My very dear friend Erica, once told me that my life seems to consist of closets to come out of.
I suppose she’s right. But this most recent one is a different closet in many ways.
The closets I’ve already come out of are all about things I have been able to see myself, and that I’ve been willing to admit to myself. Being honest with myself has always been easier than being honest with the rest of the world. There … I said it. It’s often been easier to lie than to tell the truth. The consequences have been less galling, if you will. For example, I’ve known I was a girl since I was four years old, and that scared me senseless back then, because while I knew I was a girl, I was clearly not one, at the same time. When you’re four, words like “transsexual” or “transgender” are completely alien to you. You have no concept of their meaning. All I knew was how I felt, and how frightening it was.
And I’ve known since I was 12 and I started looking at girls that I was a lesbian. Believe me, being 12 and caught in a boy’s body makes that exceptionally awkward. I tried to be what people expected of me. Straight and male … and later on even straight and female to make the confusion less harrowing for some. It was all wrong, and I did so for the wrong reasons. I did so out of fear.
There are other examples too.
But you all know I use this page as a soap-box. A lot, in fact. I get up on my high moral horse and I rail and rant against what I see as the injustice of the world. Particularly when it comes to the rights of minorities … particularly the LGBT-minorities, in fact. I’ve done so a lot in the past. I’ll continue to do so, I think. There’s too many battles left to be won. The arch of the universe is long indeed, but it tends to swing towards justice … as a great man once put it. And I’ll keep fighting that fight, when I can and when I feel that fire within me.
But it’s time for me to add another soap-box to the old one. A smaller one … a humbler one, perhaps.
A soap-box less about injustice, and more about information.
About mental illness.
It is humbler, and it is different … because this time, I’ve had such a hard time coming out of the closet, myself. It’s been so hard to admit. But the simple fact of life is that I’m ill.
I’ll be ill for the rest of my life. Mental illness can’t be cured.
Let that be the lesson for today. A lot of people out there think that you can cure mental illness. That psychiatrists are there to make you whole and healthy again and that they can cure you if you suffer from anxiety neurosis, bipolar disorder or scizophrenia for example. Or any number of other illnesses. In fact, this is one of the most common misconceptions of mental illness in existence, and it is damaging … even dangerous.
Not only is this incorrect. It is dangerous to think it is so.
Why is it dangerous to believe you can be cured, you may wonder? Surely, it would be better as it gives people hope that they can overcome, and wouldn’t that be preferable? Or what about those who say prayer and belief can cure you, where medicine can’t?
I’ll tell you. It’s really quite simple.
It is dangerous because it sets you up for inevitable failure.
They put an expectation on the person who is sick that they will never, under any circumstance, be able to live up to or meet. It places before a person suffering from mental illness an unattainable goal, which only sets them up for failure which they are almost certainly already incapable of properly coping with, and which in a worst-case scenario can exacerbate their illness through further damage to their self-image.
Mental illness is surrounded by such horrific social stigmas to this day, and it has to change. It must. Because so many of us suffer in one way or another. Some to a far lesser degree … many will never need treatment, but will simply find their own ways of coping. For example … many of us suffer from a phobia which can lead to some form of clinical anxiety. A fear of flying, for example. Or a fear of spiders or open/enclosed spaces. Well, most of us don’t consider that a mental illness, and in truth it isn’t. But the reaction when you are faced with your phobia bears all the hallmarks of anxiety neurosis. Sweating palms, fight-or-flight reactions, shortness of breath, fainting spells, inability to form coherent sentences, blind panic …
And most people know how to handle this. They just avoid putting themselves in situations where they are faced with their fears. People who are afraid of flying will drive to their holiday destination instead, or take a train. People who are afraid of enclosed spaces will avoid getting into overcrowded rooms. People who are afraid of spiders and crawly things won’t go into the terrarium at the local zoo.
Once in a while, through accident or error, we may find ourselves faced with our phobia, and we’ll be unable to cope with it for a short while, but afterwards, we’ll brush it off and say “oh, but that’s just because I’m arachnophobic. Lots of people are. No big deal”.
But in reality, you’ve just had an anxiety-attack and yes … that is, in essence, a mild form of the same mental illness that people suffering from anxiety neurosis suffer from. Now imagine that you don’t have one or two phobias, but that the world as a whole can frighten you. And then imagine that you can’t predict what will result in your next anxiety-attack, because things you did yesterday or a week ago suddenly seem overwhelming and horrifying today. And that tomorrow, you can’t see why they were so frightening, because you’d be able to cope with them then. This is what generalized anxiety neurosis is.
It is one of the things I suffer from.
It is crippling.
I’ve suffered from it my entire life, and I’ve never wanted to admit it or talk about it. That’s the closet I’ve had to come out of this time. Because I’ve never wanted to face the truth. I’ve never been able to cope with the fact that I am, in fact, mentally ill. Because of the stigma. Because believe it or not, there is less internalized stigma attached to being transgendered than there is to being mentally ill. At least you can genuinely say “I can’t help what blasted body I was given at birth!” … but somehow, mental illness is still seen as being “your own fault”. That somehow, society places the blame of the mental illness on the sufferer.
A brief analogy here. I recently watched an episode of the British television series “Doctor Who”, set in Tudor England, where the main characters visit a dungeon inhabited by the mentally ill. The gaoler cheerfully asks them if he should whip the inmates for their entertainment. One of the main characters, a medical professional from the 21st Century asks in horror if the people living in this era genuinely thinks that would do any kind of good, and their local guide from the 16th Century tells them that yes … it does. Because the fear of that place makes insane people who do get out put their insanity aside in order to not go back.
The show intends this to be a wake-up call. “See how horrible things were back then”, but in reality, we still put people with mental illness in that kind of dungeon. Only now, that dungeon is one of shame and isolation.
And people are still lashed. With words from insensitive people who do not understand the damage they do when they laugh at the misfortune of others, demean or belittle them or degrade them in some way for suffering from some kind of mental illness or other.
Sticks and stones may break my bones., but names will bloody well do equally crushing damage … don’t believe otherwise even for a second.
People are still afraid of those with mental illnesses. Afraid that they will be dangerous or do crazy things that can get people around them hurt. And certainly, there are severe cases where that may happen, but those people … by and large … do not walk the streets. They are institutionalized and being treated.
And somehow, everyone agrees that people like that are never going to get cured, and that they need to be locked up and away from others to keep the population as a whole safe. So in those situations, most people understand that mental illness is incurable.
But what about our uncle who got diagnosed with a clinical depression? He’s much better now. Two years ago, he was on the verge of killing himself, but now he’s doing just fine.
No. He’s not. He’s doing better. But clinical depression never goes away. It comes back to haunt you, sometimes with no warning, sometimes many years later … and often, that uncle won’t tell anyone else how badly he suffers when it comes back, because he’s afraid that people will look at him and say “But you were doing fine. Are you sure you’re really depressed this time?” or even worse “What did you do to make this happen again?! I thought we were past this!”
And so he suffers in silence. Because the blame will be shifted to him, otherwise. Because he is terrified of the reactions of those he relies on.
Suddenly, one day out of nowhere, your Aunt may call you, blubbing with tears, saying she came home to find her husband hanging from the ceiling in his best Sunday tie, and that she has no idea why he did it and that he was doing fine for these past fifteen years and … and … and …
But who knows if Uncle didn’t suffer non-stop for fifteen years, too afraid of the consequences of telling people? Because everyone expected him to be cured.
You don’t cure mental illness. Not ever.
It is a myth. Pure and simple.
You treat mental illness. You treat it with counceling, you treat it with medicine, you treat it, as the person living with the illness, by knowing your own triggers and avoiding them to the best of your ability. You treat it with compassion and kindness and understanding from those around you.
Perhaps most importantly, you treat it by being open about it.
I made that choice. When, a few months ago, I was finally diagnosed with severe generalized anxiety neurosis, panic-anxiety and social phobia, I made a choice to not be quiet about it. To this day, there are people who tell me that I shouldn’t talk about this. Even people close to me who say that if I want to talk about it, I should not post anything about it on the internet, but only speak to people face-to-face.
They are wrong. They say it with the best of intentions … they say so because they fear how the reaction of the world around me will be. They are afraid that somehow, being honest and open about this will make me vulnerable to exploitation or abuse. And yet I say it again … they are wrong.
By being silent, I will do nothing but perpetuate the cycle of fear and shame and ignorance. SOMEONE has to be willing to open up and speak about these things and while these well meaning individuals seem to think that this shouldn’t be me, because I have enough to deal with already, they are wrong.
It has to be me.
It has to be everybody, but I can only act on my own behalf, and consequently, it has to be me. The only way stigma is ever successfully stopped and reversed is through openness and dialogue. The LGBT-community knows this better than anyone. Consequently, I know it from already belonging to that minority.
Will it result in pain and perhaps even exploitation to be open about this? Yes. Almost invariably. But I must do this. Because if I don’t, and if no one else does it, then in two hundred years, mentally ill people will still be kept sequestered in their dungeons of shame and fear.
I won’t be. I refuse to be. I have spent my life in closets and I have had enough. I want to see the sunlight and feel it on my face, and I will not apologize for who and what I am.
Let that be my manifesto, then. I want to feel the sun on my face, and smile at it and be warmed by it the same as everybody else. I will not be shamed. I will not be blamed. I will not be put back in the closet by well meaning people who think it will protect me.
You know how you live in a closet? By curling up in a fetal position in the darkness, afraid of the consequences of standing up because there’s no room.
Is this what anyone would want for me? I think not. At least not anyone whose opinion matters.
And so I will speak. And I will post.
Hopefully a few people will take notice. It may help spread a little understanding of simple facts, such as, as I mentioned, that you do not cure mental illness, but you can treat it and make it better, but as with all treatment there may be relapses … and that this is alright. It is not because the person suffering from some mental illness or other did anything wrong or because they invited it back or were careless. It happens because it happens, and not even the best minds in psychiatry can fully explain why. And yes, this means that knowing someone like me … someone with a serious and lengthy diagnosis … can be a challenge. I’m a high-maintenance friendship and I’m aware of it. But I still think I’m worth the effort, and so are millions of other people with mental illness of some kind or other.
We are worth it. Worth the effort, worth the time.
I live every day of my life with generalized anxiety neurosis, with panic-anxiety, with social-phobia. I’m diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and with cyclothymia, which is a personality disorder on the bipolar spectrum. And I’m worth your time.
Even though my various issues are so delightfully nasty that they exacerbate each other, I’m worth your time. People with Borderline can’t stand to be alone. I feel like an empty shell, like a hollow person and I have to fill that void with the presence of other people. But I’ve got social phobia, so being amongst other people stresses me out … sometimes swiftly, sometimes slowly, but it will happen. This in turn leads to anxiety-attacks, which makes me feel like I’ve failed which sets in motion the cyclothymia, which then results in wild and very rapid moodswings on very little notice. This in turn exhausts me emotionally.
And yes, this sounds like I’m a complete basket-case. But this didn’t stop me from standing up in front of more than twenty people and giving an impromptu, unprepared speech at my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary a month or so ago. It didn’t stop me from completing my university education in the allotted time without ever failing an exam and with very good grades. It didn’t stop me from working at two different museums AND writing a book as part of my job in one of those two. It didn’t stop me from moving to Ireland, on my own, for over two years and meeting some of the best and kindest people in the entire world while I was there. It doesn’t stop me from going to the supermarket or the laundrymat every few days, like everyone else, although admittedly I may feel a little overwhelmed if the supermarket is completely packed.
It doesn’t stop me from living.
It just means I have to live with some additional consequences to the things I do, and that at times, I’m unavailable or unwilling to be contacted because I need peace and quiet to sort out the “noise” in my life.
It means I’m a whole person. Good and bad. Take it or leave it.
But I’ll be damned before I will apologize for it, hide it away, be ashamed of it or feel guilty about it again.
I have spent enough of my life in closets. I’m 38 years old, and I think it’s high time I felt the sun on my face.
Thank you for reading.