Alert: this post may contain material that is triggering for some. If you find yourself in crisis, you can call 1-800-273-8255, or visit www.crisischat.org for support.
What I know to be true in this moment is that mental illness is like faith.
Some people say they believe absolutely in whatever they believe in, do it blindly and without doubt even if it is something they can’t experience through their 5 senses. They call this Faith. To me, Faith is believing absolutely, except when you are doubting absolutely, or when you are somewhere in between. It is having Faith that the only constant is change. It is absolutely believing it is okay to doubt, and okay to believe, and okay to be in the middle. Faith is believing, absolutely, that it is okay to come as you are, that you can show up as your True Self, even if you are punished for it. Joan of Arc was punished for it. Ghandi was, too.
Mental illness is scary, and full of suffering and pain and panicjoy. Pain and suffering, both physical and emotional, are subjective; there are pictoral spectrums for people in hospitals to help their doctors and nurses understand the amount of pain they are experiencing, because Words are of little help in accurately describing an internal experience (though for me they are the closest I can get).
Joy is subjective, too, though we don’t like to think about that, because it is a shiny, sparkly emotion that we like to think we can share. And we can share it, just as we can share pain-but my Sarah experience of Joy will never be experienced by anyone who doesn’t have my Brain. And the same is true for my Sarah experience of Pain.
And so I believe that Faith is subjective. My definition of Faith, as described above, is true only for Me in this moment. It might be true for others, in the moment that they read it, too. I can only hope, because that would mean that I’m not quite so alone. And it would mean that they aren’t quite so alone, too. Because even though my Sarah experiences will only ever be my own, they might resonate with the experiences of others who are Living, or trying to Live.
People start wars because of Faith. They always have. People start wars because of mental illness, too-it just isn’t spoken out loud. And I don’t mean that the people that start them do so because they are crazy. I mean that wars begin because of fear and lack of understanding, and the fierce desire to stand in Your Truth, even if it means killing someone else who is trying to stand in Theirs. Mental illness is biological, chemical, Real things happening in your Brain. And it is, for me, being surrounded by fear and lack of understanding when I am Living My Truth, and being punished, sometimes, for Living In It.
Mental illness is scary to talk about, because when you are experiencing depression, or mania, or anxiety, or suicidal ideation, It is a uniquely You experience. There are common threads, there are links, there are helpful and unhelpful things to say that are true for most humans when they are in It. And what I, Sarah, look like when I am in It, and how I feel when I’m in It, only I will ever know. That’s terrifying. And that’s where Faith comes in.
My Faith is that, as I continue to show up as My True Self, in my Sarahness, it might allow others to do the same. That in giving Words to this subjective experience, it might shine the light on the fact that it is subjective, but not unique. That because I have personally been trapped, I have personally felt the flames, that I can truly “understand a terror way beyond falling.” I’m on the sidewalk, now, and I’ve done the jumping.
David Foster Wallace understood the flames, too; he wouldn’t have been able to write those Words otherwise. I wish that he had known, in the moment before he hung himself, that his Words would help someone else, like me, be a little more brave, a little more willing to use my wild trembling Voice. Perhaps he would still be alive. Not because I have any delusions about my power or impact, but because what saves me, daily, is people around me modeling bravery through vulnerability so I that I can imperfectly attempt the same.
And so, as Intensely Intense as I am, today, I am so very grateful that I am Alive, and so very saddened that he, and many others, are not. And all I can do in this moment, despite the very real risks, is continue to stand in my Truth, to say the Scary things, and to hold on tightly to My imperfectly perfect Faith as I press the “Update” button on my blog.
I go to therapy in an uprise downtown, an oddly angled, metallic expanse that always seems to be on the verge of blasting off. It has multiple stories, an eccentric amalgam of all kinds of business offices and insurance companies. I enter on the ground floor through round-robin glass doors, the kind that simultaneously delighted and terrified me as a child (what if you get stuck going around and around forever?), and am greeted by few plush armchairs and a couch seated beside an electric fireplace, a kind of corporate-cozy gathering space with a Starbucks in the corner and a hushed feeling in the walls.
I love this entryway, because besides the possibility of caffeine, it offers a mixing-pot of people. There are young men with spiked hair, square tortoise-shell glasses, and rolled-up pant legs, who rode their bikes in to work at tech start-ups. There are secretaries, almost always in a gaggle, and woman in power-suits and heels who move just a tad too fast because they are perpetually busy and important, and they have to walk that much faster than the men just to prove it.
And then there’s the patients. It’s often easy to spot them, for they fold into their sterotype just as easily as the people I described above. They are the ones without a badge, with a slight hesitance in their step, who have the uncomfortable look in their eyes that comes when you feel slightly out of context. They are often the ones who stop and sit in the fake sitting room, take a breath to ground themselves, to remember who they are amidst a sea of rushing workers.
There’s the woman with her stone-washed jeans pulled up above her belly-button, who sits next to her rolling suitcase and talks just a little too loud and a little too much to anyone who will take the time to listen (she is the kindest person I’ve encountered yet). There are kids being dragged along by harried parents, reluctantly attending family therapy sessions or getting ADD medicine refilled. There are students, and salesmen, and teachers, all unified by the noun patient, and a destination: floor E.
I’m brazenly labeling all of these people because, as I said before, I am one of them. I’m a patient on G, and have been a patient for years, and I’m fairly certain that I betray this every time I walk into that building with my wide-eyed determination to look like I belong. It’s only recently, however, that I’ve also begun to work on floor J, at a company that is part of the very same system that provides my behavioral health services.
When I take the elevator up, it is a smaller sub-set of that larger melting-pot. And when I get off on E, it feels less intense, less chaotic. It’s even more obvious who is who here: patients are in the waiting room, or checking in at the front desk, providers have IDs and calm, reassuring voices. I know my role here. I am A Patient. I’ve actually been told many times, verbatim, that I am a “good” one.
Because I know my role, I also know what I could get away with. That sounds terrible, but it’s true. If I were to scream and throw things, sob in the hallway, allow myself to break down in the bathroom, it would be okay. People would notice, people would react-some with fear, some with annoyance, some with amazement or embarrassment. I would certainly be approached by a provider, who would use some kind of step-by-step protocol to calm me down (I say this with compassion and the beginnings of a new understanding after working on J; I have never been a mental health provider and have no doubt it is incredibly hard, and that no one goes into that profession some kind of care and drive to help people), but it would not be outside the realm of normal. On the floor E, acting crazy is normal.
That’s extreme, the throwing things; it’s not likely I would ever do that, despite my Intense Intensity. But I did find myself in tears last week, and the only place I knew to go was the bathroom on E. Because crying on J, were I work, would be unacceptable. I’m already out of place there; I come to the office on time, I dress according to the company code, I can sit in meetings and listen and understand much of what is said. My badge grants me access to all that, opens that door to that world of research and education and people who have power. It doesn’t fool anyone, though, especially me. I can wear my badge on J, in the elevator, even in the lobby or on the bus. And people look at me differently; sometimes I even feel more capable, more in control. But wearing it or not, it’s hard to shake the label of patient. It’s what I’ve known for so long, feel like it’s in my blood, my bones, my brain chemistry. I think I’m learning that broken is one of the hardest things to let go. Who am I when I’m on floor E? And who am I on floor J? It’s the same person, at least I’m trying to be. And still, I go to E to cry…
And so this week I look to the quote above my writing desk from Ghandi: “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” If crying on the floor where I work because of stigma and insensitivity in a meeting results in people continuing to see me as only a patient, listen to my ideas as only a consumer, that isn’t the kind of world I want to live in. I want to shake the norm that allowing space for emotions is crazy, weak, patient-like. Because it’s human. Yesterday I cried on floor E and floor J, tried to push aside the shame that has held my feelings back, tried to show up in the truth of my Intense Intensity, my Sarahness.
It’s a decision (is crying a decision?) that has me shaking, literally, with fear each day I buzz myself into the office, every time the elevator doors open and I don’t know if a co-worker will enter, or a fellow member of my DBT group, or the psychiatrist who read me my diagnoses one after the other until I felt like a lab-rat. I hope that, some day, all of those people might feel it is okay to cry, or dance, or admit to feeling afraid, whether it’s on in a workplace, a clinic, an elevator, a lobby. Because it isn’t us or them, it’s we. I live the we every day. And the more we all practice showing up as human, the more understanding we might have of each other, the more normal crazy might become, the more our tears and our joys will overlay our hard hearts.