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The truth about having a mental illness

Jun. 1, 2017
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I wanted to start off this column by talking about the truth: the truth about mental illness. I kept staring at my computer trying to find insightful ways to discuss the complexities of mental illness that would somehow lead to a cathartic realization that mental illness was a blessing in disguise. But then I remembered I wanted to talk about the actual truth, not the truth I was hoping for. Maybe one day I will have that realization, but right now all I can do is speak my truth. For me, the truth is that mental illness is shitty and debilitating and life-changing--but not in a good way.     

I have spent the past week or so basically incapable of doing anything other than sleeping for 12-hour periods, eating everything in sight, watching reruns of Parks and Recreation (I could probably recite the entire show from start to finish by memory at this point), and crying. Holy moly, do I cry! I will go through periods of hardcore, body-shaking sobbing; periods of average crying fits occurring at above-average frequencies; periods where tears just fall steadily down my face as I eat my 50th bag of Cooler Ranch Doritos. These various crying sessions happen on a continuous loop all day, every day. I find it incredibly annoying that my body can’t seem to produce the smallest scrap of dopamine, but it seems to have a never-ending supply of tears. 

Another thing my body is really good at producing: mental and physical exhaustion. 

I will actually try to make myself go exercise because I know it will help me feel better (and--let’s be real--because my therapist instructed me to do so), but I physically don’t have the energy to even tie my shoes. And trust me: that’s not me being dramatic. I will put all my determination into just getting up and out of bed--only for a wave of fatigue to wash over me that is reminiscent of how I felt after running in a track meet in college. It makes my vision blur around the edges and fills my limbs with goo that weighs me down. 

And it’s not just physical exhaustion I feel: it’s mental as well. I am a writer and an activist, and I love what I do. My work is usually my passion, the driving force behind my life… just not right now. Right now I am not only disinterested in my work--I hate it. I used to feel like I had a voice, a gift for reaching people--a purpose, if you will. Now I will stare at a blank page on my computer for hours and feel bile burn up my throat from my inability to write even a single sentence. I am sickened with myself for having lost the one thing I thought made me worthwhile.

And what’s worse: I am reminded of that fact by voices that aren’t there.

Yep, I hear voices. I have bipolar disorder with symptoms of psychosis, which for me takes the form of auditory hallucinations. And they don’t say the nicest things to me. They know about every single one of my insecurities and will use them to make me feel even shittier, which I didn’t think was possible. A few times they’ve even told me I should kill myself. I like to clap whenever I hear them, which helps me separate what I’m actually hearing from what is fake--although I have to say I tend to get some pretty strange looks when I start clapping to myself in public. But I suppose that’s the least of my worries. 

Now I’m not divulging my painfully personal experiences to get sympathy or to bum anyone out, I am doing so to express my truth about my disorder and to express how critical it is to take mental illness seriously. It is not something to be romanticized or wished for. It can actually change everything you thought you knew about yourself. We are living in a generation of Tumblr users and television shows that portray people with mental illness as beautifully pale creatures with bags under their eyes, mysterious people who understand the dark and tortured side of life. That’s an alternative fact if I ever did see one. Not only is that representation grossly inaccurate (except for the bags under the eyes)--it’s also extremely harmful to people with actual mental illnesses and to impressionable kids and teenagers. 

Let me paint you a word picture of a girl who’s been struggling with depression or some other mental illness. Say this girl comes across a photo of an emaciated-looking girl with her head on her knees, with some bullshit quote at the top saying: “I think suicidal people are just angels that want to go home.” (Yes, that was actually an image I found on Tumblr!) This image could cause several things to happen: if my homegirl has attempted suicide before, this image could bring up memories of that trauma and trigger an episode of some kind. Or else, if she’s never attempted suicide but has been thinking about it, this image could lead her to actually attempt to take her own life. Stop romanticizing illness and pain--it begets actual pain.

Now, let me offer another scenario. Perhaps someone is watching the show Skins (for example) and sees the beautiful and intriguing Effy Stonem. She’s interesting, she’s mysterious, she’s the object of everyone’s desires. She also happens to have bipolar disorder. Sure, there are a few accurate depictions of bipolar symptoms in the show, but mostly she’s portrayed as being alluring because of her mental illness. Her drug abuse, her heightened sexuality, her psychotic delusions are all made to appear like desirable personality traits rather than symptoms of a clinical illness. So when the person who’s been watching the show encounters someone in real life with bipolar disorder, they expect Effy-like characteristics or mannerisms. Imagine their surprise when that person exhibits symptoms that are not at all sexy or intriguing, but debilitating and difficult to manage. 

Now, the person with bipolar disorder is met not with compassion or understanding but with fear and even disgust. That’s a consequence to which I can personally attest.

My two scenarios offer but a sliver of the numerous ways in which romanticizing mental illness can be harmful. Our illness deserves to be taken just as seriously as any other illness. You don’t see anyone romanticizing cancer or diabetes, so why should ours be any different? Somehow our illness is either shed in an extremely positive light or in an extremely negative light, when it should just be represented for what it is. Mental illness should be represented truthfully: as an illness which can be painful and horrible and nothing to wish for--but which can also be managed and treated. The truth about mental illness is that it is afflicts human beings, and human beings deserve respect, equal treatment, and compassion.

And in case any of you folks following along at home are in the same boat as me: that includes treating yourself with those same qualities. So the next time I can’t get out of bed, or hear voices, or eat my way through three cheeseburgers, I’ll try to take my own ultimatum: I’ll try to stop hating myself for it, start giving myself a break, and work towards treating myself better. And that’s the truth--for now.