I confess I had the same stereotypes about mental illness as almost everyone else. I never wanted to be "crazy" and dreaded other people finding out that I was mentally ill.
People who are mentally ill are thought to be crazy in our culture, they are disqualified from many military functions and wouldn't last a minute running for public office. Other children don't like "crazy" children either.
I think we always fear the most what lives inside of us.
We want our politicians to be "sane," that is, devoid of empathy, compassion or compromise, but resolute about never seeking help for their problems.
Psychiatrists will tell you that the mentally ill are usually quite sane, quiet, law-abiding and empathetic.
I hope so, as I am one of the mentally ill. I came out in 2007, when I started this blog. I knew I had to write about it or perish.
It is critical for people with mental illness to talk about it honestly, since no one else really does, and I realized this weekend, as I sunk into an old but familiar black cloud, that I have stopped writing about it or referring to it. Anna Freud wrote that panic attacks occur when people lie to themselves, and I stopped doing that, and have not had a panic attack since.
This weekend, I lied about the challenges of being suddenly alone, my rituals and practices disrupted.
I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorder when I was a teenager and I went to a non-profit mental health clinic without my parent's knowledge, they were terrified of admitting, even that their kids had troubles, though they both were ill themselves.
They refused to get help for me or my sister and forbid us to get it ourselves.
I disobeyed them, and perhaps saved my life. Imagine how difficult for a 15-year-old boy to take himself to a shrink for help.
Mental illness runs in my family, it is a chronic disease that is often passed along.
Today I felt down, alone, anxious and vulnerable, signs of my illness that has been dormant for some time now.
I was in treatment more or less continuously for more than 30 years, and am not in treatment now, nor am I on any medications. I am proud of that, I worked hard to get there.
I should have known of course that two powerful triggers – Maria being on the other side of the earth, being alone in some blizzards, and my computer crashing with so much of my creative life stuck inside – should have alerted me, but nobody wants to be mentally ill, and I am always happy to put it aside and declare it over.
I don't see myself as fragile, but there is no reason to be stupid either. I should have seen it coming.
When I met Maria, I had broken down almost completely and barely survived, we have been so supportive and loving to one another, this has been profoundly healing in and of itself. Her belief in me gave me strength and motivation.
I told a friend that the wonderful thing about my marriage is that Maria knows I am crazy and does not care.
My computers have enabled me to live on my farm and sent my voice and work out into the world.
As Steve Jobs intended, my technology has expanded my creative life, I speak in voice, image and word. Losing it, even for a few days, is jarring for someone like me, even though I relentlessly pretend to be above that kind of worry, and often am.
And once again, I am alone, as I have so often been in my life. It is familiar to me, but also sad.
I started this blog out of my illness, i realized that I could always write my way through depression and anxiety, that is how I moved forward and stayed grounded. Writing is how I figure out what and how I feel. I don't always know. My reader's acceptance of me was profound, and encouraging.
As is my natural default position, I shied away from acknowledging the illness in recent years. I just don't talk about it or write about it. That is another form of hiding.
In 2007I didn't hide my mental illness, I wrote about it openly. I had no choice.
The sky did not fall and people did not flee me or my work. When you get to know people, half of them or more have one kind of mental illness or another. It is not really that big of a deal.
It is risky to talk about cures, miracle or others, for mental illness. For most people, it never completely goes away.
My whole life I have gone alone to the movies when I needed to hide and feel safe, ever since I was 9 years old. Maria was not only 8,000 miles away, she was out of touch. I started getting restless in the late morning, I started looking for movies online. In the afternoon, I drove to Williamstown, Mass. to see "La-La-Land" for the third time.
I love the music, but also the message. Here's to the people who dream, foolish as it may seem.
I see the movie as toe-tapping and energetic, but today it seemed sad to me, a movie about heartbreak and struggle as well as success and glory. I love my creative, but it has been long and hard. I don't want to complain about it, it was my choice, but I don't want to lie about it either.
On the way to Williamstown, I listened to the new Alison Krauss album, Windy City. Last night, I thought it was uplifting and affirming, today it seemed sad and mournful. I started to think of the two children I lost some years ago. Okay, I thought, we're on that path. I could feel myself sliding downhill.
I realized some old ghosts were coming back.
After the movie, I walked the streets for a bit, then got some Thai take-out to take home, wandering around alone was a hallmark of my life, since I was eight years old. It is a sure sign I am slipping into some darkness, where I spent so much of my childhood.Of course, the long walk on the windy dark streets.
Feeling lost, shut out, alone, sorry for myself.
When I was 16, I remember asking the shrink if I was crazy.
Yes, he said, I'm not going to lie to you, I don't use that word, but in a way you are, you have some mental illness. You will need to get help. It was the first time I was sure. I sought out help and never stopped getting it. I saw analysts, therapists, psychologists, spiritual healers, shamans.
I never quit on myself, I was determined not to end my life in a hopeless and empty way.
And it worked. I recovered to the point that I could fall in love and have a healthy relationship. My work is stronger than ever, and more diverse. My blog is robust and growing. The dread panic attacks have gone. I am no longer a valium addict, I sleep under my own auspices. I have not seen a therapist for six or seven years, I would go back in a flash if I needed to.
Tonight, I came home, took some deep breaths, walked the dogs, sat by the fire and ate my steamed dumplings and shrimp fried rice. I listened to the silence, always healing for me.
Maria called and the first thing she said was "are you okay? You sound down." She could hear it in my voice. I was down, I said, it never does good to lie about mental health or hide from it.
With all that's going on, no wonder you crashed, she said. But I corrected her. I did not crash. This was nothing like a crash. This was a quiet little funk. It was inevitable, necessary. But not a crash, not nearly a crash. The mere word sent a shiver down my spine.
"I slipped into a funk today," I said, "I think it was the movie." Was it her being gone, also? Sure.
This all got me thinking of own suffering and loss, the painful struggles of the creative life, the things I wanted to do that I never did and may never do, lost friends, failures and humiliations. And then I sat and thought about how far I have come. I felt strong, proud of myself.
The hopelessness I carried about like a shroud is gone. The difference is, I know I will feel good in the morning. That was not something I ever knew.
And look how far I have come. A book contract. A loving relationship. No therapy. No pills. No panic attacks. An increasingly sane and productive life. I know now that I can not have a healthy relationship with an unhealthy person, and I no longer try.
I am increasingly surrounded by loving, empathetic and nourishing people. They ground me.
I have learned how to recognize my illness when it recurs, and deal with it myself. I know how to get help when I need it. And I do get help when I need it. There is help. And it helps.
Mental illness is not the end of the world.
I am already feeling better and more grounded. Just writing this helps.
Being alone this weekend seemed too familiar to me, an old feeling and habit, and I don't have my computer to hide behind, which is a good and healthy thing. Telling Maria was helpful. She isn't gone, she is coming back.
I don't have to ask people if I'm crazy any more, I have accepted it and am good with it.
Crazy people learn how to be sensitive and empathetic, their survival depends on it. You almost have to be crazy to be a writer at all, all kinds of things dancing in my head. This funk is cleansing, inevitable, really, given all the disruptions of the week.
I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder some time ago, and certain things will trigger it. I have to be alert and self-aware. Vigilance is not a natural state for me.
This week was almost certain to trigger it. It is so important to be open about it, there is no shame in it. My illness gave me the strength to be strong and get help and work my way through it, it took a lifetime and it will never, I imagine, be finished with me.
The idea is control, not cure.
The most common forms of mental illness are major depression, anxiety disorder, and Bipolar disorder. When I was first diagnosed, it was anxiety disorder, although I did suffer from major depression for a few years and was medicated for it.
That seems to be gone. My illness is a gift, it has connected me to people, forced me to be self-aware, forced me to get help, fueled my compulsions to write and create, connected me to Maria in a very powerful way. Taught me the importance of compassion.
I think it even helps me communicate with animals.
I wanted to share this with you tonight because I haven't mentioned it in a long time, and I know the consequences of hiding it. It nearly cost me a lifetime. Tomorrow, I pick up my computer, work on my book. Move ahead. Happy to share, thanks for letting me.