t true. I listened to myself in disbelief. I was out of control.
In December of 2011, I started having real nightmares. Not just nightmares—not the kind you wake up from and go “phew, I just had a nightmare, glad I’m awake now”—but the kind that followed me into my waking moments, refusing to subside with sleep. The kind that clung to me when I surfaced, gasping for air, and threw my brain into frantic overdrive: here I was, awake in my bed, and here was that other world, that nightmare world, following me still.
I gasped and screamed, night after night, horrified at what my mind was doing to itself.
It was shortly after these dreams began that I came home one night from having a few glasses of wine with a friend, went straight to the drawer where I kept my antidepressants, took out the bottle and dumped the contents into my hand. I had never considered suicide before, and up until that very second, had not planned my actions at all. I looked at the pills. I looked at the empty bottle.
I didn’t want to die, but I did want something to change. I was in pain—my insides were on fire; my brain, I felt, was on fire. I wanted out. I wanted off the planet.
I was crazed with the desire to put the pills in my mouth and swallow them all. I started taking them, one by one.
What stopped me was a glance in the mirror. I looked like a cat that has been chasing a laser pointer for much, much too long. Enormous pupils staring back at me, with nothing behind them. They were the eyes of a creature that was capable of doing anything, anything at all to survive. I dropped the pills and went straight to bed. I called my therapist the next day and told her what had happened.
Badmind, it turns out, is a good name for where I lived, but not the clinical one. I was Bipolar, actually—that’s what the psychiatrist informed me when I was referred to her after telling my therapist about the pills. Bipolar I, with a serving of PTSD on the side; suddenly there was a name for the creature that I was, and there were other creatures like me—an infinitely comforting thought after a lifetime of standing outside alone, wondering how I was ever supposed to feel normal, like everyone else.
This is where society can lend its hands to help us. Help us, as the proverb goes, to help ourselves. We need each other. Twenty-five percent of the population cannot be ignored, feared, marginalized, misconstrued.
We are here, after all, living among you. We are your friends and family and loved ones. We have much to offer, much to teach. You, the seventy-five percent, can help us by starting young, in the classrooms and with good Cognitive Behavior Therapy made available to kids that need it.
Awareness is the first step; teaching parents how to look for the signs that their kids need help, that their child isn’t just a brat or being difficult, but is carrying the seeds of Aspergers or ADHD or OCD. Learning to listen with your whole heart, to give them the extra time they need in school and at home in working their way out of that difficult and damning shell.
My best shot, having been diagnosed later in life, is good psychiatry and a good therapist. One way I know it’s working? I don’t dream about killing people anymore. Instead, I dream about this ever-changing, ever-lovely, ever-unfinished but constantly being rebuilt house that I hope to someday inhabit.
A house called Sanity.
I’m not inside the house yet. Obviously. My recent manic/delusional episode and subsequent hospital stay was a forceful ejection from the place of the eternally sane and grounded. I may never live there full-time. And maybe I don’t want to—I have this fabulous backpack full of epic adventures, ones I’ve already taken and ones I’d like to take, and have no intention of giving up.
There are a lot of pills in that backpack. Pills that I take daily to ensure I won’t find myself on the train tracks at two in the morning, or self-mutilating in the back of a bar someplace, or nightswimming with a broken leg.
But that’s alright, there are others out here with me. We swap tales about our scars. We take out our crumpled, torn road maps and smooth them over our knees and pore through our old adventures, saying watch out for this spot or when you get to this place, try a little of that, and if you get stuck, call me.
We say, I know where you’ve been and what you’ve done, and it’s alright, I understand.
There is comfort in that. It’s not even the threadbare comfort one homeless soul gives to another on a cold night; rather it’s the deep-down comfort of having accepted myself for who I am.
Like any night creature, I will arch my spine, shed any unnecessary weight, turn in midair to face the wind, and begin to soar.
K. Beth (KB) is a writer, singer, and Certified Rolfer who hails from Anchorage, Alaska, when not traveling or living elsewhere to escape the cold and dark. She is also a descendant of the Vikings, a dreamer of waking dreams, a foreteller of her own future and a survivor of her own annihilation. She practices just enough yoga to insert her foot into her own mouth and then remove it again. She loves running, biking, hiking, horseback riding, swimming in the ocean and playing with her fantastic Shetland pony/dog, Benson.
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Assist Ed: Olivia Gray/Ed: Bryonie Wise