This past weekend I declared to someone that “I am Mentally Ill.” Her response was, “No you’re Not!” and we actually argued back and forth about whether or not I am mentally ill. And just for the record, I am. However, I have decided to feel no shame. I have decided to shout it to the roof tops. I AM MENTALLY ILL!!
Recently I’ve done some reading about mental illness. I read An Unquiet Mind by Kay Jamison. This book is really eye opening about Bipolar Disorder ( or as she calls it, Manic Depressive). Kay is amazing, highly intelligent and has accomplished so much and had so many struggles with her mental illness, but she has come out on top. I was really struck by her descriptions of how it feels to battle Bipolar. The way the mind gets so busy and confused with thoughts flying, the highs and lows that lead a person to do things they wouldn’t normally do. And the despair that comes with feeling this way. That it will never go away, that it is something to be kept secret. Can you imagine the personal internal battle? Just living a normal life would be difficult.
It made me realize that the power of the brain is staggering and a small defect can affect a person so very much that their whole life is in shambles. It’s amazing to me that so many people in the world don’t have to deal with this. They would have no idea. And if they did, they would have epic respect for someone who has battled through it and become successful despite the issue with their wiring.
I also just recently started reading Listening to Prozac by Peter Kramer. The book was written in the 90’s and apparently back then when Prozac was new there were all kinds of questions about mental illness and drug therapy (not that there aren’t still questions today! The mind is truly a complicated matter). What the author talks a lot about is how scientists have been using medications to determine what illness someone has, basically working backward toward a diagnosis by how the patient responds to the drugs. And one word that kept coming up in the book is BIOLOGY. Biology is not something most people think about when thinking about a mental illness. However, mental illness IS Biology.
As an example, here’s a list of biological problems with my physical being: I’m blind. Not completely, but I’m pretty blind. My teeth were crooked as a child. I have feet that tend to pronation. I have Endometriosis. All of these issues are problems with my biology. They are probably in part genetic or perhaps wholly genetic. There are solutions to these problems in our modern day. I have glasses and contacts. I might consider Lasik at some point. I had braces and I still wear a retainer. I have special inserts for my sneakers to protect my knees and ankles from the strain of pronation. I have birth control pills to reduce the pain of endometriosis.
What’s interesting to me is that no one would ever make me feel badly about myself because I need glasses. No one would look at a family with children who have crooked teeth or leg braces or a heart defect and think, wow that family is messed up! However, I have been taught throughout my lifetime that I should feel ashamed about the biology of my brain. I have been taught that if I work hard enough, if I am strong enough, I can overcome my mental defects which are only there because I am weak or less mentally. No one would ever say to me, if you work hard enough on yourself you can see again and overcome your blindness. No one would ever say, if you weren’t so weak you wouldn’t have crooked teeth. However, these are biological defects and there are treatments available that I have taken advantage of.
The same is true for mental illness. Crazy doesn’t exist. Madness doesn’t exist. It is due to a brain that has defects in its wiring. My belief is that we are genetically predisposed to mental illness. For me, with Panic Disorder, I had a panic attack at a certain point during my childhood and thereafter tied my panic in with that event. I learned and tried to cope with what was happening to me in the best way I knew how. I tried to protect myself and thus I created anticipatory anxiety on top of the naturally occurring sensitivity I have to fear and panic.
An article I read online stated that it is believed that there is a predisposition to panic in our genes. Genes that deal with how memories are stored and our sensitivity to events and emotions. Which means that I store memories of fear in a different way than someone else. And I am predisposed to be sensitive to panic. This is where the electrician comes in to fix the wiring in my brain, because dealing with panic and anxiety in therapy is a good thing, however although you can tackle your beliefs and fears that center around your panic and try to face them, it is not possible to correct the defects of the brain with talk therapy. That’s where medicine comes in.
Since I’ve been back on meds, I have noticed a lot of different things about myself. It’s not that my personality has changed, although to some it might seem that way. The difference is that the the rumination/obsession related fear thinking that I used to feel has lessened. It was that thinking that was destroying me. It kept me afraid, cautious, unavailable and depressed. Spontaneous panic attacks also no longer happen to me and since I haven’t panicked nearly as much as when not on meds, I find that slowly the fearful hold it had on my life is lessening. The difference is drastic. Where once I would stay home or be terrified of events, now I am excited and looking forward to life. Where once camping, trips, car rides, dinner out, time with friends, etc were all cause for anxiety, now I find I am not afraid. I don’t obsessively think. I don’t fear and make up scenarios to fear. Now, I do. I live more in the moment than ever before.
That’s not to say that everything is perfect. I still have some of my old fears related to panic. I do sometimes cause a panic attack to happen because of my fear of an certain kind of event that I have stored as a terrible scary memory. I think therapy has helped. It gave me more of an awareness of where my thinking was flawed and perfectionist. It also taught me compassion for myself which is something that I wasn’t familiar with because I had thought myself crazy for so long. That combined with the meds has really changed me.
And I’m now mature enough to really understand how I’ve changed. Just a year ago, I was on edge every day of my life. Everyday I was on the verge of a panic attack. My body felt quivery and afraid, my mind would race and invent and obsess and any little event out of the norm would send me over the edge into panic. Physically I was poised for panic. My biology was poised for panic and there was nothing I could do to stop it. There were ways to lessen its effect through meditation, exercise, diet and vigilance, but nothing on earth would make it go away completely, unless the problem in the wiring of my brain was fixed.
This is a new realization for me. Even though I’ve known for years that panic attacks run in my family, I considered it a weakness or that we were all plain crazy and I was filled with shame and fearful that people would find out my secret. I can think of at least 3 relations who definitely suffer and I’m sure there are others that I don’t know about and now that I have fully comprehended how changed I am on meds and have learned more about the origins of panic disorder, I realize that it is truly genetic and biologic. It is not our minds or soul that is sick, but our physical body. I suffer from a defect in my brain. My wiring doesn’t work quite right. Why should I feel badly about a physical genetic problem? And all related issues are simply my coping methods for this genetic problem. Wouldn’t a person who was blind, also come up with coping methods? It makes sense.
The moral of the story is that I refuse to be beaten down or made to feel badly about a problem in my genetics. I don’t feel bad about wearing glasses. I’m not ashamed to say I’m wearing contacts. Why should I be ashamed to say that I am mentally ill and am on medication? I know that society has created a stigma. And it really hurts me to think of all the thousands of people throughout history who suffered from an uncurable mental illness and were treated horrifically.
I think it’s time for those of us in the Mentally Ill community to bond together, to stand up, to declare that we will not be ashamed. We will not accept a stigma, or weird looks or people who refuse to understand. We are creative, we are highly intelligent, and the mentally ill have been some of the most impressive humans in history. I want to see mental illness treated like my eyesight. Like my pronation, like my crooked teeth. A biological problem that I am seeking help for and not a weakness or something I can “fix” if I work hard enough. It is not a weakness, it is not a lack of character, it is not that I am lesser than anyone else. I am just built differently and being built this way has made me special too. I am in touch with my emotions and my body. I am highly sensitive and thoughtful. I am funny and able to laugh at the twists and turns of life. I am expressive and due to my struggles I can put into words things that someone else might not be able to.
I refuse to accept stigma. I shout from the rooftops. I am Mentally Ill. I am ME!