This post is part of the month long series “Stuck in my Head”, discussing mental illness. Normal posting resumes in April.
It’s difficult living with a myriad of mental illnesses. For me, I think I started noticing something was “wrong” when I was around 12, which is about three years roughly before I was even introduced to Paganism. One thing I particularly remembered is how suicidal I was in school and that I probably needed help. I think since then, I have been seeing some type of mental health practitioner on and off and without my parents knowing because I didn’t feel like being lectured about how, despite the historical horrors and consistent prejudices that Black folks have had to face, even in modern times, we don’t have mental problems. Mental problems were usually seen as “White people complaining about how good they got it” and everyone else is supposed to be some machine that is well accustomed to being held back due to institutionalized hatred. Oddly enough, being told to just “suck it up” and “deal with it” didn’t prevent me from having breakdown after breakdown nor did it stop me from having suicide attempts. If anything, not really having room to express emotion kind of exacerbated those self-destructive responses. Huh, funny that. Forced self-dehumanization both causes and speeds up poor mental health, who could have seen that coming?
While being told that somehow, I don’t have feelings or that I should ignore them so I can proceed further in life, I would be told by the same people who would rather not see a therapist but use religion instead, either by going to church or reading the Bible or praying. I never liked the idea of that because religion is nice but sometimes you need a super objective response that won’t result in “Oh, you just didn’t pray hard enough.” That used to (and still does) infuriate me because it is so dismissive of my problems, it doesn’t even toss a potential solution.
Although, when I was younger, I tried to take all the free mental health services I could that was provided by my schools because I didn’t want to “pay to just talk to someone”, which was the explanation I often told myself and others. That was my major concern, the thought of paying someone money just to talk to me when I have people (though, not many) to talk to …oh and the thought of getting institutionalized. I didn’t want to get sent off because I felt that was the final step of proving how “crazy” I was, to finally be locked away.
Dealing with mental illnesses suck but still having to interact with people, I’ve grown pretty irritated with continual stigmas and myths and regular missteps. I guess laying them out in list form would help
Being told, “Oh, I have that, too, it’s like a super power”: Chances are, if you think my OCD, PTSD, DD-NOS, etc is cool, you probably don’t have it. There’s nothing fun about having episodes where you can’t remember anything that you did. Nor is it fun having to pretty much gravitate around select people because you’re certain you’re about to act out and to the point strangers think you’re stalking said person (this actually happened to me, yay having noteworthy friends and dealing with their over-hyper fans). Usually when people say this, it’s in effort to minimize the severity of the issue, not to create solidarity because it generally follows this next item below:
Being told, “Why don’t you do [unhelpful/dumb idea here], that’s what works for me”: Back in February I had another suicide attempt and it was fairly evident given I pretty much walked around in tears and if spoken to, I probably was going to say “I should have taken more sleeping pills” within the first three sentences. One lady, who ironically was the security of the Department of Mental Health (yeah, take a guess how much work these DofMH guys do), told me to “get a grip”.
Get a grip?
Why didn’t I think of that?
Just get a grip. Sounds so much easier than taking a fatal dose of sleeping pills the night before and planning to slit my wrist next, I wonder why just “get a grip” didn’t come to me first. Man, if only I could have used my 132 academic IQ to come to that conclusion. Wow, thank you lady who works for the Department of Mental Health, you guys save so many lives. It was such a brilliant idea, I wound up going back home and continued trying to kill myself. Man, just “get a grip”, what ease. I’ll try to remember that the next time.
Chances are, whatever you’re going to suggest, there’s a stupidly good likelihood I (and others who suffer from mental illness) have tried that method many times and if it didn’t work then when things were less severe, it’s most likely not going to work now when things are about to go Chernobyl in my head. Just listen to us, it’s probably the best you can do. There’s a reason why there are people who are professionally trained to deal with people like me and then there’s people who show absolutely no concern when encountering someone in absolute distress.
Being told “Just pray/God will find a way/Take it to the cross”: Firstly, I’m not Christian. I really dislike when people try to help me by blatantly ignoring the fact that I’m not Christian because it makes me think, “If you’re going to willfully ignore a pretty basic fact about me, you’re probably not going to be much help down the road with my actual problems, which is not ‘just simply Not Christian’”. Secondly, even when I talk to suicidal people and other folks who are at the end of their rope, I never bring up religion because the distressed person want plausible and visible answers to their problems. Telling them to pray to an invisible guy in the sky doesn’t sound like a reasonable answer that will fix their problems. The point to talking to a distressed person is to talk them down, not make them feel further hopeless since you’re pretty much told them to change their perspective because the situation is solution-proof. I think back when I was in high school and intensely suicidal, someone told me that Jesus is there and the usual dribble that accompanies saying this. I just responded, “Great, I’ll be able to tell Him personally how much he sucks at his job.” When someone is that far gone, religion can’t save them. When it comes to mental illness, these illnesses need to be treated with the same severity as physical illness. If I came down with flu, I don’t want someone simply to pray over it, I want to see a doctor.
Being told “Black people don’t commit suicide/have problems because we’ve overcame so much”: That’s completely phony and self-dehumanizing internalized racism. Also, it’s funny how the word “collectively” does not get used. We have overcame a lot collectively because there were definitely slaves who killed themselves because living a tortured existence under systematic despair and holocaust did not seem enticing. There are Black folks who have killed themselves and they’re still Black. Otherwise, someone is going to have to go to the family of Soul Train’s creator Don Cornelius’ and tell them he’s posthumously revoked his Black card somehow despite all he’s done for contemporary Black culture. Being Black shouldn’t have to be synonymous with “eternal suffering”. Black people are still people and people in general have problems, especially when exposed to strongly affecting environments more than others. Besides, any idiot who says that we’re Black and therefore do not have problems need to look at a few statistics in regards to Blackness and mental health.
“Oh man, I’m so crazy. It’s fun being insane”: No, it’s not. I have been creative and I have had mental episodes, I was not creative during those episodes. If anything, I couldn’t create anything because I was too busy being depressed or acting out. Funny how going unhinged really takes up your time and pretty much takes you hostage. There’s a difference between being eccentric and suffering from mental illness. Insanity = Creativity is one of the biggest and most dangerous creativity myths, right up there with Drugs=Creativity, because it makes people actively not seek out help for their problems or justify their problems with, “Yeah my problems are bad but I wouldn’t be able to paint/write/create like I do so I guess there’s some silver lining.” No, no there isn’t. I know because I used to think this way myself, that getting rid of my problems would get rid of my creative works. This was until it finally dawned on me that I’m getting reaaaally unstable fast because when I put myself back in a volatile environment (similar to the one that originally gave me these problems) and figured I was going to wind up in a box. Ok, I actually gave myself a card reading and it pretty much read out, “You need a therapist or you’re gonna need a priest.” Yeah, no joy was had during those episodes, especially the dissociative ones. Things are comparatively better now since I have a therapist but I still have the occasional episode when triggered and I’m absolutely no fun when I’m triggered.
“You’re Pagan, maybe that’s why you have problems”: I guess we could blame my religion and my metaphysical practices for something that occurred several years before I actively started doing those practices because that would be so many worlds easier than actually blaming, I don’t know, the highly vitriolic and PTSD inducing environments that I was raised in. Since I was brought up in the inner city, I thus saw and encountered a lot of horrible things and there’s even statistics that has backed me up. My own city, Baltimore, was described as a “war zone … 80% of the population has PTSD” by sociologists in the local Citypaper back in, I believe, 2008. In addition, I have to deal with street harassment, open drug trafficking and all the wonderful monsters – I mean, “people”- that come with it, folks who destroy lives like walking atom bombs but are protected in the community. This is some of the stuff that’s usually ignored, dismissed or swept under the rug, some really important and impacting problems…and you’re going “Maybe you should stop being Pagan?” Really? How about doing something about the drug dealers on the corners or the zombies and zonked out, stoned out, passed out people they create? Perhaps trying to tackle rape culture is too much work? Someone just got shot and you’re telling folks that crying is a really stupid way to deal with it, it’s just part of life and you have to move on instead of getting stuck on the “little things” like random happenings of violent death? How about the fact I never felt comfortable in my own skin until relatively recently because the people who gave me the most hell for being different were Black folks? Really? All this and the fact I don’t pray to the Christian deity anymore is somehow the freakin problem? Yeah, no.
“I guess crazy isn’t that fun after all”: What I also encounter, yet is not exactly phrased but expressed is the “I guess crazy isn’t that fun after all” act. These are usually shown by people who say that being mentally wayward is great…until they interact with someone who has an actual illness and find out it’s not all spontaneous and funky. All of a sudden, it’s pretty evident that this person is sometimes many miles past “quirky” and they aren’t acting the way they are because it’s cute but because the demons in their heads are making serious noise. That means sometimes these people can bum a party out or needs extra care. All of a sudden, hanging with someone who has depression, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder isn’t as awesome as music videos and movies make it seem, so those people get left in the dust, usually with no explanation and no warning. That’s because their friend, armed now with only the negative myths and stigmas of mental illness, tend to now avoid them and the episodes they come with because if the mental illness is not going to create an artistic savant like the movies promised, then they guess they’re going to get a serial murderer instead. Or the mentally ill person is just “not as fun as I thought they’d be”. The power of friendship, isn’t it nice?
“Your illness bothers me”: Do I really have to explain this one? They’re usually couched in the “I guess crazy isn’t that fun after all” group but are so special, they need their own space. These folks first were first saying, “I’ll be there for you, just let me know” and other, usually comforting, lines but you start to learn that’s what they are, lines. You can tell because those lines change or is simply not in sync with how the person actually is. They say “You can call me at any time” but are practically unreachable, say “you can always talk to me” but give some of the worst advice. And then the switch up where the person is really really uncomfortable with knowing someone has a mental illness, especially if the illness produces a couple suicide attempts, is something jaw dropping. It isn’t easy learning about the mental illness a loved one is impacted by but treating the person like a leaper isn’t going to exactly help. At all. If the person who feels bothered by the mental illness doesn’t like it, they should imagine how the person actually suffering with the illness feels.
“You don’t need a therapist, you can talk to me!”: Ok, I have a lot of knowledge of medicine because I’m in a family where pretty much all the women are doctors. This means I could probably help you medically a little more than the average person but I will still recommend you go see a doctor. A therapist is a trained professional so if I start to disassociate or have an episode, they can effectively do something about it. In my experience, the average person just does everything they can to make my episodes worse without knowing it. A therapist is trained to not make me feel bad for having a disorder. A therapist actually has the training to deal with my very, very real disorders. Watching Monk or A Beautiful Mind does not mean you can help me at all. And if anything, usually the ones who say this generally are the least helpful because they don’t do anything that helps you, just stuff that makes them feel they’re being helpful, wise and smart. I don’t try to persuade my diabetic friend to not take insulin because I saw some illogical writing about all you need is to limit sugar intake because that could kill them. Telling me to ignore my episodes and to just see them as part of life could easily throw me into a suicidal pattern and wind up killing me. I need a therapist to control my disorders because it’s more than just a case of the blues the same way my diabetic friend needs a doctor to control her disease because it’s more than just a case of having an awful sweet tooth. And given the examples of usual responses I get from people who learn about my disorders, why would I want to talk to them?
It is a long road dealing with mental illness. It’s not how the tv shows and movies depict it at all. It’s frustrating and since more people know the oft-pushed myths about it than the reality, it just adds to the frustration. Also, because mental illness is usually invisible (even some of the psychosomatic symptoms are invisible, too), it’s either folks think you’re making it up for attention or it’s just an issue that simple stern discipline can correct.
It’s even more problematic when as a Black person, you’re not really represented in any widespread campaigns for mental illness. The lack of representation passively pushes the stereotypical and fairly internalized myth that “Black folks don’t feel pain” and it’s harder to identify with the campaign well enough to get help. Then, getting help is difficult because a lot of head doctors do not like to take racism into account of what could cause stress because it’s easier to describe the patient as “militant” rather than actually understand what they’re going through. (That’s actually the exact word therapist #3 said to me. I never came back for another session). This is really an issue because there are very, very little Black therapists (or really any other therapist besides White). It means a lot of people are probably going to pass on getting help simply because they are thoroughly convinced that it would be useless or possibly harmful to tell a White person, certified shrink or not, about their problems because it could be an easy one-way ticket to a nut house for simply saying “I don’t like dealing with racism.” Being a shrink does not always improve communications because psychology as a whole is mainly centered on Whiteness and it’s too easy to look like you’ve finally lost your marbles if you don’t follow along the narrative.
Of course, things are further complicated when you’re not part of the big three religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam). Chances are, especially if you’re Pagan, your expression of faith is not covered under the “sane” category. Saying you talk to deities and believe trees have spirits is practically a surefire way to get locked away if your therapist isn’t open-minded enough. Yep, it’s tough when you’re going nuts.
Next time, we’ll post some how-to’s on how to get a therapist and for low cost as well as healthy coping mechanisms to deal with mental illness. Due to the lateness of this post (sorry, folks) that post will be on Sunday.