New Directions from Old Wounds
Let’s talk about what it’s like to have a severe and chronic mental illness, and live as a male in a society which has until very recently put a premium on a variety of masculinity which is brutally inhumane and deeply unhealthy.
I have a severe and chronic mental illness. I was diagnosed with major depression in my teens. It turns out, after 30 years of attempting to battle depression and anxiety, the more correct diagnosis is PTSD. Depression and anxiety are often the symptoms of PTSD, but PTSD has it’s own fun symptoms as well. It’s not that I haven’t spoken to mental health professionals about my past experiences with trauma, and been honest about basically every aspect of it as the years had worn on. I certainly was. After the first decade of attempting to do battle with my mental illness, I reached a point that I was basically ready to do just about anything.
I can’t speak for the journey anyone else has taken, but I certainly reached a point where the choice was suicide, because the possibility of existing with the level of emotional and mental pain I was living with on a daily basis was unthinkable or I could do absolutely everything and anything to try to combat the mental illness I was living with. Looking back, it’s pretty logical, even though the way it was coming out and presenting at the time was profoundly disconcerting to everyone, including me.
That’s what I did. I spent more than a decade on and off in therapy, and attending a 12 Step program. I threw myself into trying to do the best I could understand to follow the roads to mental health that I could see. I was in therapy on and off, because the failure was always pretty much the same, even though I didn’t quite understand it at the time. I did always have some feeling that in those therapy sessions, we were dancing around the edges of the actual problem. I was continuously being treated for depression, which I did have, but wasn’t the full story. During those years, I stopped attempting to hide anything from mental health professionals out of shame or fear, and not getting much in the way of results was deeply disconcerting and disappointing.
I spent that decade in a 12 Step program for an addiction that I never had. It was self medication. I don’t know if there are fundamental differences between addiction and self medication, in reality, but I’ll give them the respect to say that I apparently wasn’t of “their variety,” even as a good deal of my behavior since adolescence, certainly fit the descriptions they set out for what made someone one of “their variety.” The involvement in that 12 Step program produced some fruit though, giving me tools for self appraisal that I didn’t have previously, and giving me undeniable proof that human beings can just be good to each other and care for each other. Some of the kindest people I have ever had the good fortune to meet or come across were members there, doing their best to be helpful to other people in pain, as best as they could individually and collectively.
As I did heal and I did gain perspective though, there were some things about it which made me feel I was actively helping to threaten people’s well being by continuing to support it. Some of those were directly related to mental illness. Others were directly related to gender. To be blunt, there were aspects which made it patently dangerous for people with severe mental illness, and patently dangerous to women, especially young women, and there was no mechanism by which to address these things directly and aggressively, as they should be. Not shockingly, “gods and great men” are the excuse for the lack of even a mechanism by which to address these things as much there as they are in the rest of the world. Unfortunately, the fact that so many people are going there, lost and in pain, they can be ripe for manipulation and degradation, and even as many human beings can be genuinely decent and good people, many are not.
I went on, and was having what has so far been one of my most successful runs of my life, and longest periods without an acute episode of mental illness. I was even coming to a point where I thought maybe I had beaten it or had at least come to understand the signs and the way it worked well enough to never have to experience another acute episode. I was wrong, because again, I was believing as I’d been told, that I was battling major depression and a generalized anxiety disorder. I didn’t realize I was dealing with PTSD, and accordingly, hadn’t spend a decade researching it and trying to learn how to prevent it from making its contribution to an acute episode.
Think of it this way, major depression is it’s own thing, and something that millions of people struggle with. PTSD is very often like the “Special Edition Director’s Cut” of major depression. The major depression is there, as is the generalized anxiety that so often accompanies it, but there’s also a whole lot of added stuff which really flushes out the story and characterization much more fully. Where PTSD and major depression are concerned, PTSD would be the variety of “Special Edition Director’s Cut” that takes a film which didn’t fully make sense before and is actually emotionally effecting and logically consistent with the additional scenes the “Special Edition” restored.
Now, after having been at Unite the Right in Charlottesville, having seen an entire day of wanton violence, and it’s culmination in dozens severely wounded and one mortally wounded, I’ve garnered a diagnosis of PTSD. More or less the last two years have been an acute episode, even as I previously thought I’d gotten to a point where I could avoid them.
See though, the thing is, the people closest to me would tell you I was beginning to have that acute episode a number of months or a year before Unite the Right, and they’d be correct. It was beginning in the months before, because I was watching young men on the internet, by the millions, responding to their fears about masculinity the way the boys who are the source of the trauma that produced my PTSD responded to the fears they had about their masculinity. It was watching young men by the millions be manipulated into a state of mind that I was familiar with, because it had utterly altered not just my life, but who I am as an individual human being. It was seeing the lack of response by the overwhelming majority of the country. Unite the Right, and the many other incidents of hate which have happened in the last six years have not been a shock to me, at all. That there haven’t been more is what is shocking to me. All of it is based on the preconditions masculinity puts in place in most of the “Western world.” Unite the Right was a logical extension as far as I was and am concerned.
Three decades. I’ve been fighting with a misdiagnosis for three decades. One of the major reasons is that I’m not a combat veteran. Please believe me when I say that I take nothing away from those veterans who have PTSD when I say it’s hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that young men who are generally 18 to 25 can be understood to have PTSD, but that a traumatic incident at around 10 didn’t suggest it could be the driving reality encompassing the depression and anxiety. It was a long time of scientific skepticism, in contrast to mountains of research, which prevented PTSD from being diagnosed beyond combat veterans for a long time. If the trauma from combat can effect someone of that maturation that significantly, why was a combat trauma required to diagnose someone whose trauma happened when they were 10?
Understand, I don’t believe any mental health professional has ever meant me harm, but I know that many of them didn’t actually listen either, and that has resulted in harm. At best, it’s resulted in both those professionals and myself only treating half the illness, which has resulted in my lack of faith in treatment because it wasn’t actually working to treat the underlying problems, which then resulted in acute episodes that are indescribably painful to me and which effect anyone who was even tangentially related to my life.
This is the other thing which seeing millions of young men have their insecurities exploited by the far right resulted in triggering an acute episode. I understand those insecurities very well, and I understand how deeply they can penetrate. The boys who caused my trauma operated on the same insecurities, they come with being raised masculine in good old America. I was watching the far right exploit so many young men, but for me, those insecurities have always been exploited by depression and PTSD. I understand what being young and without direction and the emotional tools to handle an increasingly splintered and disinterested society can drive someone to. For me, it definitely was not Nazism, but it was extreme. I can only really say that a few people who had been through my life had inoculated me from anything like seeing people of other races, genders, nationalities or what have you as the reason for my insecurities or my troubles. I will be forever grateful for them. Having no place to point them though, and having not been equipped with tools to handle negative emotions other than screaming, throwing or punching things, it meant those insecurities have been ripe territory for both the depression and the PTSD. They make a certain part of me also understand how that manipulation works. It’s easy to see things in the very black and white perspective of your failures either being your own or caused by someone else. Given that choice, few of us are going to choose ourselves as the source of what pains us. I kind of don’t have a choice. No matter what choice I make consciously, there is always a persistent part of my consciousness which believes every failure or mistake is just another example of why I have always been and will always be a failure.
Since I’ve tried my best, since my 20’s, to get under control the worst of the symptoms as they were emerging then, they’ve come to have all new ways of emerging, and they are almost always rooted in insecurities stemming from masculinity. What happens now, is that they become a constant undermining of my sense of self worth or self esteem, through those insecurities, until they have essentially turned those insecurities into the truth, and unfortunately, that unconscious estimation of what is allowable for an adult man and what isn’t are very much on the money. I systematically destroy everything in my own life. I prove my worthlessness to myself and then draw the kind of response from the people in my life which tells me I’m correct about my sense of worthlessness, if you will.
With the exception of a few close friends and a few members of my family, I have lost everything I have ever worked for and everyone I have ever loved because these acute episodes are essentially too much for people to handle. I don’t completely understand them as they’re happening because it is absolutely a guarantee that no matter how well I am doing, there are always insecurities to exploit. They may even stem from having succeeded for a while and begun to build a life that would be understood as normal by the rest of the world. It may even be things I begin to do in part as a belief that they are helping to keep an acute episode far off or protect different parts of my life from being effected by my mental illness. Either way, the reality has often been that I am passed over or pushed aside, essentially because I am sick. It’s an extremely complicated pain, because it’s extremely complicated to try to extract what have just been my mistakes in failing others and what have been symptoms of mental illness. It’s a constantly whirring and cycling, entangling and enmeshing sense of guilt and grief and anger and a deep, deep sadness, combined with the fear that this is going to be the way of things for the rest of my life.
Furthering the complication is that I know it is a non-stop, grinding hardship to have any emotional connection to me in those acute episodes. I very literally can’t handle me. I can understand why other people couldn’t as well. They have the choice I don’t have, to stop interacting with me in order to stop dealing with the pain that loving me causes. I understand that, and I feel a continuous guilt about having caused others that pain. It is also impossible to not feel anger at having been abandoned because I am ill.
This is the reality of living with a severe and chronic mental illness. The reality of living with this after having been raised with a traditional masculinity that is deeply unhealthy is that I don’t have anything like the tools to be able to deal with the pain that comes from watching my life essentially burn down or fall apart as the result of another acute episode. Part of the PTSD is that I have an incredibly hard time maintaining emotionally intimate relationships. I hate myself so much I push you away to protect you or I push you away so that you can’t find out how terrible I am, and then I’m crushed when you leave, because I’ve pushed you away. I have very few people I can turn to in the days when the fallout from an acute episode is most intense. The things I have to reach for to cope with it are the rage of throwing things, breaking things, screaming, and lashing out or to do this, write. I’m writing essentially because I do not know what else to do, and I do not have another way to deal with any of this, at this moment, and at this moment, I am going to do something. The best way to prevent myself from doing something negative and which I will regret is to do this, because this is the one thing I have at my disposal. As long as mental illness has been with me, writing has been with me to help me find my way through, even if it’s just through a few hours. I know that what I can’t do is the nothing I so often do in times like this, the attempting to be stoic or probably worse, attempting to weather it with the belief that this is all just what I deserve because I didn’t do enough to prevent another episode.
I’m writing in hopes that it will help to curb these feelings, because I do know that when they are present at this intensity for too long, I get worn down to the point that I can’t even really respond to them or fight back against those things in my mind which I otherwise know to be untrue and that I can otherwise dismiss. They eventually lead to the point where I can’t be positive that I won’t try to hurt myself, because the guilt, the sadness, the grief, they always whisper about suicide, and as I become more and more worn down as days and weeks pass, the more confidently they speak of it, and the harder it becomes to be completely certain it’s a preposterous idea. A plan comes along, and it comes repeatedly throughout the days, until I’m worn down to the point that I find myself considering it genuinely for a moment, sometimes a few minutes or half an hour, and then, I know it’s too far gone to keep trying to fight on my own.
I’m not necessarily sure why, but I do think that writing about this, my experience with mental illness, can help interrupt that process. There’s another part of why I’m deciding to do this. All these years, and all the love I have always had for writing, and how open I have been with people in my life about being mentally ill, it’s not something I’ve ever really written much about with any public consumption in mind. Part of me has still been ashamed all this time. A good deal of that shame is related to the many ways that mental illness effects the ways I fit or don’t fit traditional masculine ideals. A good deal of it is related to the stigma mental illness carries more generally in society, and it certainly has to do with the ways the two of those things interact. Until very recently, I saw this as self indulgent. To be as honest as I believe I really need to be, I still kind of feel like this is self indulgent. If It helps me, I don’t actually care about that though. It’s an indulgence that isn’t going to hurt anyone else.
The other part of it is that I’m tired of the stigma. I’m tired of experiencing the results of stigma or the feelings that arise when I encounter it, and worse, I’m tired of the way it works inside my own head. Having a severe mental illness is hard enough, treating myself like having a severe mental illness is something to be ashamed of or being ashamed of it is no help. In the best version of this story, I can write truthfully and with enough emotional honesty that at the very least, some others might come across it and it might provide some small solace for them, even if it’s just in the amount of time it takes to read it. There’s part of me that believes I might be able to be specifically helpful or useful in talking specifically about that place where masculinity and mental illness meet and often feed off of each other. I’m pretty sure I can’t be the only one to experience something like that, but in all the years I’ve been reading about mental illness and people’s experiences with it, I’ve rarely seen it talked from the perspective of the person experiencing it. That particular nexus has seemed to only come up in more academic or clinical writing, and even then, it seems pretty rare.
This does mean that I am going to be producing a good deal more content, and it’s going to have more content related to mental illness, whether it’s my experience with it, issues of stigma, issues surrounding treatment, and any number of other connected topics. Expect that the political writing is going to be more confined to the longer form, because I feel like it’s where I do my best work, and it’s also been suggested to me that this is the case.