My therapist advises me against me using the term “mentally ill” to describe myself. He prefers that I say “I have a mental illness.” I understand his logic and intentions—he doesn’t want my identity to be defined by something about me that is broken. However, I can’t disagree more.
Your teenage years are when you start to forge your identity and become the person you’ll be*. And it was then that I became two people. On one hand, I was a quirky, soulful, artistic, sensitive, and intense guy named Jeremiah. On the other hand, I was a creative, energetic, charming, and very, very confident guy named Jeremiah. The first Jeremiah hated himself with a searing passion, while the second Jeremiah didn’t give a shit about anybody other himself. I was the angel and the devil on my own shoulders, wondering how the other could be so pathetic/such a douchebag.
And that begged the question, what the hell is wrong with me?
Lately, I’ve been a big fan of a (mostly) weekly podcast called “Sex and Other Human Activities.” One of the hosts, Marcus Parks, said this about being how bipolar disorder works: “Whenever you’re depressive, you let your life fall apart. Whenever you’re manic, you actively destroy it. It’s a dangerous thing to fuck with.”
Lots of people talk about the stigma of mental illness. When I hear it described that way, I imagine frightened crowds with pitchforks, torches, and legislation who want to lock up the crazies, or at the very least, not invite them to parties. Maybe it’s because I’ve lived a third of my life in the twenty-first century, but I’ve never seen this. What I’ve seen is a lot of confusion.
For starters, there aren’t a whole lot of actual “crazy” people. The mentally ill that most expect to see are muttering to themselves about government conspiracies, telling the voices in their heads to shut up, murdering people in cold blood (maybe with a giggle), or—if Hollywood can be believed—helping the normal folks see the world through exciting new eyes.
That’s the biggest reason those like me can feel isolated. We look just like everyone else. We act just like everyone else. It’s assumed, then, that we function just like everybody else. After all, everyone feels down sometimes, so why can’t I cope? Everybody has mood swings, so what’s the big deal about mine? I seemed fine yesterday, so why not remember that? Life is hard; everybody knows that. Depression, Attention-Deficit Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, and even Asperger’s Syndrome are just words coined by those don’t want to own up to being assholes; they’re excuses people make because they’re too lazy to suck it up.
I’ve spent a lot of my life believing all of this. In fact, I can’t shake the residual feeling that maybe I am just a lazy asshole. This is easy thought to have, both for me and for those around me, especially because I’m doing really well right now. I didn’t just “snap out of it,” though. I invest a lot of time and money and effort to be this way, and if I want to stay here, I can’t forget that, not even for a minute.
As far as being an asshole is concerned, manic-depression is an explanation, not an excuse. What’s the difference? Perhaps getting drunk will give us some perspective. A lot of alcohol can give us a lot of confidence, but it can also take away some of our empathy. We do and say a lot of things that would not be said and done otherwise. Some of it is pretty shitty. And if we drink enough, we may not even remember it. These things, however, get done and said by us, and there’s no making them go away. If we get into a fight, or worse, run someone over with our car, it’s our sober ass going to jail. No one ever argues otherwise. Some people can hold their liquor, and some people can’t. Those of us that can’t have a responsibility to control ourselves, even though it can be incredibly difficult.
So there’s that. As far as coping with life, I know full well that we all have it tough. Maybe I would be happier if I just counted my blessings. I want to. God, I want to. But I can’t. I am physically unable to … Well, that’s not entirely accurate. Sometimes I’m able to. Sometimes I’m not. Day to day, I don’t know what to expect.
For example, I got mugged at gunpoint once, and for the duration, I thought I was going to die. When it was over, I walked home, called the police, called my girlfriend, had a cigarette, and shrugged off the money I’d lost as a small price to pay for not getting shot. On the other hand, I once watched a braindead-but-awesome action movie I’d seen a thousand times wherein a peripheral character loses his job and his home and dies alone on the streets. I spent weeks full of dread, convinced that this was my ultimate fate. I don’t really have any say in what it’s going to be.
It goes like this: imagine you’re walking on a patch of ice. Strolling along at an even keel, there are no problems. Folks around you are walking at their own pace. The sun is shining and the birds are singing (shivering, but singing). Unexpectedly, you slip. You’re not sure why—maybe your mind wandered, maybe you caught your foot on a twig or a rock or something, or maybe the wind knocked you off balance. Regardless, you’re lying on your ass on the slick ice, bruised, and every attempt you make at getting back to your feet results in you falling down again. When you finally do get up, the panic fades, and you’re left with embarrassment, wondering why it is that you’re the only one who fell while everyone else can stumble without toppling over. (Answer: everyone is wearing cleats, and yours came out of the box defective.)
And so now, even though I’m on a mood stabilizer and am exercising like a fiend and keeping up with regular counseling, and even though I feel better and younger than I ever have in my life, I am utterly terrified of feeling. I can’t trust my heart, because it has, in the past, knocked me down onto the ice. It doesn’t look like it, but trust me, it’s a handicap. Like a diabetic, I need take medicine and closely monitor myself if I want to function. Does that make me superior to those who don’t have to work as hard to get out of bed some days? Hell no.
I can tell you this, though, I got off better than some. Some don’t respond to treatment at all. Some don’t even have the option to get help. Some people spend their whole lives (or, like me, most of it) not knowing that this is a problem with chemistry, not character. I’m lucky; I have insurance, a stubborn wife, and (after a fashion) a good, personally invested psychiatrist who wants to see me working properly.
It’s not fair that I’m this way—in fact, it really sucks. I don’t know any other way to be. I just am. I’m mentally ill, with all that entails.
And I’m doing okay.
*I used the word start for a reason, Argumenty Pants (you know who you are)