As a child I used to imagine having a mental breakdown, a bout of insanity as an escape from what on the outside might have seemed a wonderful upbringing but which wordlessly forced me into a shape designed by others. But my mind remained stubbornly rational.
Through feelings that I could not translate into explanations, I sensed the pressures on my psyche where it was confined and moulded against the rigid constraints of limited options. I could never see myself in any imagined future. I think now that this was because my path was never visible to me.
My subconscious knew that I didn’t fit, but my waking thoughts washed over with barely a ripple. On the surface everything looked calm, right up to the point where the pressure became too much and I exploded with violent fury. I was never able to talk about it: the feelings were so intense that I couldn’t contain them and all I could vocalise were screams of anguished rage.
It was an anger born as much of frustration at my inability to identify and turn my emotions into words as it was of my distress and discomfort. It was a release that brought only temporary relief.
For so many years I felt a dissociation, a distance between the me that I knew and the person that everybody on the outside saw. I was imprisoned behind the one-way glass of my internal oubliette, aware of everything this body I inhabited did but powerless to intervene or draw attention to my plight. I could only sit there, watching, pounding silently on the walls while invisible tears ran down my face.
People say you become used to things as time goes by, that you are shaped by your circumstances until you fit. Maybe that’s true for some. Not for me though: I developed the mental equivalent of pressure sores, wounds that refused to heal and only grew more painful over time until the agony became unbearable and I was finally granted my childhood wish.
How well I remember believing that I was some impregnable fortress, impassive in the face of the myriad assaults life threw at my unyielding walls. I truly believed I didn’t feel, that I was immune to stress, but in truth I was merely unable to complete the connections between physical sensations and abstract concepts of emotions.
I was a visitor to my own private Ancient Egypt, admiring the carvings on the walls of my mind but lacking a Rosetta Stone that could unlock their meaning. I believed so strongly in my own rationality, in my sanity, that I would boast of it. My pride was built on the sand of ignorance. The sand shifted, my walls fell. I broke.
To trust in sanity and the sanctity of one’s own mind is to believe that one is immune from illness or injury, and until it happens little can dispel that illusion. It is the same as believing in one’s immortality right up to the moment of death. In my arrogance I assumed that my mind was perfect.
Sanity and rationality go hand in hand. Our society equates one with the other, presumes that they are the natural state. Society’s arrogance is to see straight lines from cause to effect, to think that we have a hand on the tiller of our own lives and exert control over our own direction and destiny.
Succumbing to illness or injury is seen as a sign of weakness, a flaw in one’s character. While sanity—a sound mind—is placed on a pedestal to be worshipped, mental illness carries the taint of unwholesome corruption. To be labelled mentally ill is to be judged as unclean, impure, polluted, sinful, taboo, evil.
Stigma, the mark of disgrace upon us causing us to be shunned. Some of it is based on fear: if people allow themselves to see us, if mental illness becomes normalised then they have to accept that it could happen to them. It could happen to anybody. And if that’s the case, it can’t be a punishment visited upon us for our failings.
I speak of the arrogance of sanity for that very reason. Nobody believes it could happen to them. Until it does. It’s seen as a calamity, the stigma causing those of us who are mentally ill to suffer as much from the ignorant attitudes of people around us as from the effects of the conditions.
Myths abound, fed by the media and popular culture. Stereotypes from the horror genre abound: the mad scientist, the insane killer, people driven out of their minds by fear or torment. In every case, the lack or loss of sanity is used to heighten the audience’s fear, playing on the stigma of mental illness.
I have mental illness. My brain behaves in ways that are outside my conscious control and affect my ability to function day to day. There are times when I so desperately want to have some control that the distress is acutely painful and I resort to harming myself simply to provide a single point of focus and relieve the chaotic turmoil.
When I sit and think through scenes of my own death as a way to end my suffering, I do not want to die. It’s actually a way to give myself hope, to believe that this state is not for ever, not all that I will ever know. When I freeze, unable to even think on hearing a sudden unexpected noise, I do not want to spend the next hour or two trying to calm myself down so that I can concentrate on anything apart from my fear.
I don’t want to be mentally ill. But I am. I don’t feel strong enough to cope every day, but minute by minute, hour by hour, I get through it. So far. I have help: I have medication and a therapist, I have friends. I’m clutching at the straws of any help I can reach. What I don’t have is a belief that it will end, that I will recover. Just a faint hope that I will continue to get through the next day.
One thing that does not distress me is accepting that I am mentally ill. I understand all too well that I broke in response to a strain greater than I could handle just as a muscle will tear, a tendon snap, or a bone break under too large a load. My mental illness is not a personal failing. Nobody who is mentally ill is a failure.
Compassion can be hard to come by these days. It’s more popular to mock, demonise, and belittle those who are different. To look down on them, judge them as unworthy, as deserving the punishment of their harsh circumstances. To hold them up as a cautionary tale of what happens if you aren’t “good”: there but for the grace of god…
Yes, you fear the judgement that would cast you out in disgrace, stigmatised by mental illness. You avoid us, afraid of some imagined contagion. Your ignorance fuels fears that we will prove to be dangerous like the distorted characters from your media and nightmares. And in your fear you shun us, attack us, hurt us. We who are already injured suffer further harm at your hands, by your unthinking words and actions.
Stop using mental illness as a tool of fear. Stop using it as an excuse for evil acts. Stop using it as an insult. Stop causing us further distress and suffering. Stop adding to our reasons to kill ourselves.
Start treating us as people. And then, maybe, more of us will survive.