I need to make a few things clear. The first is that the people who love me and care about me and may read this should not be worried. I’m okay. I’m better today than I was six months ago or a year ago. This is part of me moving to a new phase in my life, one which will involve you not having to question whether or not to worry about me. If you have to worry about me, you’re going to know it. I’ve spent a good deal of my life hiding things for the benefit of the people I care about, along with shame. I’m not going to get to be able to live my own life, as fully as I can, as the human being I am, if I continue to do that.
This is the answer to the question of “why keep living?” Because of everything I’ve tried, I am understanding now, I haven’t tried just being as authentic as I can, in part because I’ve been attributing personality traits to myself that aren’t personality traits, they’re symptoms of a mental illness I had no name for. Whatever pain or discomfort may come of that authenticity, and the vulnerability which necessarily accompanies it can’t really surpass what’s already come without being authentic and therefore, to some degree, vulnerable. It’s genuinely a matter of not having anything left to lose, and everything to gain.
The second thing that needs to be clear is that I’m not looking for affirmations. I don’t need to be told I matter. I don’t need sympathy. I don’t need pity. I don’t need or want any of that. I don’t expect responses. I would like to hear from other people who are living with similar experiences, but that’s about as much response as I’m even interested in.
What I want, is to live authentically.
The problem with me living authentically is that I’m someone who has a mental illness. I’ve learned in the last few years that I have PTSD. I’ve learned I’ve been living with PTSD in varying states of acuity around thirty years, give or take a few. I’ve understood it to be major depression and generalized anxiety disorder. The functional difference is that there are other symptoms I didn’t understand were symptoms and none of this is the result of chemical imbalances in my brain. They’re the result of a childhood experience which changed the way my brain matured. A childhood trauma. The entire basis of what makes me a person and specifically the person I am, the way my brain processes and responds to the stimuli in my environment is different from the brains of people who didn’t experience some kind of significant childhood trauma.
I’m 42, and I’m now coming to understand that some of what has been a part of who I am, for 3/4 of my life, has been symptoms of a mental illness. These are things which have become stitched into who I am. I’ve spent thirty years tending to, adjusting and trying to perfect strategies and coping mechanisms, for things I thought were personal deficiencies, lack of intellectual capacity or moral fiber. The depression and anxiety I could identify, and I know the symptoms which come with those are exactly that, symptoms. They’re not things I’ve continued to internalize as things which are just failures in my efforts to be a more decent, productive human being or something.
A feature of PTSD for me, is hypervigilance. This is one of the features I picked up on as a difference between myself and other people very early and just attributed to being some personality quirk. Hypervigilance is the constant monitoring of people’s emotional states and my environment so that I can gauge what the likelihood of violence and confrontation is. When people are agitated, when their emotional balance is disturbed, the likelihood of violence rises. There is a significant part of my unconscious dedicated to monitoring this in every environment I’m in, on a second to second basis.
What I didn’t know until recently, is that I’m basically monitoring the emotional state of people around me from second to second, from their tone of voice, vocal inflection, posture, their breathing to how much they’re making eye contact with me or others. People get professional training for what I do unconsciously. If I don’t know everyone in a room relatively well and can’t be relatively sure the capacity for violence is very low, I’m legitimately incapable of relaxing. I’m one dropped glass or too loud voice away from a low grade anxiety attack. If the loud voice happens to be from an actual confrontation, and not from someone just being enthusiastic about something, if I don’t leave, there will be an anxiety attack which will not be low grade.
If something about someone suggests to me they may be more likely to become involved in a confrontation, I’m incapable of stopping myself from checking on their proximity to me and the people in the room I care most about, every few minutes. If I feel like they’re too close, I’ll try to move me and “my people” away or I’ll start monitoring the person more frequently, so that I’ll be able to see whether they’re headed toward the level of distress that is their jumping off point to confrontation. Put me in a loud, crowded place where I don’t know the staff and/or the overwhelming majority of people in attendance, and if I haven’t taken a prescription anti-anxiety pharmaceutical, I will be noticeably drunk by the end of the night. If I don’t have an anti-anxiety medication I’m probably not going to be there long. The amount of anxious energy I have in those situations could probably power the entire block the building is on, and after an hour or two, it’s not excruciating, but a maddening feeling of electric impulses racing through my entire body, non-stop. This manifested itself as a substance abuse problem when I was younger. Alcohol definitely helps tamp down anxiety, it unfortunately aids in ramping up depression. After many years sober, and participating actively in 12 step program, it never really got better. Whatever spiritual problems I may or may not have, arise from being mentally ill, and spending my entire life attempting to appear as if I am not.
These ways of monitoring and watching everything around me are not choices I’m making. I can choose to be aware of it now, since I understand what it is that’s happening, and I can employ breathing and relaxation techniques when necessary, but none of that is going to stop me from stealing looks around the room, constantly. My subconscious is working on the puzzle of how safe any given environment is, any time I’m not in my house. It’s like blinking. I can be aware of it. I can make it happen more often if I concentrate on it. I can put it off if I concentrate on it too. I do not have the choice about whether or not it happens though.
To the contrary of what happens with many people as they age and mature, I’ve grown less tolerant. As a young adult, I was able to be in environments where the norms were far from my own ideas about what my standards of conduct are. I do not do hyper masculine environments well anymore. My “spidey sense” about instability and the possibility for physical danger will be constant, and now that I’ve aged out of having anything to prove to myself about how much I can tolerate being deeply discomfited, I have no use for them. Besides which, when I can only consciously fight my own “fight or flight” instinct for so long, and the older I get, the shorter the length of time I can fight it becomes.
One of the other repercussions of hypervigilance, aside from the obvious, is that I require an inordinate amount of time by myself, because I’m incapable of not being hyper aware of other human beings when in their presence. It’s exhausting, and I can’t stop it from happening, because I never choose to do it in the first place. The amount of solitude I need makes close personal relationships difficult when I’m even at my best. When I’m at less than my best, it essentially makes them impossible. I can be at my best for a few years, but not indefinitely.
Another part of PTSD, depression and anxiety is that I’ve never slept like a normal person. My sleeping patterns are subject to change at the drop of a hat, and I can enforce some regulation on them, the price being I often operate without enough sleep, which quickly contributes to an elevation in the rates of anxiety and if that lasts long enough, my ability to function at the level I expect of myself becomes impossible, and then depression begins, which both deepens and speeds up the cycle that leads to hospitalization. I’m currently writing this at 3:20 in the morning.
Then there’s the executive dysfunction. Of all the things the revelation of having PTSD has brought, it’s been the most explanatory, and the most crushing. I’ve spent my life struggling with tasks most people have no difficulty with. Don’t ask me to leave something and come back to it. I’m either not going to come back to it in a reasonable time or I’m not going to come back to it at all. Your eight hour day of tasks takes me ten or eleven, because I have to have relatively exact lists to follow, and when there are enough tasks, I have to have lists of my lists. None of this is hyperbole or exaggeration.
I was the kind of kid in school who could test well and gain a competent grasp on subject matter relatively quickly. I was a horrible student though, because there was no way I was getting homework done. It just wasn’t going to happen. I’d genuinely try, and when I inevitably failed, even given any number of strategies to prevent it, I’d give up on even trying. It was taken for laziness or obstinance more often than not. I can’t really describe to you the sinking feeling of trying for the millionth time to explain to a teacher or counselor or parent that homework wasn’t getting done because I just forgot about it. Despite being a kid whose standardized test scores suggested in the third grade that my comprehension and vocabulary were on the level of the average graduate student, school was just one very long, torturous experience. Depression, anxiety, the sense of constant failure and the persistent suggestion I was lazy or obstinate took their toll, until I did become genuinely obstinate, and I’m sure you can imagine how much that helped.
One of the harder things to accept about coming to understand I’ve been living with this for so long is that it’s not like I haven’t had my fair share of exposure to the mental health treatment community. My parents started sending me when I was relatively young, and I’ve seen therapists and been on medications etc. at different intervals since.
It’s not hard to accept that I haven’t been cured or made normal. It’s hard to accept that until now, no one was able to identify all of these symptoms as PTSD. I don’t put that on my parents, at all. They were not professionals studied in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness or emotional disorders. I do put it squarely on the psychiatric profession. They were as inured by the norms and standards as anyone else, and it meant the symptoms I was experiencing were attributed to an unwillingness to meet those standards and norms, in part because of narratives we tell ourselves about youth and in part because of the standard perception of gender norms.
Turns out I wasn’t just forgetting things or being obstinate. As an adult, it can take me three days to do one load of laundry. The number of times I’ve had to run a load of laundry a second time because it has become moldy in the washing machine is comical, and frustrating. I will spend two hours looking for a specific piece of clothing I put in the drier two days before, and have forgotten all about. Sometimes, laundry sits in there until I’m looking for an item of clothing that I put in, and only remember it’s been put into the washer or drier because I’m looking for it, which is the reminder the laundry was even begun.
It takes me fifteen minutes to leave the house if I’m going somewhere that I need a particular set of items for, like say a grocery list, my wallet, and re-usable grocery bags. I’ll pick up my wallet, remember that I need the grocery list, and go get it. In the process of looking for the grocery list, I’ll set down my wallet. When I find the grocery list, I’ll start making sure the re-usable bags are in the car or that I have enough of them for the trip. I may put the grocery list down in the process. I’ll head out to the car, put the bags in. Then I’ll realize I don’t have the list and come back in. I’ll get the list, be in the process of locking the door again, and realize I put my wallet down somewhere, and need to go find it. If the environment I’m living in isn’t relatively neat and free of clutter or I don’t put everything I might possibly use back in the exact same place every time, I can spend a few hours a day in these processes. Clutter and things being just kind of tossed around is like a cognitive interference signal.
I’ve been like this all of my life. This is not “I can never find my keys.” I know what that is, because I don’t actually have that problem anymore. I have a specific place my keys go as soon as I come in the door. A bunch of the things like keys, have specific places they go. My wallet goes on my desk. My phone stays with me. My laptop either goes on my desk, an end table next to the couch or the table on the porch I often sit at to write, when the weather allows. Last time I took my laptop to the library, I came home, had some lunch and spent 30 minutes searching the house for it. It was in the backpack I took to the library. If I use it everyday, it has a place or I’m going to end up spending more time looking for it than would ever really be necessary for someone not experiencing cognitive dysfunction.
What I was taught was “daydreaming” isn’t daydreaming. It’s a subtle form of disassociation. I check out. I don’t even know I’ve checked out. I can experience it as something like wandering thoughts. I’m not even be aware of it in the moment. Then, suddenly, I realize there’s been some period of time that I have lost. I was tuned in to this conversation, but now I have no clue where the conversation has gone, and I don’t remember anything that was said for some period of time. This has gotten exponentially worse since Unite The Right in Charlottesville, it was seeking treatment because of this which brought about the realization that I’ve had PTSD for 3/4 of my life.
It’s really disconcerting when you’re sitting at a desk, and suddenly, you come back to “reality” and realize twenty minutes have passed and you have no clue what you’ve been doing, if anything. It’s almost as bad when you realize you got up to do something, and you’ve then spent some indiscriminate amount of time wandering around your own house, because you “come to” standing in a room and have to remember why you had gotten up from where you were sitting in the first place. There is something good about it though. I often make coffee when I’m on autopilot. I’ve switched to almost exclusively decaf, because drinking too much coffee is terrible for the anxiety issue. I often find a pot of freshly brewed decaf I have no recollection of brewing, though I occasionally find the coffee pot on, fresh grinds in it, and no water poured in the machine. At some point, I wandered into the kitchen, didn’t complete the coffee making process, and wandered out.
One of the fun new aspects of disassociation since 2017 has been getting somewhere and not having a memory of the journey there. At some point in the drive/ride (I’m a motorcyclist), I check out, and that means I end up at my destination, with no memory of the journey there. I don’t experience anything like a noticeable difference as I’m on my way. It’s just this sudden lost period of time. When I drive cars, I’ve started missing highway exits. I’m watching the road, and the other drivers, and all of that, my safety record is excellent, but somewhere in there, it’s either too much for my mind to hold altogether or I’m also getting too close to thinking about something “not good,” and then suddenly I’m watching as I pass my exit because I won’t cut over two or three lanes of traffic to get in the exit lane at the last minute. This doesn’t seem to happen nearly as often on motorcycles and scooters, and I think it’s because of the constant physical input keeping me very consistently connected to my body and my place.
I’ve made my living almost exclusively in customer service and sales. It made perfect sense as a young person to levy my preternatural ability to be “good with people.” Now, I realize what I’ve done is turned one of the damaging and destructive symptoms of my mental illness into my exclusive source of income. What’s possibly worse is that while employers and really, capitalism generally, love the features that come with the hypervigilance, they sure as hell actively dislike pretty much all of the other symptoms. Throw in the fact that I spent all of August 12, 2017 watching hundreds of MAGA hatted fuckheads kicking the living shit out of anyone they wanted to, and then witnessed a murder, and I’m not real into using my talents for making people feel valued and comfortable for some C.H.U.D. spouting whatever the latest shitposters talking point is. Refusing to make people like this feel comfortable and valued, even though my entire being perceives them as a threat for very good reason, really makes for a lack of value to the most merciless god, Profit.
This has also resulted in a new addition to the hypervigilance. I catch myself studying tattoos, looking for anything which might be a symbol for the various identified hate groups or that are connected to their ideologies. I have to stop myself from staring at strangers arms or necks or what have you, and then be constantly aware so that I don’t keep trying to check again. I’ll be in conversation, and searching for a word or trying to remember some factoid or piece of trivia and become aware that I’m trying to see what people’s tattoos are again.
These things are all part of who I am. Yes, I can develop strategies so that my symptoms effect my quality of life less, and I can develop strategies which can help me to be “productive” to some business or another. I’m in no way exaggerating though when I say that in the last few years it has come to mean having to have strategies for my strategies, as in lists to make sure I am able to complete lists they list, like Russian nesting dolls of lists. It gets Kafka-esque, fast, even when I’m in a relatively good period. In the periods where depression is also a consistent issue, it gets worse, depending on how bad those symptoms are. Coming to is bad enough. Coming to and immediately wrangling with a stream of consciousness dedicated to convincing you that you are worthless, at best, and at worst should commit suicide because you just checked out (without consciously deciding to) is a real adventure.
Those are symptoms I’ve come to realize recently are features of mental illness. Through most of my life, I thought they were just deficiencies in my personality. The things I’ve always known to be part of mental illness, the anxiety and the depression have all different symptoms.
Today, I went to this coffee shop where I’m now employed, to train in the preparation of their drinks. I’m lactose intolerant. As I trained, they suggested I try the drinks so I would know how to describe them or how to modify them if a customer wanted them less sweet, more bitter or what have you. It didn’t occur to me at all that I’m lactose intolerant. I was there, drinking a whole bunch of dairy products before they started taking their toll. It just didn’t even cross my mind that I’m lactose intolerant until the familiar feeling of cramping started in my stomach. You might not know anything about lactose intolerance, I can tell you, the level of pain and discomfort it creates are not something other people who experience it just forget about and drink lots of milk by mistake.
The last month or so has been pretty good on that front. It’s been an improvement. As the depression and anxiety have abated, I’ve had less of the executive dysfunction issues, which is great, and my mood has generally been better.
Two days ago though, I was coming up on the time to get ready to leave for this new job, because I can’t continue to hope disability is going to come through soon enough or that I’m somehow going to write the exact thing that is going to blow up, maybe lead me to start making a living writing. In the span of about thirty minutes, I became utterly convinced that none of what I’ve done or put effort into in my life has been worth anything. A significant part of me was completely sure all of the people in my life I would consider are closest to me, actively dislike me, and in some cases would find pleasure in undermining me. They’d certainly all be happy if I just wasn’t around for them to have to deal with. It’s a pretty bottomless despair, and it’s always paired with anger. It doesn’t always have any rational connection to anything. In a case like this, I can point to the new job and understand some level of discomfort and worry is expected. The level that’s expected for me is, everyone I know would be better off without me and my life is meaningless.
That’s the wonderful cocktail that is anxiety and depression mixed together. In that time, it’s almost impossible to believe I may feel differently again at some point. Today was pretty good though. I got to the new job and started today’s training regimen, and it subsided. These episodes can last days sometimes, and if the strategies I have to deal with them either don’t work or I’m not aware of how bad it’s getting, it can last weeks, and weeks can turn into months. I’m pretty sure there have been a few periods which have lasted a year or two, after which I end up hospitalized. I have to be very careful about saying“this feeling won’t last forever,” and just pushing forward. It might not last forever, but if I am not aware of the fact that it has been the most persistent of my feelings for a number of consecutive months, I’m in danger. It may last forever or at least the rest of my life, because the end of my life could come up suddenly and at my own hand if I don’t find some help.
In the best of the months or years of my life, the little voice whispering about me and life being worth nothing comes along once a week or so. No matter how good things are, it still manages to worm in. When things are not good, it can be every few hours, and it’s like wrestling with a thought, as in “Don’t think of an elephant.” When things are bad, it doesn’t just come whispering by. It hangs out or a while and persists.
The effort and energy that just goes into trying to make sure I remember to take care of myself in the most basic, fundamental of ways would floor most people if they could actually understand it. If I don’t have reminders on my phone to tell me to eat during the day, I eat one meal a day, at night, after I’ve become so hungry, it’s effecting my mood. The same thing with basic tasks like hygiene. My bedroom, is on the second floor of my residence, the bathroom with the shower is on the first floor. It often takes two or three trips up and back down the stairs just to gather the clothes and a towel to be able to shower and put on clean clothes. It’s another task that becomes far longer than it would be for most people.
Here’s something I’ve realized recently though… I’ve spent most of my life with the feeling that I don’t belong here and that all of these things, some of which I now know are symptoms. What the revelation of PTSD has been teaching me is that I don’t belong here. It’s nothing innate though, and it certainly doesn’t have anything to do with what I put back into society or the like. Those are different ideas. I don’t belong here because people with mental illness don’t belong here. There’s been some progress, but for the most part, we’re still expected to live our lives in the closet or wearing a costume of “normalcy.”
I’m talking about all people who experience mental illness. That all doesn’t just include everyone who has a diagnosis of some kind, it includes people for whom other parts of their identity add to the discrimination and marginalization they experience and the often undiagnosed mental health aggravation of symptoms that results. Mental illness doesn’t discriminate based on race, gender identity, physical ability/disability, sexual orientation, national origin or anything else, but the ways in which we, as a society discriminate against people based on their identity effects the way we make our decisions about availability, cost and accessibility of treatment. Denying treatment is basically just telling people that even if they can get their symptoms mitigated to a degree which would allow them to fit into the narrow norms we have, we don’t care to make even that possible. That, in itself, becomes a vicious cycle of refusing to make treatment within reach, and then using the results of lack of treatment as an excuse to keep treatment out of reach. When this is the status quo, it results in the carceral system being the number one provider of mental health care in the country.
We’ve moved forward to at least beginning to acknowledge that millions of children are experiencing the problems with mental health and development that result from trauma, but acknowledgement and identification is pretty much where it stops. Identification should be a start, but beyond that, we really have nothing for them. We can say, “Well that’s the parents job,” but that’s also expecting parents either have resources or access to what is often extremely hard for people to navigate for themselves, much less while also providing for children. That’s not even taking into account how many parents are trying to navigate all of this, while also having experienced trauma and don’t have access to treatment themselves.
One of the things which allows this to continue is that so few of us live authentically, in the open. We internalize the stigma, and it’s not until far into our lives we stop experiencing feeling ashamed for having an illness. Whether we experience shame as part of our symptoms, has no connection to the fact that we shouldn’t experience shame as the result of stigma lobbed at us by society. It’s in our best interest to stop giving in to it. The fact that we live in secret is a large part of what allows the stigma to continue, and that in turn helps to prevent us all from being able to not only see where our experiences are similar, which means the structural and systematic barriers to being given recognition as human beings capable of participating and as necessary stakeholders in decisions made about our lives.
I have, for a few decades, allowed people to explicitly profit from the fact that I experience hypervigilance, while also feeling ashamed and devalued because of some of my other symptoms and simultaneously being told that it is unreasonable when I’ve expressed feelings of not being safe, as if I could somehow just magically separate them all, if I just tried hard enough.
The thing is, I did try, for a long time. It was essentially me putting on a costume, everyday, and trying desperately to make myself into the thing the costume was supposed to be. I’m never going to be able to do that. As I’ve said, I am able to develop strategies and manage my symptoms so they aren’t as prevalent, a lot of the time, but I’m never going to not have a mental illness. The symptoms will never just be gone for good, and one of the wonderfully ironic things about depression and anxiety as part of who I am is that if I feel badly or ashamed about mistakes in how I manage my symptoms, it means having to dedicate more time and energy to managing them, because the feeling bad about it just makes it worse.
The costume doesn’t fit anymore. I understand now that it’s requirements are too narrow, by design, so that anyone wearing a costume and who doesn’t fit the norms and stringent codes will never be able to fit into one.
I know I’m not the only one trying to make a costume fit either. And among the other kinds of costumes other people have to wear, the code switching among people of color and of ethnicity’s considered outside the norm, the people who feel they need to “pass” when their authentic performance of gender wouldn’t meet our norms, among all of them and many others are people who also have mental illness and are then needing to create entire secondary identities, which by itself is antagonistic to mental health. They have to try to create identities which don’t bring down the stigmas of racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia and the like, and then many of them also have to contend with stitching into that identity a way to create a costume that doesn’t portray their authentic self as someone who has a mental illness.
My costume has outlived it’s usefulness. This is about trying to live authentically. If more of us attempt to do so, it becomes more difficult to require us to live inauthentically, costuming ourselves in a veil of normalcy which means being silent about the many different causes of trauma and mental illness.
When mental illness is brought up, it’s to create more phantoms to frighten the very people we have to attempt to live with. The now ubiquitous arguments about mental illness being the driving factor behind mass shootings, people having been killed or beaten by police in the midst of a mental health emergency, the stereotype of the utterly mentally ill homeless person aggressively ranting at anything and everything, and so on, there is always an aspect of trying to frighten the general public about the dangers of people who have mental illness. In the case of the steadily growing rate of mass shootings, we fail to be willing to address the many other contributing factors like a violence obsessed, xenophobic and racist movement of homegrown terrorists, terribly destructive and violent norms of masculinity, the loss of faith in all of our institutions and the loss of hope in the future that results.
Even as suicide rates are rising among every demographic, most sharply among teens, we treat mental illness as something which doesn’t belong in public. This is to say need to stop making the entirety of the conversation about mental illness when it is a crisis situation. When someone who is a public figure has a crisis or commits suicide, there’s plenty said. That’s not the whole picture though. By not talking about the symptoms of mental illness, the experiences of the people who live with it, in the fullness of the experience, the struggles, the victories, the overwhelming number of days which are neither struggles or victories, but are just about maintaining and monitoring, then those crisis situations or the misdirected blame do become the default where the conversation is concerned, because they are what gets the most attention and they are the only engagement the public has with a conversation about mental illness.
It’s up to those of us who are living with it to start turning the conversation to being about opening the resources which prevent a crisis from arising, and what kinds of resources are lacking in crisis prevention and basic maintenance of our well being and mental health.
The start, for me, is to begin to learn how to live authentically and how to unlearn the desire/need to hide. That’s part of what this is. It’s why I don’t want pity or sympathy. I’d love for people start to talk anyone in their lives who struggles with mental illness. Don’t wait for it to be a crisis. Ask the questions you want to ask. Encourage them to talk to you. Listen. You don’t need to have answers. You’re not a professional. The taking an interest and listening is the answer. Understanding that until the stigma is gone, someone confiding in you is a sign that they value and trust you is important, even if you don’t understand.
There’s always the “check on your friends” etc when someone famous commits suicide. The issue is, if you wait until you feel like there’s something wrong, they’re not going to talk to you about it anyway. It’s about establishing the baseline of comfort, and being willing to listen and pretty much not run away when they tell you what to them are the things they hide because they’re terrified people will run away, so, paradoxically, they end up alone because they never express who they are and how they feel or think, authentically, except on the rarest of occasions. There are probably millions of people out there who don’t really know some of the people they think they do, out of no malice, but just because people with mental illness have specifically been treated like it is exactly those very personal thoughts and feelings they can’t express, because of the stigma and because of how uncomfortable it makes people when we do.
Starting to allow space for people with mental illness to express themselves authentically is the beginning of how this changes and how we get to a place where it isn’t strange or uncomfortable or weird when someone does express something that does relate to their symptoms. There are spaces where the stigma isn’t so heavy, but for the most part, they have to be performative somehow. Most of the way we are able to engage with conversation around mental illness right now, is to treat it as a problem. It’s a kind of warped perspective. Let’s be clear, mental illness sucks, but it’s also something we are probably never going to eradicate. What I’m talking about is a change in perspective from treating people with mental illness as a problem that needs to be solved to instead taking the perspective that people with mental illness are a necessary part of society, who have value.
We’re used to seeing comedians telling jokes about their struggles or advocates going on talk shows to do the same. The point of doing one versus the other is very different, but it is still performative and this is really what we expect of people with mental illness. As a person with mental illness, I absolutely make jokes about it, and I make jokes about myself and my symptoms. It’s part of how I survive with it. A piece like this one is about advocating for something, but let me be clear, my discussion about my own symptoms is less about wanting a reaction from the psychologically/mentally typical population than it is about wanting a reaction from the other people who struggle with mental illness.
There are a lot of us. That alone gives us power. We cross every possible demographic boundary there is. That also gives us power. We’re robbed of that power in part by the stigma that exists, and in part by cooperating with that stigma and being quiet/silent. We are quite literally, everywhere. It’s time we start to understand that we deserve a place to exist authentically without being forced to dance to the organ grinders tune like trained monkeys. We shouldn’t be required to be entertaining in order to make everyone else comfortable, especially when the way society has more or less dealt with us is to say that it’s perfectly fine for us to suffer, as long as we do so silently and we don’t impinge on the convenience of others. We’re expected to not have some level of control over our symptoms, which by itself isn’t terrible, but the definition of “some control” has been, “Don’t make anyone else uncomfortable” and that often means having to live in a way that exacerbates those exact symptoms we’re expected to control. I’d rather be deviant than be that kind of typical, and maybe it’s the fact that I’ve always been a deviant from the norm in this way that gives me the ability to care about what people who are deviant from other norms and standards experience. That price is worth the cost.
It’s time we start to take hold of the power we have. For me, for now, it means I write. I write because it’s therapeutic just to do it. I write because it gives me a way to express myself authentically. I write, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, because as someone who has struggled with mental illness, it’s often been the things other people have written or created which have given me just enough of whatever it was I needed to keep going that day or week or month. I might be screaming into the void. I might also reach others who are both tired of trying to constantly wear a costume that just does not fit and realize that it’s function is completely dedicated to the comfort of a majority which has systematically required we render ourselves non-existent or who need to tie this string to their finger, as the thing that keeps them from going over the edge today.