It Gets Better, or, Why You Don’t Have to Be Crazy to Care About Mental Health
I’m pretty sure I’m not crazy.
JT Eberhard spoke at Skepticon IV about mental illness: what it is like to live with mental illness, myths about mental illness and its treatment, and how those myths and the stigma of mental illness hurt, even kill people.
The groundswell was swift and immediate. The Empress of the Dorks herself had to stand in line to give JT a hug. Within the line, hugs and tears broke out like glitter at a gay pride parade.
On his blog, he put out a call:
If you’re a blogger who lives with a mental disorder, write about it. If you don’t, learn something new about mental illnesses and write a post about what you learned or dispel a myth or share how knowing someone with a mental illness has affected your life and ways you’ve learned to help.
That was nearly three weeks ago. It has taken me this long to figure out what I need to say.
I’m pretty sure I’m not crazy.
Oh, sure, I’ve learned other stuff, too. I met JT personally when I signed up for the WWJTD workout team. This has resulted in one of my life’s most rewarding friendships, a friendship that is also a ticket to a ring-side seat to the circus that is anorexia.
I’ve learned that it doesn’t hurt to reach out, even if you are not sure you will know what to say, or if you think what you say might not matter.
I’ve more and more come to realize how the distinction between mental and physical health is not real. The brain is an organ, just like any other organ in the body. It has physical needs, such as sleep, good nutrition, and exercise. It falls vulnerable to stress, pathogens, and physiological malfunctions. As Jen McCreight said, “If we don’t mock people for being deficient in insulin, we shouldn’t mock them for being deficient in serotonin.” The health of the brain affects the health of the rest of the body just as surely as the liver or the heart does. Study after study after study have shown that depression and psychological stress increase rates of chronic illness and death. The times anxiety attacks grip JT, he looks physically ill.
I’ve also learned, from JT’s account and others, that there is a difference between the moods and personality quirks that everyone lives with and actual mental illness. It isn’t that uncommon to feel ugly, to make a social faux pax, to worry that people won’t like you, or to feel sad or worthless. What isn’t normal, though, is for these feelings not to go away, to obsess, to hallucinate, to be crushed by one’s brain to the point of not being able to function.
And this is how I know I am not crazy. At least, I’m pretty sure I’m not crazy.
I grew up on a wooded acreage five miles from a tiny Iowa farming town. There were about 30 kids in my class, give or take the one or two that moved in or moved away every year. I don’t know how it happened; perhaps it was because my misanthropic liberal hippie parents didn’t fit in, or because we lived in a farmhouse with a bathtub and no shower, fed by a well that would run dry if we weren’t careful. Maybe it was because I failed spectacularly in every sport. Perhaps I was exceptionally weird and obnoxious, even for a kid. Perhaps I was too smart for my own good. In any case, I became the kid nobody liked.
I was picked last for every game and every group project. Nobody wanted to sit with me at lunch. Nobody invited me over to play. And the teasing was relentless. It seemed no matter what I did, I did it wrong, like the time I put my hair in a pony tail and didn’t comb back my part. Some of the girls would constantly berate me over social conventions and talk down to me like I was someone two grades under them. Some of the boys would talk behind my back about how stupid and ugly I was- literally, right behind my back in the hall so that I could hear. Most of everyone else just avoided me.
I had no idea why I didn’t fit in. I cried myself to sleep at night, thinking that maybe my classmates were right, that whatever was wrong with me was so horrible that I would never have friends. I would wonder at the fact that my pets, constantly pestering me for affection, apparently didn’t see that horrible thing that everyone else saw.
I finally decided that if I ever was going to fit in, it wasn’t going to be at that school. I applied for open enrollment and began my high school career in a neighboring school district. I didn’t become homecoming queen, but I made a few friends and began the long, arduous task of finding a place to belong without losing who I was.
It worked. Today, I have many friends, each one I admire and enjoy spending time with. I feel normal, cool, even. The journey, though, has been long and arduous. I worried that when I became a young mother, that I would forever be judged as an immature, irresponsible flake. Suicidal thoughts that began around the time I started crying myself to sleep didn’t come across to me horseshit nonsense not to be entertained until my mid twenties. The thought of killing myself didn’t come across to me as horrific and alien until this year.
But the thought, in the end, has become horrific and alien. I have been able to pull myself up by my emotional boot straps. I have been able to do this, though, not because I was strong where others are weak. I have been able to do this because my monsters were outside, not in. There was never anything wrong with my head. My emotional problems were the result of shitty circumstances. Remove the shitty circumstances, and the emotional problems begin to resolve themselves.
This does not mean it was right for me to fight these monsters on my own. We are social creatures. We have emotional needs that are just as real as the need for food, water, and shelter. This is why extended solitary confinement is considered torture. This is why babies who are not cuddled fail to thrive. This is why the health risk of social isolation is comparable to that of smoking or heavy drinking. When the adults in my life failed to adequately address the bullying and rejection I suffered at the hands of my peers, they may as well have handed me a pack of cigarettes.
It is cruel for our society to neglect the emotional needs of its members just as surely as it would be cruel to allow people to starve or die by lack of medical care. As long as we assign a stigma to mental health issues and treat adequate mental health care as a luxury instead of a necessity, that neglect continues.
This cruel oversight can affect anyone. Mental illness has no clear, single cause. It is the result of complex interactions between biological, environmental, and sociological forces. As such, anyone is susceptible, even those with no history or genetic disposition. Furthermore, just as there is no stigma in an otherwise healthy person going to the doctor to get checked out after an accident or because of unexplained symptoms, there should be no stigma in otherwise mentally and emotionally healthy people seeing a counselor during stressful times. Attending to the health of the brain should be seen as just as normal and responsible as attending to the health of any other organ.
It is a responsibility that I will no longer allow myself to neglect. Psychiatric evaluations at the student health center are covered by the health insurance included in my graduate stipend. I made the call. I have an appointment in the upcoming week. It may be possible that I fit no diagnosis in the DSM. If this is the case, I will ask for a certificate and frame it. The thought of being certifiably not crazy makes me giggle. In any case, I have found that the better I feel inside my head, the better mother, friend, student, and employee I become. If a psychologist can help me get there faster, I will gladly take the help.
I only wish I had asked for the help sooner.
If I could talk to my younger self, I would have told her that it is a big world out here, and there is room for everyone in it, crazy or not. This has become more and more clear the older I get. I turn thirty tomorrow. I am looking forward to it so much, that I took a plane to another time zone to turn thirty an hour early, where one of my best friends and I can hold hands and be crazy together.