It’s National Mental Health Awareness Month. Or, at least, President Trump said it was. I don’t know. When you’re crazy and it’s been documented, every day is mental health day. And every day is a day that we should have open and honest conversations about mental health. Our economy hinges on it. We can estimate, in the billions, how many hours of productive work are lost due to fatigue or apathy. Poor mental health sags on our country like weight on a tree branch. It fills our jails. It gives us a fair chunk of our entertainment (intentionally and otherwise). It’s the reason I wake up at 5:20 am, every weekday, and go put out fires across two towns.
Seems we only want to have conversations about mental health when someone well past the point of no return gets ahold of a gun and blows a dozen people away. Mass murder is a hell of a conversation starter, but this does a disservice to the millions of Americans who suffer and triumph in silence. It’s one of the many failings of our political infrastructure that serious, fundamental issues are only addressed in the bluntest terms and scenarios possible. Much like the working poor, the silent people with mental illness who plug away every day are ignored in favor of this week’s mass murderer. I question at times how many people are poor because of their mental health, but we would be up all night. It’s all circular. The snake is eating its own tail and shitting in its own mouth, endlessly. All things seem doomed to repeat endlessly.
I struggled for many years when I didn’t have to. Or more realistically, I didn’t realize it wasn’t supposed to be that way. I figured that most people spent weeks of their life gutted and numb before trading off for six days of sleeping three hours or less, trying to cram as much into a day as possible. But even that is a little sensational. Some days I feel a roiling ocean bursting against the walls of my insides and somedays I wake up and watch the day slip by without comment or participation. Some days I make a list and finish it in record time and some days I wake up twelve hours after I go to sleep and accomplish even less.
Nobody could quite pinpoint what was going on in me. Least of all me. At various stages of my life, I’ve been called obsessive-compulsive, bipolar, autistic, hyperactive, depressed, manipulative, sociopathic, bored, emotionless. I made a psych appointment before leaving Indianapolis and my new therapist, 20 minutes after meeting me, had a eureka moment: I actually had ADHD! I had been misdiagnosed my whole life! This was the day of recovery!
I grimaced and asked her to increase my medicine. There is a myth that one day a person can become mentally well. It is true that we can make great strides and it is also true that certain mental conditions are situational, but there is a danger in telling unwell people that they will be healed. I suppose a large part of my resentment of religion is wrapped up in this. It feels like a form of ingratitude. People worse off than me go see some geek in a suit with Teflon hair who shoves them over and declares them healed. Bullshit. But that’s the sensational example. I heard the same thing in podunk worship houses that couldn’t afford to pimp their congregations on public access television. Few people in the religion racket have clean hands.
Even now, I remind myself that there will not be a time in my life where I do not take medication. I’ve worn glasses for over half my life, and much like nearsightedness, adult hyperactive bipolar autism doesn’t clear up just because you’ve seen just fine through your glasses for a few years. I suppose I’ve also developed a resentment of psychiatrists and insurance companies because they seem hellbent on separating otherwise normal people from their medicine. I had a hell of a month when I discovered that my useless marketplace insurance plan didn’t see a need for me to take extended release Seroquel.
So I halved my pills as I argued, and I scrambled to print and mail argument forms as I worked my usual sixty plus hours a week, and I watched my agitation explode, and my situational panic attacks become a daily, debilitating occurrence. I couldn’t afford six hundred dollar pills but I developed a good working relationship with a plastic bottle or two of gut-rot vodka that the most destitute Siberian wouldn’t even touch. My insurance representative told me that my provider didn’t understand why I needed the medication I had taken without deviation for nearly two years. I told her it wasn’t for her to understand, called her a cunt, and threw the phone across the room.
Mental illness makes you mean. I have mentally checked out and blown up on more than a few people and discovered, hours later, the horrible things that exploded out of me. It’s certainly not sexy. I’ve been described as brooding many times, to the point of it becoming an internal in-joke, but anyone expecting me to materialize at the right moment like Edward Cullen and whisk them away will be sorely disappointed. I found myself disappointed when searching social media tags for things like “bipolar disorder” or “OCD” that I did not find clear articulations of the internal life I’ve lived every day for twenty-six years and counting. There were a lot of photos of models with running mascara. Beautiful people glaring at each other half-naked. Esoteric, irrelevant quotes posted twelve times with twelve separate shitty, stolen graphics on them.
And it made me feel even more alone, as any kind of condition will. When all your friends go home and your dog falls asleep in the chair he’s not supposed to sit in and the girl next to you is conked out, there you are, right where you left yourself. You can listen to music. Sometimes if you drink enough, you hit the bed and pass out. Some nights, you might even get comfortable and fall asleep and have beautiful dreams. But then, there’s the morning sun and there you are, back in the same body. Time to do it all over again. “Doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done, still gotta wake up and be someone”, in the words of Angel Olsen.
And life doesn’t stop accelerating wildly down the hill. If you didn’t sleep well at all, there’s no stopping the alarm from buzzing at 5:20 am. You can eke out a snooze button nap but that only seems to make it worse. If you drink too much and sleep through your middle of the night medicine alarm, you just have to shrug and pop half your day’s dose and hope you can drive fast enough to get to work before your mouth dries out and the morning panic attack begins. If you’re ready to cry, you still have to be at the quarterly meeting, and if you’re so up you want to scream, maybe you can finish your annual review papers and file them away.
A few months ago, I discovered the work of Vic Chesnutt, a singer and songwriter from Georgia who wrote of lofty themes like suicide, alcoholism, and Speed Racer, usually in the same song. His first album was produced by Michael Stipe the year Michael Stipe was running the record industry. His songs have been covered by Thou and Madonna. Half of Godspeed You! Black Emperor became his backing band his last few records. And through it all, Vic struggled against his paralysis, his depression, and his belief that he was an unsympathetic human freak that everyone felt bad for. His last album has a song he called a break-up song with suicide, and a month after release, he gave himself a lethal overdose and died in his bed on Christmas day.
In spite of all his influence and appreciation and artistry, his situation (unresolvable, pre-Obamacare medical debt) and his mental illness got in the driver’s seat and drove him right out of life. And I suppose what affected me the most was the realization that I had been on the precipice of not wanting to live myself, looking longingly on occasion at three month’s worth of pills and wondering what would happen if I swallowed the whole thing and laid down with a good album on the turntable.
But that same question of what would happen also kept me from doing it in the first place. I’ve never encountered anything bad enough to mentally justify it. But mental illness is not a rational actor. I can recall blankly surveying the enormous outpourings of love and friendship and success and advantage that I have access to any day of the week and I felt guilty for even considering it, but there is nothing rational about the entire thing. There are chemicals, and situations, and good days, and bad, but it’s my belief that after death, there is nothing. And even at my worst, there is something or someone whispering to me the truth that the present, no matter how miserable, is precious. Last time, it was Vic who said it best: “Oh death, I’m really not ready”. There is no tidy bow to tie up these thoughts, but maybe there doesn’t have to be. I and everyone can do better with mental health issues, whether it’s an awareness day or not.
This is an updated version of an article which first appeared at Medium, Oct. 10, 2016.
Some of the views expressed in this post are of its author and do not necessarily represent those held by Heft.live.
Featured image courtesy of rebloggy.com.