There are so many famous people who live with mental illness. All you have to do is look at the Bring Change to Mind website or Facebook page and you’ll see dozens of names and faces you recognize. There are also millions of unfamous people living with mental illness; ordinary you & me kinds of people. That’s because mental illness is no more selective than any other disease. It doesn’t care what you look like, how you worship, who you love or who signs your paycheck. The thing we share, the famous and the unfamous, is also the thing that sets us apart. Merriam-Webster defines illness as, “a specific condition that prevents the body or mind from working normally.” If this is true, then how do we succeed in a world designed by and for “normal” minds? Here’s what I think: We do it like McGyver, with nothing but a safety pin, a stick of gum and a thimble. We do it like Ginger Rogers, dancing backwards, in heels. We do it like Joseph Friedman, who thought straws should be bendier, just because. For both the famous and the unfamous, success often requires a great deal of creativity.
Not long ago, I was asked to describe what my illness looks like. In the past, this would have been easy. I would have produced an aerial map which showed large sections of my country, leveled to rubble, as if by a natural disaster or an invading army. I would point and say, “That’s what remains after a manic episode or a long period of depression.” And, that would be true, sort of. What I hadn’t expected was to be asked to take a walking tour through those cities; to reframe my story. What I found was unexpected. Mental illness is just that, an illness, but it is other things, too. It is the lens through which I view the world. It is the fuel that propels me forward. It is, at times, a monkey on my back, but it is also the circus where we live. What I mean is, at times mental illness has made my life immeasurably difficult and painful but my life is also interesting and complicated and valuable, not in spite of, but because of the unique way my mind works.
Before I was properly diagnosed, my unconventional brain created some fairly intuitive survival skill. Here’s an example: I live with a busy head. Not just regular busy; my head is Grand-Central-Station-at-rush-hour busy. This has always made simple tasks unnecessarily complicated. I’ve spent hours looking for misplaced keys, wallets, cell phones and my car in the supermarket parking lot. After years of calling-in sick to work because I couldn’t find my eye glasses or car keys, I unconsciously began creating order. I started to assign everything a home. I didn’t realize what I was doing; it was just my busy head trying to manage my busy life. Now, after so many years of practice, almost everything I own has a permanent location. My kitchen floor may need mopping but I can list, from top to bottom, every item in my pantry. I’ve become the planner, the organizer, and the list maker. Few people know what a challenge it was to get here. I’m organized on the outside because I’m not on the inside, and that’s ok. Creative problem solving keeps my closets exceptionally organized.
Over the years, I have also struggled with impulsivity. No matter how much I longed to be still, I couldn’t. Restlessness was like an itch I couldn’t scratch. So, I moved, a lot. I changed jobs, a lot. I fell in and out of love, a lot. I’ve lived dozens of places: some wonderful, some dreadful, some so unremarkable I barely remember them. I once packed only what would fit in the trunk of my car and moved from Alabama to New York. It felt like the right thing to do. In retrospect, it was, but at what cost. I can’t begin to name all the places I’ve been employed. I’ve done everything from church secretary to phone sex operator. I’ve worked in a law office and driven the ball-picker at a country club golf course. I’m even a proud graduate of the Subway Sandwich College. (Seriously, that’s a real thing.) In between, I have loved and been loved by some truly remarkable people. There was heartache, too, and loss. Ultimately, I believe I traded one singular purpose for a million smaller experiences. For me, “never finding” meant “always looking” and that search gave me purpose.
I’m the person I’ve become because I had to be. I was born with a square-peg brain in a round-hole world. I adapted because that’s how we survive, how we succeed. My mind will never work normally – not in the Merriam-Webster kind of way – but I’m fine with that. Sometimes, the thing that makes you different is the very thing that saves you. My not-normal mind makes lists, remembers a lifetime of conversations, collects stories both beautiful and heartbreaking, so I write. Writing quiets my racing thoughts. Writing creates order out of chaos. In front of the keyboard, my head is Grand Central Station at 3:00 am, full of echoes and ghosts. Without my mental illness, I may never have found my voice, and I might still be looking for my car in Wal-Mart parking lot.