Where’s the Value in Me?

It suddenly dawned on me the other day when I was talking with the makeup artist and salesman at Nordstrom. He told me that I needed to take better care of my skin or else no amount of makeup of any kind would look good on me.

But, I argued, it’s all too time-consuming and besides, I have a difficult time starting any new habit, especially if such a change would make me healthier or more attractive.

Well, he said, I think that’s really more of a self-esteem issue than anything else.

That was it. I was dumbstruck and the uninvited tears resurfaced. It wasn’t really a dramatic moment, of course. My voice remained calm and my breathing steady. In fact, I could easily dismiss such tears as allergies even though I knew full well that wasn’t true. No, what he said had actually triggered an involuntary emotional reaction. I could feel it in my chest and in my spine.

I smiled and requested a tissue, apologizing profusely. I’m sorry for this pitiful display of weakness I can’t seem to control. I’m sorry you had to witness it. I’m sorry it exists. I’m sorry I exist.

Then I blamed it on the bipolar disorder, although I knew that was kind of a lie. But it just felt easier to be dishonest at the moment than to take a stranger into the labyrinth of all my abnormal psychologies. He played along and started telling me about someone else he knew with bipolar disorder and my tears let up.

If a mental health professional were to sit down with me and ask me right now if I have suicidal thoughts, I would have to say no simply because I don’t have any sort of plan. I’ve not been collecting sharp objects or hoarding medication. I’m not romanticizing about death in my private fantasies or anything. No, I can assure you beyond a shadow of a doubt that if death takes me before I grow old, it won’t be by my own hand.

Then she’d breathe a sigh of relief and write somewhere in her notes like: this patient is not suicidal. She can keep her shoe laces, her drawstrings, and all the under wires in her bras. She is free to go where she pleases, no need to be monitored 24/7.

But she wouldn’t be completely right. I don’t meant to say I’m in immanent danger. But I’ve also not fully bought into the idea of growing old, especially when I perceive that phase of life as being incredibly lonely. I mean I’m 37 years old, my peers all seem to have spouses or kids or nieces or nephews or some combination thereof. They don’t seem afraid of entering their senior years completely alone because they have a plan for coping with old age. They seem confident in knowing their life will always be of value to someone. But I’m not confident, at least not for me. Furthermore I’m the youngest of my own family making the odds favorable that I’ll be the last in my family to go so what’s the point in prolonging such misery?

My diagnosis of bipolar disorder many years ago seemed to solidify this morbid take on life. After grieving my old life and spending most of that grief in denial, depression, and anger, I finally decided to take care of my chemical imbalance. I also spent years in and out of therapy because, let’s face it, I suck at dying and I figured if didn’t learn how to at least “pass for normal”, I’d lose the few friends I had (who were the people I longed to spend most my time with) and never make new friends.

It was hard but I did what I could and it kind of worked except for that nagging feeling I carried with me that I’d never be good enough. You see, back then I was woefully behind all of my peers in this race called life and, since then, I’ve felt that it’s too late to catch up. I’ve fallen too far, perpetually left in the dust.

On the other hand, it’s not like I perceive anyone else to be as doomed as I am. Even those who have greater struggles than me I tend to hold in greater esteem than I hold myself and I know I’m a hypocrite for thinking it. But give me every intellectual argument in the world for esteeming myself and believe me, I’ve heard it before. Telling me again and again that I’m valuable and loved will never be enough because internally I will be telling myself this: You’re only saying this because you’re my friend (family member, mentor, pastor, counselor, etc.) and you have to say this. You don’t really mean it. I’ll say thank you because that’s what you want me to say but I never have and never will believe you if you so say anything kind about me.

I’ve been wondering a lot lately why I can’t follow my doctor’s orders when it comes to taking care of my diet. I’ve been wondering why I can’t stick to a regular exercise routine or remember to follow the dentist’s instructions each night and wear my night guard. But now I think I know . The reason I can’t get on board (and stay on board) with any new habit that’s good for me physically is because I just don’t see the point anymore. I’ve almost stopped believing I have the ability to impress anyone let alone me. Yet I still write. I still photograph. I still hope in a way, but it’s not enough.

To be sure, my struggle with how I see myself predates any mental illness diagnosis, but it had a fighting chance when I was in college, at least in the three years leading up to my first hospitalization. In my late teens and early twenties, I began opening my mind more and allowing myself to change. I even went in search of change (as many young people do) by going out-of-state to school and, ultimately, across the ocean. With each new city, state, or country I stepped into, I knew I had another chance to be a new and improved version of me. But the illness reset much of that progress and it became harder to move forward when so few of my peers stood with me anymore.

I guess the question, then, is, how do I fix this? After all the emotional damage, how do I truly learn to love myself?

Time Again

En façade Yann Caradec - Creative Commons license https://www.flickr.com/photos/la_bretagne_a_paris/
En façade
Yann Caradec – Creative Commons license
https://www.flickr.com/photos/la_bretagne_a_paris/

I wrote about time before but the subject continues to fascinate me, especially since I got my hands on James Gleick’s new book, Time Travel: A History. You see, I’m working on my memoir and I’ve come to the realization that my memory kind of sucks (something I’ve written about as well). But, for this particular tale, I’ve got lots of original source material to help me remember. It’s almost like telling someone else’s story much of the time, except I do notice myself smiling at certain aspects of the story or feeling somewhat melancholy because, although I’ve changed quite a bit, I’ll never forget that season of my life – not completely anyway. One of the most important sources was the diary I kept between August 2002 and February 2003; my one true friend, if you will. So I searched within in it for references to time because time is an important theme in my story and rewrote all of them so they’d be more palatable to an audience who has yet to learn the whole story. Here they are. Keep in mind, I was 22, almost 23, when this story took place and these references are in chronological order.

Time is something I can give.

Time can be taken.

Time can be taken from me.

My generation will have its time to shine.

God’s timing is perfect.

You can learn about someone by spending time with them.

Sometimes it’s better to ignore time.

Time is never truly free.

What we do with our time is not always within our control.

Alone time is to be cherished.

Time is precious and can be wasted if we’re not careful.

Time flies.

Our imagination can take us back in time, centuries before we even existed.

Sometimes it feels like the past is crying out to me.

Change takes time.

Time can be lost and, occasionally, found.

Sometimes time feels longer than it actually is.

It’s nice once in a while to slow down and take your time.

I wish I had more time.

I need time to reflect.

I don’t have much time.

It’s time to make new memories!

Where has time gone?

Why does time feel non-existent?

I don’t have enough time to write.

I don’t have enough time.

Sometimes that’s all you have time for.

Scars remain from times when I felt helpless.

Time will end.

Reflecting on Finding God in the Waves

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I might never have heard of Science Mike (Mike McHargue) had I not already been a faithful listener of the RELEVANT Podcast where he’s invited over now and then to help settle debates or make us all smarter in general. That was where I first learned about his book, too: Finding God in the Waves: How I lost my faith and found it again through science.

Right away I knew I needed to read this book.

Of course, I’ve never had a problem reconciling science and faith. After all, my dad’s a man of faith and a man of science. He even has some impressive credentials with his undergraduate degree from MIT where he studied aeronautics and engineering before switching to the left coast and studying engineering and computer science at Stanford. His Ph.D. in computer science comes from a less prestigious university, but the point is, his brain is hardwired for science. I can’t remember a time when our kitchen table didn’t have publications such as Science, Astronomy, ACM, MIT Technology Review, etc. spread across it. On top of that, he’s always admired and respected Carl Sagan and eagerly purchased the box set of Cosmos almost as soon as it came out on DVD (along with such nerd, sci-fi classics as Star Trek the Original Series, The Hellstrom Chronicle, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Contact).

My dad is also a man of faith and when I was growing up, he made sure we all went to church every Sunday. Granted he raised us in the Presbyterian church (PCUSA) which was one of the more “liberal” denominations where women could be ordained as ministers and doubts and questions were not discouraged. He spent many years as an elder or a deacon and frequently taught classes and/or led small groups.

Dad never saw the Bible and science as being at odds with one another because, as he put it, “If you want to learn about science, you read a science textbook. If you want to learn about God, you read the Bible.” He was an evolutionist as well. It wasn’t too much of a strain for him to believe the creation story wasn’t meant to be a literal account of how the world was made. And even now, if there is something he doesn’t know or understand, he isn’t afraid to say “I don’t know” and seek council from someone with more knowledge in the matter.

So when I first began learning about the New Atheist movement and meeting people who took real issue with anyone who claimed to be Christian but also claimed to believe in science, I was taken aback. What was so wrong with calling that which was beyond the realm of science God?

Unlike Mike, science didn’t kill my faith. Nonetheless, I had no trouble identifying with his loss of faith. Of course, my story is quite different and I’ve told it countless times over the years. I don’t think it needs to be told here (not yet at least).

When I publicly renounced my faith in 2006, I wrote an essay explaining why. I didn’t have a blog back then nor had I signed up for any sort of social media service. Instead I sent this to friends and family on my email list. It went something like this:

First and foremost I must send my apologies to the friends and family who strove for so long to guide me and mold me in the faith of their fathers. Although I know you did it with the best intentions, the time has arrived for me to move on, evolve, progress, and change. After careful consideration following years of indoctrination, I have at last come to the conclusion that I can no longer adhere to the old ways. That is to say, I can no longer call myself a Christian. Nor can I embrace any religion the world has to offer me. In the following discourse, I lay out the research and experiences that have led me to this conclusion.

I began my journey very pious in my faith. So much so, that I was certain only my beliefs were true and anything beyond them were of the devil. I observed the world from my comfortable certainty of a blissful afterlife and cried that so many would not be with me. My emotions, backed by a self-proclaimed loving church, drove me to tell others about what I had found, why I was so joyful, so blessed, and how they could be too. It saddened me to think that other religions had deceived their followers. It never occurred to me that I too had been deceived.

The problem was, I was lying even to myself. Truth be told, I had never experienced real joy as my parent church told me I would. Perhaps, I thought, that was coming in the afterlife. But even I couldn’t explain a loving God condemning his own creation to hell simply for not believing. I wondered, too, if that was where I should go.

Overtime I’ve been letting go of this black and white view of life and death. By and large, the people who have been the most caring in my world have been non-Christians. I remained pious as I transitioned from high school to university. That first year away from home I studied at a Christian school, but, as I moved on to a more liberal and secular university system, I came to understand that there was much more apprehension toward Christianity among those with a higher education than those without, sometimes stretching as far as anger.

I remember words of caution from my Christian friends as I told them I was transferring to a non-Christian school. They said my faith would be challenged as never before, so I must be ready to defend it. Don’t trust any source other than the Bible. Avoid taking courses on philosophy or religion at the university. Be well grounded in apologetics. Do not read material that is anti-Christian lest you give the devil a foothold.

That failed to strike me as odd until I began to branch out and encounter people with different faiths, cultures, and worldviews. All of a sudden it struck me that, if my faith were the one, true faith, then it should be able to withstand the onslaught of contradicting ideas. Oddly enough, I had pitied other religious groups for not reading literature that contradicted what they believed solely on the basis that they had been told anything written to bring down their church was bad. Now days I wonder how I ever did that without seeing how greatly I was contradicting myself.

Though my current train of thought can be largely attributed to discussions I’ve had with other people over the course of the past five years, there have been a few books recently that have also played a pivotal roll in shaping my worldview…

Contradictions between Christian churches also led me to dig deeper to unravel the secrets of the book and the religion that has shaped western civilization for nearly two millennia. It always boggled me how a religion that was supposedly peaceful still used words like “spiritual warfare” and “God’s army”. It also boggled me how a religion that was seemingly very attractive to women in the first century C.E. became one of the most oppressive religions the world has known.

I’m not angry for all those years of blind belief. However, the freedom I have now is far greater than the one promised to me by the church I was raised in. Therefore, I encourage everyone, no matter what your creed, to stop and question everything. Next time you partake of a sacrament or rise to sing a hymn, stop and ask yourself why you are doing so. Where did the words come from that you utter so mechanically during a service? If you were not raised in the your faith, would you still believe it?

As I look at world politics and the war on terror, I realize how quickly the world is decreasing in size. We can now contact someone on the other side of the world with the click of a mouse. The flow of information and ideas that we have access to now is unprecedented. I believe that is why fundamentalists are so frantic about guarding their way of life. However, change is on the horizon and no one can stop it.

… I want to thank all of you, because my way of thinking has been so deeply influenced by conversations with others, I can honestly say that there is not one among you who has not taught me something that has aided me in my journey. However, my journey is not over and hopefully neither is yours….

I obviously edited the above statement. I could’ve edited more but it felt so disrespectful to my younger-self to do so. She was really passionate when she wrote this. Of course, that was also a time when my tendency toward self-harm and suicide attempts was at its peak. Perhaps that’s why the following quote from Mike’s book struck me the way it did. He was responding to someone who was very critical of his return to faith and some of the things he’d been saying in public. Perhaps the person criticizing him felt betrayed in a way. Whatever the reason, Mike brought up an important point that I hadn’t thought of before but makes perfect sense to me.

“But if you follow my work, you know I’m not out to convince anyone of anything about God. My work is in response to suffering – there are people for whom the loss of God produces acute pain. Second, you’re right about everything you’ve said. My experience doesn’t prove anything to anyone – not even me.” (p. 139)

Two things stood out for me: the loss of God producing “acute pain” and a religious experience not being reliable proof for anyone, not even for the person who experienced it.

A few months ago I wrote a series of short monologues and one of them was about my desire to talk about Jesus. In the beginning of Mike’s book he writes about being a kind of social outcast (stereotypical “nerd” if you will) as a kid and God being like his friend, someone who was always there who he could talk to about anything.

That was how God was for me, too, especially when I entered my adolescence and didn’t feel like I could talk to my parents about most of the stuff going on inside of me. God was often my only friend and I could actually imagine him holding me while I wept because no one else was ever there to hold me. And this concept of God as my best friend carried over into my young adult years and played a crucial role in my first mental breakdown at age twenty-three, while I was studying abroad in France. Religious experience mixed with mania and psychosis if awfully hard to defend, especially if the experience was so impactful and so beautiful to you that you simply don’t want to chock it all up to some sort of brain malfunction. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In mid-summer this past summer, I wrote this:

…In fact, to make this easier on all of us, I won’t call myself a “Christian.” It’s not like I belong to a church anyway. Why would I tell you to do something I don’t even do?

Just go ahead and call Jesus my imaginary friend because to talk to someone you can’t see or hear requires a bit of imagination. Call me stupid, irrational, spineless, and childish if you wish but I’ve been trying to cope with being alone for a long time now. It’s not easy when you’ve never quite felt like you belonged anywhere. My closest friends, even my own family, don’t “get” me most of the time. But this Jesus fellow, he gets me. He knows me better than I know myself.

So why don’t you humor me a bit because I don’t have a close friend or a lover anymore. I don’t have someone in my life with whom I feel comfortable enough to share everything. But this Jesus guy, my “imaginary friend” if you will, is all of that and even though I can’t hear an audio voice or feel his physical arms around me when I need someone to comfort me, I still sometimes sense he’s there and it brings me peace.

That’s what I want to talk about, but I won’t because I love having you for a friend and I really don’t want to scare you away.

I did not realize it at the time but much of my “pain” when I abandoned my faith was directly linked to the loss of my best friend and, at times, my only friend: God.

Books fed my doubt when I turned away from my faith. But my return to faith was also fed by literature. I have a tendency to read a book and think the author and I could be best friends. Mike McHargue refers to Donald Miller and Rob Bell, two of the authors who helped me return to faith as well and both of whom I’ve also met. But, unlike Mike, I don’t know how to talk to people I admire when I meet them in real life. With both Bell and Miller I became completely tongue-tied and I think I said something really stupid. I met Rob Bell fairly recently so I can say for a fact that it all went downhill after I mumbled something along the lines of “I don’t know how to talk to celebrities.” But, at least my discomfort and embarrassment made him laugh. If Science Mike ever does a signing here in the Phoenix area, I’ll probably just write a note and hand it to him. It’s so much easier than actually talking.

By the way, I love Mike’s advice for how church people should handle doubt:

“If you’re a Christian who wonders what to do with someone who’s in doubt, consider these words carefully: Love and grace speak loudly. The first and best response to someone whose faith is unraveling is a hug. Apologetics aren’t helpful. Neither are Scripture references. The first thing a hurting person needs is to know they’re not alone.

“My path back to God was paved with grace by those who received my doubt in love.” (p. 119)

Returning to church has been a bit of a challenge for me. No offense to Mike, but I think it’s probably easier if you’re married with children. My quest for a church home is much more difficult when I’m searching alone. And then I have the mental illness thing plaguing me. I once tried to go to seminary but I was too afraid to tell them I had bipolar disorder. I was too afraid to tell them my experience with God was basically dismissed by everyone because it was mixed with mania and psychosis. Hyper-religiosity was the name the psychiatrists gave to it and ever since it happened, my life has been derailed. I was told I couldn’t live and serve in a developing nations if I was taking psyche medicine. I was told most missions or humanitarian organizations would reject me because I’m basically a liability. What a foolish idea to think that I could serve God or even encourage other people to serve God when I’m severely mentally ill!

But I miss being part of a faith community. I suppose I’ll have to drive farther than I’d like to find one but I love Mike McHargue’s list of what a church should be.

“When it comes to finding a congregation you can serve as part of, there are two things you have to look for: a church that is safe and a church that will challenge you. You should find a church that can share or accept your views on evolution, same-sex marriage, social justice, and environmental concerns; that’s part of what makes it safe. Your church should affirm you and accept you exactly as you are, should celebrate how you were made and how you’ve grown, and should tend to your wounds and love you as you heal. But it can’t stop there.

“Your church also has to challenge you to become all you can become. It should comfort you, but it shouldn’t let you get too comfortable. The people of your church should challenge rote thinking and decision making and prompt you to put your ideas into love action – to embody the Gospel with hands made dirty by work in the world. The congregation should empower you to serve the world with grace and to see that world with ever-more-loving eyes.

“I’d go so far as to say it should make you become more like Jesus, but don’t tell anyone I said that.” (p. 223)

Anyway, all this is to say, I thank God for Mike McHargue and I’m so glad he shared his story. I’m going to give my copy away, but not as an evangelical tool. I have more friends who are skeptics than I have friends who are believers but they’ve been handed books and tracts from so many well-meaning religious folk that they just don’t care anymore. They’ve heard hateful words from street-corner preachers and have had door-to-door salesmen hang religious flyers on their doorknobs or ring their doorbells in an attempt to force religious beliefs upon them face-to-face. Therefore, if a skeptic friend wants my copy of this book, he or she need only ask. I have only one copy but I will pay the postage to send this copy anywhere in the world. That’s how important I think it is.

 

 

Why I Want to Share My Story

 

Why do you want to tell your story?

I want to tell my story because it’s an interesting story but also one that’s haunted me ever since it happened – even before, come to think of it, because I actually began writing my life story in my Mozart journal while I was on the train from Salzburg to Innsbruck. I didn’t really have any other motive for doing so other than this desire to simply kill time. Besides, my real journal was only in French, unless you count my generic emails I sent regularly to a massive amount of people whether they asked for them or not. Really I just missed writing in my own language. I’m just not completely sure as to why I chose an autobiographical narrative. Maybe it was because my traveling companion and I were starting to get on each other’s nerves. Just before we left Munich for Salzburg she and I had gotten into a stupid little spat over whether or not I had the right to call myself “American” since Mexicans and Canadians were technically “Americans” too (that is, if you grew up with the “6 continent” concept as opposed to the “7 continents” I was raised with) She did not believe in separating North American from South America and nothing I said would change her mind. I started to cry but she remained steadfast in her belief and so I began to question myself. I couldn’t call myself an Arizonan because I wasn’t born there. I couldn’t call myself a New Yorker because, although I was born there, I didn’t grow up there. As far as referring to myself as “United Statesien,” that simply did not sound right. So I began to have a kind of identity crises.

My travelling companion (let’s call her Amélie because that’s the first French film I saw in the cinema) had begun to be visibly irritated with me when we were staying at her friend’s house in Paris. I failed to remove my shoes when we entered the guest room and Amélie was furious because I left footprints all over the cream-colored carpet. We searched frantically for something to clean up the mess with. I apologized over and over again. Later I made it worse by insisting on speaking French when I still had a very limited vocabulary and thus couldn’t hold an intelligent conversation. Whereas Amélie’s English was perfect and if I’d just allow her to use it, she wouldn’t have to suffer through all the awkward silence.

I wanted to be like Amélie. Blaise had told me not to be like her but how could anyone not want to be like her? She was smart, bold, and confident. She always managed to find new people to talk with. Like that time we were at an Irish pub in San Francisco. We sat down to listen to the music and then she disappeared. When I finally went to look for her, there she was sitting with three Irish lads, I mean straight-off-the-boat-from-Ireland Irish lads. Apparently she was wandering around after she’d gone to the restroom, saw an empty space at their table, and invited herself to join in. Such encounters were normal for her. One of the first nights of our European travels she disappeared until morning without a word. When she returned, she couldn’t understand why I was angry with her. She’d had a wonderful night because she’d lived in the moment and followed her heart. She came back at daybreak alive. What’s wrong with that?

Later I saw some of the drawbacks to Amélie’s lifestyle, most notably how, when you give your heart to someone too freely, you set yourself up for heartbreak. Amélie frequently fell in love during our travels but just as often she’d be a poor judge of character and return heart-broken. Blaise was friends with Amélie and it was clear to him how very different she and I were. But he cared about me. He just wanted to look after me as an older brother looks after his sister.

But I digress. My story changed later that year. I went from being someone with a relatively clean past to someone with a story so stigmatized I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be able to recover from it. The story was no longer just a series of things I’d seen or done. I’d been the recipient of something which, to me, was very spiritual and full of mysticism. God, who’d always been a part of my life, became more real to me than I ever thought possible. But then, when I returned Stateside, the psychiatrists slapped me with the label “bipolar” and told me God might not have been there after all, at least not in the way I thought he was. They used the term “hyper-religiosity” and chalked it all up to manic delusions, euphoria, and hallucinations. I was hurt and traumatized. It would take me years to overcome this.

My friends are already tired of my story. Six months after I returned home from France, even Amélie, who’d gone above and beyond the call of duty to help me when I was in the mental hospital there, was mystified as to how I still wasn’t over it.

Anyway, the whole thing definitely stunted my development into adulthood. I had so many dreams, mostly of living abroad, maybe even joining the Peace Corps, but those dreams were quickly crushed when a Christian counselor told me point blank that most missions organizations won’t take anyone who has a serious mental illness – at least not in the long term. I might be able to do short-term work but, especially in parts of the world where there’s little to no access to the medicine I need, I’m basically a liability.

Well, if you want to foster suicidal ideation in someone who’s just been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, that’s how you do it. Just tell them in no uncertain terms that everything they always dreamed of doing is now completely out of reach.

So I started writing a new story. I was twenty-three when I began jotting down this memoir. I figured, why not? It’s an interesting story. Besides, writing was my principle coping mechanism in France, both in Montpellier and at the mental hospital in Thuir. I had my journals, I sent bulk email updates (that my dad so thoughtfully saved for me). To my closest friends and family I sent handwritten letters and postcards. Then, to my best friend and my parents, I’d send “talking letters” (a.k.a. cassette tapes of me talking). Writing was such a natural thing for me I figured I could easily take it a step further and write something for the masses.

I think there was also this part of me that thought writing a book that people would actually want to read would help me feel more understood and secure a place in the world for me. I still feel so very insignificant and alone in this world. But at least I no longer want to die and my newest attempt at sharing my story will reflect that.

In short, I want to connect with people. I’ve never connected with anyone more than I have the people I’ve been hospitalized with. Even in the foreign mental hospital where we all spoke French, we connected somehow. In fact, my entire diary from that hospital experience is basically a reflection of what I saw and what I felt in response to the other people I met. I learned more in the almost three weeks I spent in the Thuir hospital than any other hospital experience I’ve had since.

That’s all I got for now.

Interpreting Tears

 

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Last night I was greatly encouraged and inspired by Rob Bell when he came to talk and sign books at our local bookstore. It would’ve been even better had I not been preoccupied with the incident that occurred just before he came. See, my friend and I were looking for a place to sit and I sat right next to this person who I knew was a local author and tried to strike up a conversation based on the totally cool t-shirt she was wearing. Then she and my friend pointed out to me that the seat I was in was reserved and I had to move.

I was humiliated and so I tried to outwardly make light of it but inside I began to feel that familiar heaviness and the urge to run away would have overtaken me had my friend not been there to ground me a little bit.

They’ve probably already forgotten it, she said and I knew she was right. But that didn’t stop the tears from escaping and, since I knew this was not an appropriate thing to cry over, I discretely wiped them away, one by one. It’s okay for a child to be upset over such an embarrassment but a grownup? I should’ve moved passed those kind of emotions long ago.

Tears-1998Tears don’t seem to function for me the way they do for most people, though. I remember church camp when I was a teenager and that one night towards the end when the speaker would invite everyone to surrender their lives to Christ and then we’d break into our individual church groups where everybody would be crying. It came to be so expected at church camp that when I returned as a counselor in 2004, it’d been dubbed “cry night.”

But I didn’t normally cry on “cry night.” I’d maybe cry every single night but cry night, though, whether my peers and counselors were aware of it or not. It’s just when everyone else broke down, my tears seemed to dry up. But hey, at least I was free to comfort them without the need to be comforted as well.

Being diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was 23 provided some explanation for my extreme emotions but still left a few unanswered questions. For instance, my suicide attempts were usually not linked with strong emotions. Sometimes I’d cut my wrists when I was feeling nothing at all. I was kind of cathartic in those moments and self-injury sometimes calmed me. That’s when the doctors decided to make borderline personality disorder my Axis II diagnosis. Annoying as the label was, it made me eligible for dialectic behavioral therapy (DBT) where I was taught to be less judgmental of self and others and to practice mindfulness.

DBT had homework assignments built into it. We had to practice each new skill we learned and then talk about it the following week in group therapy. I wasn’t necessarily the best student. Just like back in my university days I was scatterbrained. I wanted to learn everything so I could be a productive member of society and so I could make and keep friends but I couldn’t quite find the mental strength to fight for those things.

At least I stopped self-harming and the suicidal thoughts almost completely disappeared. Meanwhile my medication was working and aside from a few undesirable side-effects, I felt pretty good.

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But the crying spells still manage to creep up on me now and then and I’m quite sure they have nothing to do with the bipolar disorder because they’re brief and triggered by very specific circumstances.

When I was a child, authoritative figures had a lot of power over me. Maybe that’s why I behaved so well at work and school. When Mrs. W, my fourth grade teacher, visited with her new baby, we had a small party with her and I joked with my classmates about how she was my teacher to which her replacement, Mrs. R, said, oh no, Clara, don’t say that. She’s everybody’s teacher. And I immediately started to cry.

I didn’t mean it like that, I said through my tears. I was just kidding, I didn’t mean to say anything wrong.

The teachers reassured me that everything was fine but the tears had already surfaced and there was no disguising the depth of my remorse.

Fast-forward to university and not a single professor could confront me about missing assignments or low grades without provoking tears. In one class an assistant professor called on me to answer a question when no one would raise their hands and I answered best I could. However, my answer was unpopular and being forced to say anything at all brought tears to my eyes. Fellow students who passed me on the way out actually stopped to console me saying we know that’s not what you really thought. You were just under pressure.

Let’s not forget my work-related problems. I don’t think there’s a single boss I’ve had who’s never seen me cry. Even when I knew the news would not be good, I couldn’t prepare myself enough to hear it.

So why has this happened as recently as last night? What am I still hanging on to?

I went to see the Rend Collective on my birthday this year. They were playing in Portland so I used it as an excuse to see my best friend as well. Now I haven’t been to a concert in a long time so I’m not fully schooled on proper concert etiquette. The venue did not have seats so everyone was forced to stand for the whole concert and ticket prices were the same for everyone. That meant that if you wanted a good spot, you had to arrive early. But I didn’t realize that also meant I’d have to stay in the back the whole night. I thought the absence of chairs meant I could move around so I did only to be scolded by another attendee who said, you can’t move forward because some of these people came four hours early just to have their spots.

I apologized and moved to the back again. I moved quickly too because I felt the onset of tears the second she told me I’d messed up. I can’t cry over this. This is stupid.

My friend and I took a walk outside so I could cool off in the fresh air. It was raining but the rain felt wonderful and masked my tears quite well.

Last Fall I went to the National Geographic Multimedia Storytelling Workshop in Santa Fe and there were many tears that week! They didn’t come all at once but by the third day they were unstoppable. My assignment partner seemed to be scolding me for not pulling my weight and instead of discussing it like an adult, I ran out of the room to a solitary spot and wept freely.

Later, when the tears had subsided and I was more composed, she addressed my reaction to her words. She said she felt she was walking on eggshells with me and I didn’t know what to say in return. I wanted to tell the truth but the stigma accompanying mental illness is still quite strong, especially with the older generations. So I decided to tell her I have a mood disorder and that my emotions are kind of difficult to control sometimes. I assured her that it was nothing she said.

That was a lie, of course. I may not have realized it but I was lying to both of us. What she said did trigger an emotional reaction but since I wasn’t even fully aware of what was going on, I couldn’t exactly describe it, even to myself. Mood disorder was all I could muster and at least it didn’t feel like a lie.

I think it all boils down to my lack of self-worth. I won’t go into why it exists but I’ve never quite had the confidence it takes to achieve any of my dreams. I started college as a vocal performance major. I loved singing on stage but when I moved up to the college level I began to feel like I wasn’t good enough and lost the courage to audition for choir solos. In retrospect I probably wouldn’t have made much money as a singer anyway but the reason I dropped the major had more to do with how little I believed in myself.

And that essentially is how therapy works. We start by identifying the problem and then take it from there. I think I know where to focus my energy now.

To be continued….

 

 

Touched With Bipolar Disorder

(Spoilers)

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I’ll never forget my first manic episode, at least not my first full-blown one. That was the one that slapped me with the label “mentally ill” for the rest of the life. It was the one I’d spend years recovering from because it involved an involuntary hospitalization . I was in France, you see, and the police were part of the story as well as an ambulance and nurses holding me down in bed while they injected me with the medicine I’d refused earlier (because I didn’t believe I was sick). I was ultimately repatriated.

Once I returned home I received the “bipolar” label. The psychiatrist who first gave it to me understood my doubts and trust issues so she urged me to go to the library and look up the diagnostic information; see for myself whether or not it fit.

So I did and my “magical” manic experience began to unfold. There was a reason I hadn’t seen the warning signs. All those symptoms had slipped under the radar because I was “happy” and never saw any danger. But in hindsight, it was all there: racing thoughts, reduced need for sleep, loss of appetite, an abundance of energy, delusions of grandeur, paranoia, psychosis – and, if the memories weren’t evidence enough, I’d inadvertently kept a diary of everything as well. I could actually see changes in my handwriting, not to mention the deterioration of my written thoughts. Even in the hospital I managed to keep a relatively consistent diary of sorts and I could trace my return to a more realistic way of thinking after the forced introduction of anti-psychotics to my system.

Just saying I accepted my diagnosis was not enough to make me really accept it. Mania, after all, made me feel special, like I had a purpose in life. When it went away, I was desperate to find meaning again. I read Kay Jamison’s book Touched With Fire as well as her memoir An Unquiet Mind and I was both encouraged and troubled by them. I felt as though my level of creativity should be on par with Sylvia Plath, Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot, Victor Hugo and Virginia Woolf. What use was having these emotional gifts if I couldn’t publish a book or write a hit song?

I went through seasons of not taking my meds, just as the characters in the film Touched With Fire did. I wanted the mania to return but it was impossible to recreate the conditions that brought it on in the first place, a least not for me. Abandoning my medications more often than not led to depression. That’s when the suicide attempts became more frequent and from then on, depression and self-harm rather than mania, became my ticket to the psychiatric hospital.

I watched Touched With Fire through the lens of my own psychiatric hospital experiences as well as my memories of mania and depression. I was never one to pursue romantic relationships with fellow patients. Such relations were strongly discouraged if not forbidden, but they still happened. We’re human after all.

The hospital in the movie didn’t seem very realistic to me. It was very clean with far too many items available to the patients that should have been contraband. Metal forks, for instance, or even access to a kitchen area with an oven and stove, all seemed very unsafe. Also, the art supplies included sharpened pencils and the books themselves, being hardcover, would have been banned in number of facilities. I thought having those concrete stairs in the facility was a safety hazard too.

I realize that this was probably set in a private hospital since the two main characters seem to come from affluent families and receive a lot of financial support from their parents. At the same time the only two patients who seemed to have high IQs were the protagonists themselves. The others appear to suffer from intellectual disabilities as well as whatever mood disorder they might have been diagnosed with. It really annoyed me when things became a little too serious between Carla and Marco and the doctors and nurses went all One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on them. I mean, this is the 21st century. Aren’t we supposed to be fighting mental illness stigma? Why are we taking this step back?

As for relationships between two people with bipolar disorder, I don’t know how many have actually worked out in real life, but I’m optimistic. I mean, if both parties understand their illness, take their meds as prescribed, and keep all their psychiatric appointments, then I don’t see why a relationship couldn’t work. It’s the whole “having a baby” bit that bothers me. You see, a woman with bipolar disorder has to stop her meds if she’s going to become pregnant because psych meds can harm a developing fetus. That means, ideally, her pregnancy should be well-planned because she needs to be closely monitored by her psychiatrist. It’s a risky decision, but not impossible. Men with bipolar disorder have it easier when it comes to fathering a child since they don’t have to actually carry the baby for nine months.

I felt like the other family members in the film were very supportive. Their main challenge seemed to be showing their children they were on their side and only wanted the best for them. Those of us with bipolar disorder often feel misunderstood especially by loved ones who want the best for us. I loved how Carla and Marco believed they were from another planet. In fact, I was overjoyed when Marco gave Carla a copy of The Little Prince because I had a copy of that in France and I’d seen the musical by Richard Cocciante and Elisabeth Anaïs in Paris. When I lived alone in France, I played the CD recording from the show frequently because it was soothing and I completely understood the other-worldliness of Le Petit Prince himself. So I suppose if I felt like I was from another world and so did the main characters in Touched With Fire, then this must be kind of a common feeling for all of us who have bipolar disorder. What do you think?

Changing

Everyone thinks of changing humanity and nobody thinks of changing himself.  ~ Leo Tolstoy

In 2008 my friends persuaded me to join this new social network called Facebook. Some of my friends had been on it since way back when it was just for university students. I guess I was just slow to catch on.

I’d been late to join MySpace too but I enjoyed it because it gave me a place to write and express myself. Facebook I was less sure about. The only upside to it, I thought, was not feeling obligated to “rank” my friends. But then something strange and beautiful happened that almost never happened on MySpace. People who I hadn’t seen in more than a decade were sending me friend requests!

It was refreshing. I mean, I’m a nostalgic person to begin with. I love learning what my old friends have been up to over the years. This was before the big boom in smartphone usage as well so when Facebook indicated that someone was online, that person was actually online and most likely available to chat, so we’d chat. There was just one problem. You see, a lot can happen in ten years or more.   Even a gap as small as five years can hold considerable life changes. So the way we’re remembered or the way we remember others can change quite a bit.

From the template given out at Donald Miller’s first Storyline Conference in 2010. For more info, visit: storylineblog.com

An old high school friend, for example, would start chatting with me online and suddenly I’d have flashbacks. I’d remember all too well what I was like as a teenager and I can’t say I was fond of the girl I was. She was nice on the surface but deep down inside she was terribly insecure, timid, and scared. Many of the things I believed back then I no longer believe. In fact, now-me would probably not want to hang out much with then-me. But I can’t just explain it all a way in a few short sentences and my friends don’t have time for a long story. So what do I do?

I want to prove I’ve changed, first and foremost. People change. I’ve see it happen. There’s no blanket formula for change, of course. Sometimes we need professional help, sometimes we just need a challenging, unexpected life event to wake us up. Sometimes a simple word from a friend is all it takes.

I wrote the following to an old friend I was trying to reconnect with back in 2010 to try and explain how it was impossible to live my life and remain unchanged:

Life went through the extreme ups and downs a manic depressive patient goes through and each crossing taught another lesson. Each stage in life changed my perspective, to the point where old friends from as far back as high school could hardly believe I was the same.

I asked my Facebook friends recently whether or not any of them had a personal story about change. Not the kind of change that happens naturally with time. I meant change in thoughts, beliefs, and/or behaviors. But these Facebook friends weren’t too eager to tell me anything, not even in a private message. I wonder why? Do they possibly feel ashamed of who they once were? Is it hard to admit ever being someone we didn’t even like?

Many things have changed in my life since I graduated high school in 1999. When someone I haven’t seen in ages asks me what I’ve been up to all these years, I hardly know what to say. I think they want to hear about my accomplishments but my greatest accomplishments are meaningless without the struggles and failures that preceded them.

Let’s just address one of these challenges: cutting. I wasn’t really like most cutters. I first cut my wrists when I was 22 and studying in France. Nobody found out until long after the physical wounds had healed. And, because it was more or less a suicide attempt, it didn’t really resemble the stereotypical behavior of a “cutter.” Besides, I didn’t take a blade to my wrist again until I returned to the United States about 6 months later. In January 2004 I hurt myself so bad I could no longer conceal it, so a friend drove me to the ER where I was forced to sign myself into the inpatient adult psyche unit.

Between 2005 and 2007, wrist-cutting became a kind of addiction. For awhile in 2008 I thought I’d cured myself of it but then life became too stressful again and I self-harmed and landed in the hospital one last time.

I’d read a little about cutting (not much was written on it at the time) and I met some other cutters here and there but most of them didn’t wrist-cut like I did. They also tended to be younger than me. Cutting was kind of a teenage thing after all and there I was in my late twenties, my extended adolescence I guess. Maybe “cutter” wasn’t the right label for me.

I hate labels anyway. With mental illness they’re especially annoying. But, for psychiatrists to be able to treat us, we need some kind of label so I’ll tolerate it I suppose.

When psychiatrists make a diagnosis, they generally have at least an Axis I and an Axis II diagnosis. Axis I is the illness that’s usually treatable with psychotropic medicine. Axis II is the personality disorder or intellectual disability.

At my last hospitalization for self-harm in 2008, by diagnosis was as follows:

Axis I – Bipolar Disorder Type I

Axis II – Borderline personality traits

I blamed the personality “disorder” for most of my problems (the most famous book on BPD is called I Hate You, Don’t Leave Me). I mean, since 2004 I’d managed to make quite a few of my friends uncomfortable around me. By 2007 some of my closest friends had dropped out of my life altogether. I broke my cell phone twice in anger after receiving voicemail after voicemail too many nights in a row. All my emails were pathetic outpourings of emotions. I’d become very selfish without even realizing it. I absolutely hated myself but I didn’t know how to change. Once more, I feared I couldn’t change.

But bipolar disorder was no excuse, at least not in my case. I knew I couldn’t play the mental illness card and expect everyone to just roll with it. In the end, I simply had to let go of my pride and accept help.

In 2009 I moved back home with my parents. My psychologist suggested this thing called Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) which is the only therapy known to really help those with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). So I did that for a little while. My psychiatrist also helped me find the right medication to keep my moods in check and, aside from a brief setback in 2014 when I tried to find a medication with less annoying side-effects but couldn’t, I’ve been hospital-free and self-injury-free for a commendable amount of time.

Change is possible. To be honest, I’m still changing. I’m still learning and growing. I like to have my beliefs challenged. It’s good for me.  A huge part of changing and becoming a better person is learning when to admit you’re wrong. I’ll write more on that later.

Anyway, as I’ve said, many things have changed in my life over the years and this is just one of them. I focused on a behavior that has change however my core beliefs and philosophies have significantly changed as well. But I’ll save those stories for another time.

 

Amateur Blogging

 

bloggingWriting a blog is hard. I know this is my blog and I have the freedom to write whatever I want whenever I want. It’s not like anyone is forcing me to post something new twice a week. In fact, that’s how I used to write my blog, writing when I felt like it, not worrying about consistency or quality. It was all about freedom of expression, writing what was on my mind and then giving my thoughts away.

My mood has dictated my personal writings for as long as I can remember and I’d write in my diary now and then but it never was as satisfying as making a connection with someone else through the written word. It began as handwritten letters to pen pals and fan mail to my favorite celebrities. Then, when I left home for university, old-fashioned letters began to go out of style and email took over. The year I studied abroad, I began writing generic emails about my experiences that I’d cc or bcc to almost everyone in my address book, whether they asked me to or not. The only complaint I remember was a friend actually telling me to please bcc everyone because he had to comb through too many email addresses before he could read what I actually wrote. Otherwise the feedback, if any at all, was positive and encouraging, so I kept writing.

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All the emails I sent from France (thanks to my dad who saved them for me).

I still write letters by hand now and then. I feel a different kind of connection to my words when I write by hand. I take longer pauses to gather my thoughts. I’m focused and in tune with my writing instrument. My pen is an extension of me. I can write from anywhere, no electricity required. It is, by nature, poetry.

 

 

Letter

But the words I type on my computer screen have another advantage. They can travel farther and faster than any other form of writing or publishing could before. My words can be in several places at once with just the click of a button. In 2007 I caught a glimpse of this when I began writing things for my MySpace friends. Then, when everyone migrated to Facebook, I started a blog on Blogspot called Devoted to Dreaming. When that fizzled out I started one called Le Monde Clara. Then I tried to reinvent myself again with no references to mental illness in How to be the Exception. At last, a very tech-savvy friend saw me struggling and told me to come here to WordPress. In fact, in 2011 she sat me down and gave me an informal lesson on how to be a successful blogger. I took excellent notes but failed to follow all her advice. I still have the notes, though.
This year, around August, I made an important decision. I decided to erase the blogs from the previous four years and start again. Don’t worry. I didn’t erase them from existence. I simply took them down from the internet and filed them away for personal reference. Then I waited.

 

The-FirstHave I told you yet that I don’t know exactly what I’m doing? I’m an expert in nothing more than my own stories and I believe those stories have value but how much value and to whom I can’t possibly know. I visit quite a few popular blogs and their comment sections are sometimes several pages long but how genuine are those comments anyway? In this competitive world, how can you know if someone truly appreciates you or if they’re just doing more shameless self-promotion?

Of course, I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t say how amazing it feels to be re-tweeted by a celebrity – or anyone for that matter. When others share your work of their own freewill, it’s incredible! You really need to thank them.

I might as well admit my mental illness plays a huge part in all this. You might say that since my initial diagnosis at age 23, my entire worldview has been framed by my manic depression. What do I tell people? Am I now less human because my mind is broken? If I stop my medication, will I experience mania again? Why does no one understand me? Why do I feel ashamed? I feel so alone in this world, like a perpetual foreigner. Does anybody love me? 

I can’t write from my life experiences without sometimes writing about mental illness. I know that’s not really something all of you relate to and that’s okay. I’m not going to connect with everyone. But even if I make a connection with just one person, it will have been worth it.

Version 1.0 of this blog had an “About this blog” page. It explained the origin of the title and a little bit about what the focus of the blog was supposed to be. As of this post I haven’t made a new version of that page. I guess I’m sort of getting a feel for having the sort of dedication it takes just to post regularly, twice a week. Perhaps someday I will my ideas will run dry and I’ll have to take a break, travel the world (if ever I can afford to) and come back with something new and amazing to share. I do love a good travel story.

California-Shirt-BBeyond blogging, I need to have clear goals. What is the endgame? How will sharing personal stories help me? I have some ideas but for now let’s just leave it at truth and clarity. Besides, it’s a lonely world and if I can connect with someone else’s writings and feel less lonely, maybe the stories I write will help another person feel less lonely as well.

The big question has to do with profit. Do I want to be a professional writer? I don’t know. I thought I did for a long time and I can’t deny that the extra income would be nice. But what would I write? I’ve met people who have enough books in their heads to keep writing novels for the rest of their lives. Then there are journalists who live to tell other people’s stories. I won’t bother to list all the niche writers’ markets out there. Few of them are of interest to me anyway, at least as a writer.

So how about this: I keep enjoying my status as an amateur blogger and you tell me what you think. Next week, more stories.

Laughter in the Mental Hospital

November, 2008 – Flagstaff Medical Center, Adult Psych Unit – My last hospital visit for the next five years.

 

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I’d been hospitalized in Flagstaff 4 years earlier and it had been a little over 5 years since my very first hospitalization in Thuir, France. A couple of times in between I’d been hospitalized at St. Luke’s in Phoenix. Later, in 2014, I would visit Aurora Behavioral Health in Tempe as well, but of them all, I thought Flagstaff was the best.

I looked around the old adult psych unit and some things had changed. There’d been some remodeling, for one. Also, smoking on campus had been banned. The “cage” that used to serve as the smokers’ patio was now just an enclosure where anyone could get some fresh air, but no one could escape. Patients who smoked were now forced to wear nicotine patches. The only other change was at mealtime. There were now menu choices instead of a buffet filled with unidentifiable and unappetizing food and visitors were no longer allowed to bring us food from the outside.

Although they weren’t the same patients I’d known 5 years before, they shared some similar characteristics.  There was a highly intelligent older gentleman with depression; a grandmother with severe depression voluntarily admitted for a series of ECT (electric convulsive therapy) treatments; a young, blue-collar worker with staples in his neck who’d gone to ICU first (after he’d slit his throat and stabbed himself to escape the fear and paranoia caused by his schizophrenia); a tall and lean elderly man with long salt and pepper hair and a straggly beard who hoarded packets of a Cholula in his room and seemed to be suffering PTSD after having been abused in the state hospital over four decades earlier.  Strange as it may seem, I felt at home with most of these mad and broken people.

 

country-boysAfter a day or two, I watched as my mentally ill brothers and sisters were declared “stable” and released back into the real world. My turn came soon enough but the freedom didn’t last long. A few days after my release, I self-injured in a very deliberate and scary way. Covered in my own blood, I called my best friend who bravely drove me to the ER where my physical wounds (that looked worse than they actually were) were treated. Then my friend returned home and I was escorted back to the psych unit I’d been in just days before.

 

StartledIt was around lunch time when I arrived so everyone was gathered in the dining room. I had a weird feeling of déjà-vu as I poked my head in and surveyed the crowd. Aren’t these the people who were released before me? Yet there they were, waving and smiling at me, saying, welcome back! 

Me: What? What’s going on? Weren’t you all discharged before me?

Them: We were! But then we had to come back, just like you!

And so it was, the schizophrenic guy had begun to feel paranoid again and went straight back to the hospital, practically begging to be readmitted. They’re after me again! Please, you have to let me in!

The older, depressed man had fallen victim to serotonin syndrome shortly after his release. His new medication had actually caused him to become suicidal.

The depressed grandmother was still there and receiving ECTs. She became my new roommate although she couldn’t remember me. Short-term memory loss is a temporary but common side effect of ECT. She couldn’t even remember the names of her grandchildren!

The gray-bearded Cholula-hoarder was still there. He’d begun routinely “swallowing the sun” at sunset, a ritual which involved him standing outside around sundown and, just as our nearest star began to disappear on the horizon, he’d open his mouth inhale as though he were consuming the sun.

There were some new faces as well. A young 20-something who hadn’t left her house in three months and had been brought to the hospital by concerned family members.

A 40-year-old anorexic woman.

A woman who had cerebral palsy, a condition that affected her motor skills and left her with a speech impediment. She was married to a wonderful man, himself free of disabilities, who visited her every day. She told me once that her diagnosis of bipolar disorder was much more challenging for her than the CP ever was.

Since so many of us had returned a relatively short time after we’d been discharged, the staff was careful not to make the same mistake twice. They were determined, this time, to keep us as long as necessary. We patients felt much the same way so we used our time wisely and told our doctors everything so they’d have more than enough information to help us. In our free time, we entertained one another.

One time, while we waited for one of our group sessions to start, a patient drew a silly smiley face on the white board and made us all laugh by dancing around and calling the place “Club FMC.”   Another time some rebellious patients turned up the radio and threw an impromptu dance party. My schizophrenic friend found a book on the shelf in which someone had written a note instructing the reader to turn to a certain page. We followed the instructions and the picture on the page we were sent to had been marked up with circles, highlights, and arrows accompanied by the words “Look! Aliens!” We cracked up laughing. I mean, come on, someone has to fulfill the “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” stereotype.

The psychiatric unit is on lockdown 24/7. Patients, especially new patients, often feel like prisoners. The unit is small. There’s no room to run and walking can be misconstrued as “pacing” because there’s usually no room large enough to satisfactorily walk in. There was, however, a hallway to walk up and down. It wasn’t particularly long, but we made the most of it.

We walked up the hallway and struck a Zoolander-style pose each time we came close to the security camera. We built paper airplanes and had competitions to see whose would fly the farthest. We played piano and sang for each other (of course, the Hamlet song I’d performed in the French psych hospital didn’t work so well in a place where people actually understood the lyrics; the nurses banned me from singing it there).

 

SquirrelOnce, when I was given permission to leave the unit and walk around the hospital with the recreational therapist, we swung by the cafeteria and I grabbed a handful of Cholula packets for my friend back at the psych unit. When we returned to the unit, I walked up to him, told him to open his hands, and filled them with packets of his favorite hot sauce. The old man rejoiced with the innocence of a child! Then he thanked me and hurried off to his room to hide his treasure.

My first time ever as a patient in a psychiatric hospital (February 2003), one of the nurses had finally been given permission to take me for a walk outside on the hospital grounds. I’d been longing to be outdoors for what seemed like forever! But I had to wait until someone was available to escort me because I was considered a flight risk. We spoke in French.

Nurse: (teasingly) You will not try and run away?

Me: (smiling) Of course not.

Nurse: I understand you like to sing and sometimes you sing to the other patients.

Me: Yes. I mean, if everyone already thinks I’m crazy, why not?

Nurse: We don’t use the word “crazy” here. It’s not a nice word and, once more, you’re not crazy

Me: I’m sorry. What I mean is, I can sing while I’m here because people expect me to act differently. It’s a kind of freedom.

“Crazy” is often times seen as derogatory because it carries stigma. I once went to a Van Gogh exhibit in Denver, Colorado. I listened carefully to the guide’s voice in my headphones and never once did I hear mention of Van Gogh’s mental illness. Never once was it revealed that he spent time in an asylum or cut off his own ear. His death was explained as him being hit by a “stray bullet” and nothing more. Yet I’d begun carrying a pill box with me that told a very different story. On it, Van Gogh had become the poster boy for insanity.  It said “Crazy things happen if you forget to take your meds” and it showed one of Van Gogh’s self-portraits with the ear detached. Maybe the curators or the Van Gogh family wanted to avoid calling the famous impressionist “crazy” but for someone like me who relies on psychiatric medicine to stay “normal,” this kind of stuff actually helps me cope.  I mean, Van Gogh’s one of my people because he suffered from mental illness and the fact that he was able to create such beauty despite all the other things going on in his mind is truly remarkable and inspiring.

Becoming-Van-Gogh                     Pill-Box

The thing is, we mentally ill folk need to own the words that have been used to stigmatized us, the same way other subcultures have owned words like nerd. When I was a kid, being called a geek or nerd was an insult but now, thanks in part to shows like The Big Bang Theory , Chris Hardwick’s Nerdist, and the Vlogbrothers (John Green and Hank Green) with their “Nerdfighteria people wear the nerd-label with pride.

There is no question that mental illness is serious. If you’re sick enough to be hospitalized, chances are you’ve either done something terrible to yourself or fantasized about self-harm or suicide. Some people have more to deal with than others. Mentally ill mothers have had their own children taken from them. Marriages have split up. Sons and daughters have been abandoned and disowned by their friends and families. It’s heart wrenching.

But, if you have a mental illness, it’s much easier to cope with it if you can joke and laugh about it. Humor and laughter is supposed to bring us together, after all. I am just going to ask that you to abide by one important rule: You can make fun of your own family, you can make fun of yourself, but be very carefully how you talk about mental illness if you don’t have one or don’t work in the field of psychology or psychiatry. It is unfair to joke about something you barely understand.  What was meant to be funny in these cases could be taken as hurtful and offensive. This, of course, extends beyond mental illness but let me tell you, mental illness stigma is alive and well.

For example, if you have a job but you end up in the mental hospital for a few days and can’t return to work without a doctor’s note, the psychiatric hospital will more than likely have a generic memo pad and will gladly write a note that in no way reveals to your boss that you have a mental illness. Most psychiatrists have these tools available to them as well. Many mental illnesses are disabling and covered on the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 requiring employers to make accommodations for the mentally ill, but most people who can hide their illness still choose to hide them because prospective employers can usually find another “reason” to deny you employment anyway. “Normal” people are more afraid of mental illness disabilities than they are of someone with a visible disability such as a quadriplegic. That’s the power of stigma at work. I was even told not to use the term “bipolar disorder” on any of my applications because it raised red flags. My psychiatrist told me to write “depression” because I’m more inclined to have depressive episodes anyway so it’s not entirely a lie and it looks less scary than “bipolar.” Also, I live with and near senior citizens and they love to talk about their doctor visits. But, if you mention that one of your doctors is a psychiatrist, they become visibly uncomfortable and the best course of action, then, is to change the subject.

But there are some amazing people out there using comedy and celebrity to fight mental illness stigma. Here are some of my favorites:

The lovely, talented and very funny Carrie Fisher:

Maria Bamford is (so far) the only stand-up comedian I’ve paid to see live.  She not afraid to be vulnerable with her audience and she’s definitely one of my favorite comics.

The Mental Illness Happy Hour is a podcast hosted by Paul Gilmartin in which he talks with successful people (mostly comedians and other entertainers) about some of the personal struggles they’ve had with mental illness.  The podcasts aren’t necessarily funny but they are real and a sobering reminder that those of us who have mental illnesses are not alone.  It’s also a hopeful podcast when you consider how many of the guests have overcome great odds to get to where they are in life.