Realization C: Hannah Montana was a kid’s TV show.
I don’t live under a rock exactly, but like everyone else, I do tend to exist inside my own little bubble. Until now, my bubble did not include Miley Cyrus. It doesn’t really include Kanye West either, but I know enough to know he’s annoying.
Over-twerking is apparently good for something. There is now no one outside of Cuba who does not know who Miley Cyrus is.
Regardless, since my world had been so dramatically shifted by this latest bit of information, I thought I’d see what her music was like. You know, you might as well go all the way.
So I watched “Wrecking Ball.”
It was a lot like watching her twerk. I know that some people were offended at the way she sexualized and objectified herself–or something like that, but given that she’s got a music video out there where she’s riding a wrecking ball naked, I’m not sure why anyone was surprised. Also, we lived through Madonna. Maybe those were different times and I was more easily shocked in those days, but is Miley Cyrus any worse?
I’m not sure.
What I am sure about is that, like her twerking, Wrecking Ball is hard to watch.
I live in a city of almost 4 million. Crazy people come here from all over. People rant at their aural hallucinations walking down the street and on the subway. They yell at faggots to stop farting in their faces on the bus. (That was a particularly memorable experience.)
Watching Miley Cyrus is a lot like watching one of them–eerie.
I don’t envy her. My craziness, at least, is entirely private.
In anxious moments, the mantra I unwillingly recite goes like this, “I want to die I want to die I want to die…”
Or, “I hate myself I hate myself I hate myself…”
Or even, “I’ll kill myself.”
This used to frighten me. For years, I assumed this was some kind of repressed death wish that surfaced during stress. And because I hadn’t quite sorted out that thinking isn’t magic, I also felt afraid that the thought in itself was dangerous.
Worse, those kinds of thoughts are accompanied by a feeling I can only describe as the motion of cutting my wrists. If you put it all together, it starts to seem like suicidality.
I’m beginning to understand that that’s not it. I may have felt depressed to the point of despair in the past. I may have felt genuinely suicidal.
But this thought is about something else. It’s a memory. All of it.
The mantras that repeat themselves in my head are what my mother said.
The motion I feel is a memory of trying to show someone else what my mother had done, because I didn’t have all the words for it. I don’t think I was more than two years old.
I’ve written about this before–a number of times. Despite the other horrors I’ve lived through, this one seems to be the one that lingers on for me, the one I can’t quite get past, that I can’t make sense of.
My father was evil. He remains in my mind as something like a dangerous dog, one who has been trained so effectively to be aggressive that even the Dog Whisperer can’t cure him, and there’s nothing more to be done for him than to put him down.
My mother was ill.
The horror for me in that memory is that she so badly needed help and no one really helped her. What she got instead was a series of band-aids–medication that took the edge off, talk therapy that gave her a safe place to fall apart but not much more.
I suspect she didn’t get the help she needed because her psychiatrist assumed either that she couldn’t improve substantially beyond the level of functioning she eventually achieved or because healing takes time. But she had two young children at home. She didn’t have that kind of time.
I suspect the culprit was complacency, an unwarranted satisfaction with current methods that really weren’t adequate, and a lack of deep curiosity about what might work better.
What surprises me is that underneath the fear that speaks so loudly in this memory lies a terrible sadness. I went for help, but no one really helped her.
My mother was abusive. She was also mentally ill. Those things seem to go together. Mental illness affects your ability to exercise good judgment, to manage the social aspects of life, and ultimately it affects your ability to raise your children. And sometimes parents who are mentally ill neglect or hurt their children.
I’d like to say that being mentally ill is a disability like any other, and it doesn’t affect your ability to be a good parent. But in at least some cases it does. It does profoundly.
So, I’m thinking about Mother’s Day. And I’m thinking about having things thrown at my head.
As far as I can tell, my mother had borderline personality disorder (BPD), with strong elements of narcissism. She sometimes ventured into the realm of out-and-out psychosis. She had comorbid depression and generalized anxiety. She spent a lot of time in bed when I was growing up, attempted suicide on a regular basis, and was murderously angry at least two or three times a week.
She’s a hard person to be around.
Holidays were hard. They often are for borderlines and their families. I’m not sure why, but it’s something all of us KOs (kids of) seem to be able to relate to. Maybe expectations get built up, and are later cruelly smashed–since life is never, ever quite as good as our fantasies. Or maybe the anxiety of needing to remain the center of attention–even if the day is about someone else–becomes too much.
So Mother’s Day was a hard day, a dangerous day. A lot of things were thrown. There were tears and shouting.
Hallmark, you’ve made the day so much harder for all of us. For those of us who were orphaned, motherless, abused, or simply forgotten. It’s so much harder.
I take a “sick day” from work when I am not well. It isn’t a phrase freighted with meaning. But in other contexts, it is.
If I say to someone, “You’re sick,” I don’t mean they have a fever or body aches.I mean there is something wrong with their minds, and I don’t mean this in a neutral way. I don’t mean it the way I would mean they have a broken arm. I mean that something in their minds is broken that makes them worth less than me. I mean there is, perhaps, something wrong with their character, that they may be dangerous, or simply unlikable. Like a lot of slang, it’s vague–and that’s not unlike my “sick day,” which I might take if I have a fever and body aches, or vomiting, or a pounding sinus headache and a runny nose, or even intense pain from having my appendix removed. But the meaning is not vague. It’s demeaning.
Even suggesting that someone “needs help ” is usually done with the intent to demean that person.When our minds are uncomfortable, it’s a completely different matter than when our bodies are uncomfortable. Feeling lethargic and that life lacks meaning is much more negative than having a scratchy throat and an itchy nose.
For the most part, there isn’t a stigma about contracting physical illnesses–perhaps there used to be, but there isn’t now. As I said, for the most part, because some illnesses remain stigmatized and controversial–HIV infection, for example. And leprosy still won’t win you friends in most places. Some people are so germ phobic they give you dirty looks if you cough. Even if you cough into your sleeve. But still, socially speaking, it’s generally okay to break your leg in a skiing accident. No one looks down on you for catching the flu. But that isn’t the case for mental illnesses.
What that seems to lead to is a lot of debate over what it means to be mentally ill, and what it means to be “sick” when it comes to our minds. Who is really “sick?” The person who can’t sleep at night, has flashbacks, and feels suicidal? Or the individual who assaulted them in the first place?
Perhaps both. My mind is unwell when it doesn’t function adequately enough for me to live a meaningful, constructive life. We all have bad days and low moods, but when I can’t have fulfilling relationships because of the interference of trauma symptoms, then I have an illness.
At least that is how I think of it. I think of mental disorders as being much like having a broken bone or a deep laceration. The bone needs to be set and casted. I might need crutches. I might need to elevate that limb to reduce the swelling. The laceration needs cleaning, stitches, a bandage that keeps the wound glued together. And the wounds needs time to rest and heal without too much disturbance.
I need treatment for my trauma symptoms as well. I may need to learn some relaxation techniques so that I can start to calm the intense rushes of fear. I need someone to tell the trauma to. I need to think through what happened so that I can form new ideas about life that both account for the trauma and allow for a positive view of myself and the world. I need to pick apart the fear structure so that reminders of the trauma cease to prompt an intense emotional reaction for me. I need that as much as a broken bone needs to put back in place.
I can understand the stigma of mental illness. When our minds are not well, we don’t function the way we should or would like to.Our relationships are affected negatively, our job performance is affected. We may act out and harm others. We may simply be unreliable.
But I have to tell that I don’t do my job well when I have the flu either.And long-term illnesses that require debilitating treatments are hard on relationships as well. Very sick people don’t have the energy to give to their partners sometimes. There is an interruption in the normal pattern of give and take until a certain degree of health is regained. Physical ill-health has some of the same consequences as mental health problems.
I don’t think the debate should be whether a psychological condition counts as a sickness or not, but about what it means to be sick. Being “sick” should not mean the individual is worth less or is to blame for his or her condition.We don’t need to blame someone with bipolar disorder or anorexia anymore than we need to blame someone for contracting malaria or inheriting Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t responsibility involved. If you are sick, you need to get treatment and you need to try to either manage your condition effectively or get well. If I have cancer and refuse treatment, I will have to accept that I may die. If I am depressed and refuse treatment, I will need to accept I may find myself unable to do my job, unable to maintain relationships, and I may become suicidal. I may also die.
When there are effective treatments available, and I don’t seek them out, then the progress of the disease in my mind or body is my fault. But it is not my fault I’m sick in the first place. It is not even my fault that a cure may take time and effort and will not occur overnight. It is not even my fault if there is no cure at present, and the best I can do is to manage my illness.
Instead of debating what counts as a mental illness, we need to stay focused on how to continue to take care of ourselves when those in our lives are psychologically unwell–because illness of any kind places strains on relationships and impacts daily life. And we need to support one another so that we can all heal from whatever ails us.
Chronic sorrow is a form of grief that was first identified in parents of children who have developmental or other handicaps. It is characterized by an ongoing or periodic experience of grief, rather than a gradual movement towards acceptance that allows the individual to transcend the loss.
People experience chronic sorrow because of the loss of expectation about the future, rather than the loss of an important person, and it is typically re-activated with important milestones or the failure to achieve typical milestones. When your child does not begin walking and talking although everyone else in the playgroup has, you feel the grief all over again. When your child doesn’t begin to read in kindergarten or even first grade although your other children did, there is a sense of loss. When your child graduates from high school, but cannot be expected to take a full-time job or begin a career that will allow him to be independent from you, the sorrow hits you all over again. The loss is not of the person, but of the life you had hoped they would have or that you expected they would have.
That is chronic sorrow, and it’s a normal response to a tragic situation. It doesn’t mean you don’t love or accept the child you do have and love, but we all have expectations for the future of our children before they are ever born or even conceived and we re-experience the loss of this fantasy every time there are important reminders of what that fantasy was.
I think mental illness can be much the same. As young people, we also have dreams for our future. We want to be someone. We want families, perhaps, or simply to travel. But we all have hopes and expectations for our future.
If you are, instead, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in adolescence or early adulthood, as schizophrenics often are, and find that instead of graduating from college you are learning how to manage the voices in your head, there is a profound sense of loss. If your marriage breaks apart because the delusions return or you stop taking your medication and full-blown psychosis again rules your life (because treatment avoidance is part of the disease), there is again loss. If you lose your marriage or your relationship with your children due to dangerous manic episodes, I think it must feel much the same way.
Of course, many people lose their marriages or don’t manage to finish college for many different reasons, but I think there is a particular kind of grief to it when it is the same reason you have had other losses, and when the reason is something is to at least some extent out of your control. Any mental illness that impairs your capacity to live your life the way you had hoped to can cause an ongoing experience of loss and sorrow.
And although trauma-related disorders are not precisely mental illnesses, I think they can create the same sense of loss, because the symptoms and thought processes interfere with functioning in all of the same important ways.
How many of us see a direct cause and effect relationship between early trauma in our lives and our lack of fulfilling relationships in our lives as adults? How many of us notice the ways in which we can’t perform to the level of our real skills and knowledge because we find ourselves freezing, blanking out, panicking, or over-reacting? How many of us find our important relationships impacted because of our problems with trust?
I would guess everyone with any significant history of trauma must feel similarly. This post isn’t about whining about what might have been, but simply acknowledging that the losses that come from trauma are long-term. The grief about the lives we would have had without it can be profound. If we attempt to paper over our losses, they don’t disappear. They remain. Saying that they are there may be the first step in
I used to be afraid of being “crazy.” It struck me as the fate to be feared most—that point when even my own might not be trustworthy, might have in a sense a mind of its own. But I began to see the lives of individuals who really are psychotic and whose minds are not always safe places to be, who can’t trust their version of reality to be right or to help them make sound decisions, and I started to understand that “crazy” is a sickness like any other: you go to the doctor, you take your medicine, and you do what needs to be done to get better. And if you don’t, you won’t. But you can.
So many others don’t see it that way. We avoid diagnoses of a mental illness or disorder the way we avoid a diagnosis of cancer, or heart disease, or something else that might kill us. Although a word for a problem that already exists is the first step towards finding a solution, we seem to think there is no solution or the solution is too terrible to contemplate. And we also seem to think the problem will go away if we refuse to name it. And yet, more than illnesses within our bodies. mental illness cause distress. They cause distress to the one who has it, to families, to everyone. And the distress is there regardless of what you call it—whether you insist on a euphemism (she’s always been difficult) or whether you refuse to call it anything at all.
What I wonder is whether mental illnesses are the last category of people we see as having no value. I wonder if we understand that people of different abilities, races, ethnic backgrounds, national origins, linguistic communities, gender, and even sexual orientation have something to add to the world and are worthy of our respect. But maybe those whose minds work differently, and who suffer because of it, are seen as people who can and should be thrown away.
And I wonder if that’s why we don’t ever want to be one of those—someone “crazy,” someone whose mind and heart is in pain and who is usually hurting others because of it. I wonder if that’s why we won’t take our children to the right doctor when their minds and hearts are hurting although we will if their bodies are.
I wonder if we write “crazy” off. If that’s the case, we need to stop. Good people are wasted when they don’t get the help they need to get better and to be their best selves. Our world suffers because of it.
I wake up most mornings thinking I should kill myself. I get up, put tea on, use the loo, feed the cat, and then start thinking I should die.
This has been going on for years. It doesn’t happen every day. Just most days.
I’m not suicidal.
It took me a long time to realize that, and these kinds of thoughts used to scare the pants off me. Especially in the days when I really was depressed, because suicidality and depression go together and I really didn’t want to wake up dead one morning. Well, so to speak.
In reality, not all suicide is about despair. Some suicidal gestures are about rage or impulsivity or both. I ought to know. I’ve seen a lot of them. Suicidal gestures, I mean.
So, the rest of the story from the juice/chair incident I wrote about in Scent of a Lion: Trauma and the Brain is that I woke up in a pool of blood on the floor in the kitchen and went looking rather dazedly for my mother. I found her in the bathtub with her wrists slit. The water was pink and tasted salty. I am not entirely sure this really happened, but I am mostly sure. Sure enough. The fact that I tasted the water is oddly convincing for me. Perhaps mainly because it’s such a strange thing to do, and so exactly what I would do, and so intensely, vividly there.
I am sharing this with you, my reader, not to shock or horrify you. I don’t want pity for what a rough start I had in life. I am telling you because I am not so very different from other people, and if I found my mother semi-conscious after the climax of a raging fit, you might have also. Or someone you know might have. Maybe not a mother, but maybe a father, or a sibling, or a friend. And you–or the person you know–might be very confused about that.
Losing a loved one to suicide is always deeply distressing. It’s a loss, as much as any loss is, but it also has that added element of being almost completely incomprehensible. Why would you choose to die? Was life really so awful? Was there something I should have done? Why didn’t I see it? It’s doubly puzzling when even what we are told about suicide doesn’t quite fit. We can try to make it fit, but it doesn’t.
People who engage in enraged acts of self-harm are always in a great deal of pain, or at least communicate that they are. That part fits.
But angry suicides blame other people for the distress they are in. Their gestures are often public, as if to say, “Look what you’re doing to me!” Sometimes, they literally say it. I know my mother said it to me.
Mainly, what doesn’t fit is that raging suicides are raging. They are really and truly angry, even if they may also be saying how much pain they are feeling–which does make a certain degree of sense. After all, we sometimes do lash out when we are hurting. Just maybe not so much.
Essentially, the raging suicidal gesture is a way to hurt other people by hurting someone important to the people you are trying to hurt–namely, yourself. And that’s very different from simply giving up on life, or even trying to communicate in the only way you know how that you are hurting. And, the thing is, it works.
It does hurt. I know it hurt me.
The reason I wake up in the morning thinking I should die is that I once woke up in the morning and my mother told me she wished I were dead. And then she nearly killed me, and after that she nearly killed herself.
I still can’t make sense of it, and it still hurts.