I have survived for 32 years despite my best efforts. Consequently, I talk about mental health a lot because it affects me every day. I talk about it with my therapists, my friends, my family, the Internet. I talk about my scars from self-harm, my suicide attempts, my battle with addiction, the miscarriages I had, and the continuing, day-to-day frustrations of living with my disorders. I also volunteer as a peer support moderator in a peer-led 24/7 mental health chatroom, so I talk about other people’s mental health too, often when they are in crisis. Online chat rooms have been incredibly helpful to me over the years because sometimes I just want to go where people understand me, where I could vent about my mood swings and suicidal thoughts without being judged or called crazy.
People have always been aware of my mental health struggles. I was suicidal at fourteen and hospitalized for weeks. They wouldn’t release me because I was hurting myself but they also kept giving me meds that made me manic. I didn’t know it at the time but I had/have bipolar disorder as well as borderline personality disorder (BPD), which flared up with medications and poor medical treatment. They caused me to act in ways I never had before. All my friends knew, everyone at school knew, my family knew – not every detail, but enough to know that I had lost my mind and was in the hospital. I tried to own it. To make it my thing.
I open up to people very quickly about some aspects of my life. I am not afraid to say, “Oh I broke my neck when I tried to kill myself,” because it’s the truth. I regret what happened, but I am not ashamed of it. Whenever I hold back, it’s only because I don’t think it’s an appropriate time or I don’t want to make the other person feel uncomfortable. But why? Why isn’t saying, “I tried to kill myself” the same as “I had cancer”? These are both illnesses from which one can recover (or they can be fatal) and neither should carry more weight than the other. But suicide is still a taboo subject.
Making the distinction between psychological disorders and physical disorders is maladaptive for us as a society. A “mental” illness is just as physical, i.e. rooted in the mechanics of the brain, as any neurological or physical disorder. For instance, Parkinson’s disease is considered a neurological disorder rather than a psychological one, and we know it mostly by its characteristic body tremors that result from a lack of dopamine. Their substantia nigra, usually covered in black spots where dopamine is concentrated, looks barren and empty. But what you may not know is that people with Parkinson’s often suffer from comorbid depression. The physical is bound inextricably with what we think of as psychological and this boundary between mental and physical hinders our ability to sympathize with “mental” health sufferers.
So-called “invisible” illnesses like Lupus , Lyme or bipolar are hard to understand because we cannot see the effects on the person’s outsides. You can see a broken bone, that makes sense, but you cannot see faulty circuitry in the brain or the disruption of neurotransmitters. Human beings like things to make sense, they like causal links and correlative data. Suicide simply does not compute for most people. Depression is often perplexing. “But what are you depressed about?” No, that’s not how it works. Sometimes, especially with lifelong disorders, there is no “reason” other than what’s happening in the brain. People used to say to me, because I grew up in an affluent area and never wanted for anything, “Why are you depressed? You have everything.” This is the height of the problem at hand. Depression is an illness, not just a result of an event, and although events can easily trigger a depressive episode, that’s not always the case.
These days I write a blog about my mental health, which includes a journal that I kept the last time I was hospitalized. I am trying to get it out into the world so that people who are suffering can feel less alone, and know that others have gone through this before – that there’s hope that they too can come out the other side.
A few months ago I shared this blog on my Facebook page and the outpouring of support was incredible. People came out of the woodwork to talk to me, either to say, “Wow, I had no idea. You’re so strong!” or “I’ve been through some of the same things, we should talk sometime,” or “My brother went through something similar,” or, my favorite, “I’m so sorry you had to deal with that, I’m here if you ever need me.” We can get so caught up in hiding our mental issues that we forget that most people are good and understanding. The more we are honest about our stories, the more opportunity we give other people to listen and learn from them. If we don’t talk about them, they will continue to feel awkward and disconnected from mental health.