To the 281 million people in America who don’t have a mental illness,
I’m writing this letter to you because there’s much that needs to be said on behalf of us who have a mental illness, and I’m taking it upon myself to do so. I would have sent each one of these separately, but it would have taken me centuries longer than the time it’s been since Christ walked the earth, so here goes.
Did you know there are almost 48 million of us that suffer from mental illness in the United States alone? And if you want to look globally, there’s over 450 million. Those are huge numbers and ones I believe everyone should know.
Look, I know it’s how difficult it is to empathize with something you don’t have; there’s no way I can truly empathize with someone who suffers from heart disease since my ticker is in pretty good shape. However, I do think it’s important for y’all to have a greater understanding of ‘us’.
See, often times mental illness is looked at as a weakness in people. Something they should have either prevented in the first place, or pull themselves out of if they happen to ‘get it.’ It sounds so easy, doesn’t it? If you’re depressed, well for fuck sakes, count your blessings, get out there and do something, and for the love of all that is holy, don’t wallow. That only makes things worse.
Isn’t wallow is a funny word? It means to lie around…be immersed in something…to flounder. And the connotation is that you can get out of a ‘wallow’ so to speak: just get up out of that bed, jump out of the situation, and quit floundering. Just stop it.
I think using that word is unfair though, something that’s easy to see when we switch around the context. Have heart disease? Quit wallowing in it and run a freaking marathon. Have diabetes? Quit wallowing in it and just eat a Twinkie. Have asthma? Just breathe harder for piss sakes. Easy peasy. I’ve just solved the worlds’ ills.
It’s silly to look at it that way, isn’t it? But, as you may be saying, mental illness is ‘different.’ It’s not the same. And you’re right…it’s not. It’s not our heart or lungs…it’s our brain. When you think about your brain being the thing that isn’t working right, that’s scary as hell.
Some great advice so many of us get is to ‘just take you meds!’ Okey dokey…that’s simple enough. But let me tell you something about my meds: one of them is a mood stabilizer which I desperately need so I can function as well as I’m capable of despite being bipolar (which is one of the more serious mental illnesses along with schizophrenia). Guess what some of the side effects are for me? After I take it every morning, I feel like I have the flu for a couple of hours since nausea and muscle weakness are common. During the day, I have some dizziness so I have to be careful when I stand up and then my muscle coordination also suffers. It can cause thoughts of self-harm and suicide, so even though I feel significantly better overall in terms of my mood, I still have thoughts of razor blades I can use and drugs to overdose on. That’s scary as fuck, people. My dreams are affected as well. Last night I dreamed I was choking for what seemed like hours. When I woke up, I was gasping for breath, sweaty to where my sheets are now in the washer, and crying because I thought I was going to die of asphyxiation. If I’m lucky, I won’t get the actual serious side effects like a fatal rash that attacks your organs (which means I have to check my bod everyday for any red patches and if I see one, get to the ER as quickly as possible), aseptic meningitis, and low blood cell count. Everyday when I swallow just that one med, I’m literally taking a risk with my life.
And my other meds? One can cause high blood pressure, rapid heart beat and tremors. Do you know how scary it is to look at your leg and see it shake? But, without this one I can be so depressed I literally can’t function.
So, when we are told to ‘just take our meds’, there’s a bit more to it than swallowing an aspirin…just sayin’.
I know you mean well when you say things like “I pity you” or “I’m so sorry you have this”. Yeah…I’m sorry I have this too. But look, we don’t want your pity or sorrow. What we need is your support. We need you to ask us how we feel that day. Do we maybe need anything? Check in on us once in a while. And if we don’t feel good more than a couple of days in a row, it’s because for so many of us, our mental illness is chronic. It’s going to be with us for life…and in my case, progressively gets worse which makes me cry whenever I think about it. Did you know the life-span of people with bipolar is 9-20 years less than yours? This is actually more than if I ‘just’ smoked heavily all my life (no ma, I’ve never smoked). Facing the fact I may not be able to see my future grandbaby (son, ahem ahem) graduate from college or get married is a loss I can’t describe.
And please don’t stop asking about us because “I’m sick of hearing how down you are” or “We all have problems, you need to get over yourself” because it makes us feel like shit. Do you think we like being down so much? Being anxious so much? Being manic so much? Do you think we like waking up everyday and facing the fact our lives will never be as close to normal as possible? As much as you may get tired of listening to us, we are tired of living it. See the difference?
Some of you are very condescending to us. I see you look at homeless people and turn away in disgust and with a sense of superiority . Did you know that so many of these guys and gals suffer from schizophrenia, PTSD, bipolar (yipee), depression and anxiety disorders, and substance abuse disorders? When you look at them with revulsion, you are making all of us feel dirty and ashamed. And since I’m so open about being bipolar and yes, mentally ill (I’m no longer hesitant to put it out there), those of you I know do 1 of 2 things: turn away from me because you fear me (why I don’t know…I won’t step on an ant when I run) or patronize me like I’m a basket case that needs to be treated like I’m 5 (I actually have an IQ of 128, so I’m not 5 in any way). Either way makes me feel different from everyone else. Walking into work and having colleagues ignore me in the hallways hurts like nothing else. Having family members step away from me because it’s just too much is like a kick to the gut.
Being blamed…used…taken advantage of is also something we face. When I was having a breakdown that almost ended my life, a student stalked me and then threatened to rape and kill me. I had the messages. The direct messages in writing. And still I got blamed for the threats, like a woman gets blamed for a rape (naughty girl, you wore a dress). But why not blame me? I’m the crazy one. I was the one who couldn’t stop crying when you questioned me…after all, I had attempted suicide just a couple of weeks prior. And those of you who threw me under the bus for your own agenda…because you were mad at me? I have a few scars on my leg that you are personally responsible for.
And talk about being different. I have no friends. Literally. I have my ma, my sonshine, my sissie, and my family, but I don’t have friends. There is absolutely no one I can call and say, “Hey, wanna talk?” Yes, I have acquaintances who will speak to me when I’m out and about, and my students are the best in the world who I love love love interacting with, but friends? Nope. I think I understand why. For all of my life I was different. Or, let’s use some other words to make it even more clear: strange, peculiar, at odds with others. My behavior can vary day by day…sometimes I don’t even know what I’m gonna be like when I awake. I try to cover this up the best I can so people will want to be my friend; if you look in ALL of my Jr. High and High School yearbooks you’ll see this: “To a crazy girl, blah blah blah”. Being ‘out there’ was the only way I could be accepted in some circles. But I was the one that would end up outside the radius…always on the edge.
Then, when someone new pops up in my life and I want to be their friend, I’m like a puppy. Bouncing all over the place, giving giving giving, and basically overwhelming the poor sap to where they back away.
Relationships are the same. Those of us who are mentally ill have such a tough time with these. It takes a very special partner to navigate bipolar, and so far, I haven’t hit the jackpot. I know it’s hard. REALLY hard. REALLY really hard. But if you give me a chance, I’ll be the best partner you could have. I’ll love you to death…I’ll be loyal and caring and will work my ass off to make the relationship work. And if it doesn’t? Don’t take the blame yourself. It’s all mine. At least that’s what I’ll feel like and then I’ll punish myself for it.
So I sit at home with my best buddies…my 4 legged sweeties who give me the comfort, companionship, and attention I so desperately need. And guess what? I thank God for them everyday. When people tell me they are ‘just dogs’, I think to myself: no…they are my lifelines. Literally.
One more thing because I know I can ramble (I’m a professor…we yack for a living): please don’t think you’ll never develop a mental illness and that it can’t happen to you. You are not above it. You are not immune to it. A traumatic experience, the death of someone you cherished, an accident where there is head trauma, genetics that can show itself at anytime in your life, brain chemistry that goes awry for whatever reason…the list goes on. You could someday be the one reading this letter from the “other side” and in fact, 25% of people will suffer a mental illness sometime in their life. It may not be chronic, but it’s going to impact you more then you could ever have imagined.
But don’t worry. I’ll be there for you. I’ll lend you support…a listening ear…my own story to help you come to terms with your own, and I won’t throw back to you some of the negative you threw to me. I promise you that.