Mental Illness And Me
I didn't learn until middle age that I was mentally ill, and I can't say if I was born that way or not, but I know now I became ill when I was very young, and was not properly treated until much later. All told, I was in various forms of therapy – talking, psychoanalytic, dynamic social work and medications – for more than 35 years, my treatments stopped just after I married Maria eight years ago.
Someone sent me a jeering message the other day, saying he was a voyeur and Drama Queen just like me, and I thought to myself – this is one of the things I dislike so much about social media, people making assumptions like that without ever having even met me. He needs to buy a police scanner and some binoculars. I've spent most of my life in therapy, and I can tell you there are far worse things about me than that, but being
a drama-sucking voyeur sure ain't among them. Anyone who knows me knows I've had enough drama for a dozen lifetimes, I just hate to even hear the word.
Why do I write about these encounters and interactions? I think my fellow dwellers in this realm know. Because it is dangerous when people invade my space, label me, when amateurs analyze me, when boundaries are crossed. In my interactions with the world, I have become wiser and stronger, I learn every day about myself, and about what I can do and can't do.
I have support from my wife and friends that I never imagined, I have finally shed decades of therapy and decades of medication, for better or worse, I stand on my own two feet, make my own decisions, take responsibility for myself. To be the moving and continuous target that American public life now requires of the creative and the ambitious and the outspoken is both a blessing and a gift. It is disturbing, it is revealing and affirming. I am here, I am very happy and very busy and very productive.
My cardiologist told me just the other day that I had the most precious thing in all of health and medicine – a vital "life force" and a great attitude about life. Great, he said, for someone who had open heart surgery just a few years ago. You will, he said, be around a good while. He could not have known how much that meant to me.
If you are mentally and have spent thousands of hours in therapy and analysis, you might not be normal, but you sure know yourself, good and bad. You know what you are, or you wouldn't be walking around. You have faced worse truths about yourself than anyone could say about you.
And if you can't see the bad, you can never get to the good.
I know not that my mental illness is treatable and controllable, but never completely curable. I am reminded often that I have mental illness, that I need to be aware of it.
This morning, I woke up at 3 a.m. – this is familiar to many people with depression, anxiety, or various bi-polar disorders, anxiety is my disease – and for some reason, began thinking of the opportunities, friendships, life experiences and collateral damage in my life, much of traced to my illness.
My family wanted to know nothing about it, and yet I began asking for help from the time I was 12. I knew something was broken in me, I just didn't know what or how I could live with it. So I went through life like a runaway freight train, crashing through friendships, jobs, relationships, a marriage, fatherhood, and an endless stream of rage, panic and disorientation.
Wherever I was, I needed to be somewhere else. Whoever I was with, I needed to be with someone else. I moved again and again until I finally ended up on a farm in Hebron, N.Y., with nowhere else to run. There, I broke down completely, lost my perspective, gave all my money away, was overcome with delusions.
The good news was that breaking down caused me to face up to myself. I had no other choice: change or die, and I was very close to dead.
My illness was a great gift to me, the greatest. I found the right help, i took it seriously, I worked so hard at it. My very wonderful therapist told me she had never seen anyone work harder.
It's hard work to be crazy, hard work to get sane, or at least sane enough to live with yourself.
I like myself these days, if I don't love me, I can't love anyone else.
I know now that I can manage my life with illness, but i must never forget that I have it. The rage, the panic, the delusions are, I think, a kind of chrysalis, just sleeping below the surface, gathering strength waiting.
They can open up or be triggered in varying degrees by a lot of things, and it is my job to keep track of those things, and of my responses to them. To stay strong and aware. To never tell myself or anyone else that I am cured. There is no cure, of course. My illness can be controlled, it can never completely disappear.
It's sort of like the spiritual journey, you never quite get there, the point is to stay on the path. To be conscious, to be authentic. To be open.
I write this for two reasons, one because it is healthy for me to do so, another because it is important to share the experience.
It is a big deal to be mentally, but not as big a thing as one might think. You can write best-selling books when you are very sick, and get good jobs and fool the smartest people in the world.
More than 43 million Americans suffer from depression, anxiety, or bi-polar disorder. What I learned is that I could be mentally ill and still do my work, be successful, fall in love, have wonderful friends, write 26 books, take lots of pictures, write a blog with millions of views each year.
I can live with this and then some. There is help, and it helps. We crazies can often recognize one another, we are a tribe and a community, we offer support to each other and console one another and offer hope and inspiration to each other. We learn empathy or we pay.
It is so essential to stand up either to the mirror or to the world beyond and said "Look at me. I have suffered from mental illness, and here I am, loving my love, living in happiness, finding meaning. I am hope."
Every day in my therapy work, I see people with illnesses and challenges that cannot be cured, from which there is no recovery.
I get to recover every day of my life. I am both fortunate and blessed, in too many ways to count.
I would not trade this illness for any other, or for a life without it. It has shaped every good word I write, every good thing I do.
Without it, life might have been simpler or easier, but not necessarily better. The dark of night is when the demons dance for people like me, there is nothing to distract them or fend them off.
As was the case this morning, I sometimes wake up in a cold and fearful sweat, shaking and gasping for breath, remembering how close I came to tipping over the edge so many times, and when I finally did, there were angels and magical helpers waiting to help me back to safe ground, just like in the old myths.
The warm and loving body in my bed calms me and grounds me. I remember all those years when there was no one there. It's all right, I tell myself, it's all right. No one else can tell me that. I know how to do that now.
Still, i won't lie, I am sorry for the friends I lost, for the loved ones I hurt, for the dreams I abandoned, for the troubles I fled, and all of the glass that I broke along the way. I was hurting, but hurt other people along the way.
I have sadness but no regrets. I have no apologies to make.
I know who I am and am peace with who I am, at long last and great cost.
I did the best I could for as long as I could, until I couldn't do it anymore.
And then I began to get well.