What's Your Story?
My dad had a cartoon he'd cut out from the newspaper on the metal file cabinet in his downstairs basement "office." It had a man getting out of a limo contrasted with a beggar dressed like a caricature of a "crazy" person. It read:
If you're rich, you're "eccentric." If you're poor, you're "nuts."
My father believed that someone's status, wealth, education, gave them more personal freedom to be different, and he wasn't wrong.
Now, the above isn't to suggest I believe Mr. West is "crazy" or mentally unsound. But other people have said things to that effect, and face it, had someone else said the things he's said, he'd likely have a bunch of labels affixed to his medical chart. The truth is, I'm really not qualified to make that assessment, nor would I ever feel qualified, no matter how educated I thought I was, or how well I knew Mr. West.
While my father's narrative was overly-simplistic, the fact remains that the term "mentally ill" carries a hefty price tag when you're someone like me and someone like you.
It used to be that being clinically depressed was much like having the most treatable form of cancer imaginable. You went to therapy, you changed your lifestyle habits, and you fought, daily, to come out the other side, learning valuable skills along the way to keep you out.
Serious mental illnesses have become so common, that it's a real difficult thing for me to accept it when someone tells me they're severely disabled by a mental illness and it's clear they can bathe, shop, feed themselves. They aren't a danger to themselves or others. That used to be the definition of serious mental illness. An inability to care for your own basic needs.
There were the people who could "do life" and people who couldn't. What about the folks who struggled to, all the time? You know...
Since I'm a writer by trade, it's my opinion that words matter. I had an interesting YouTube conversation with a lovely, intelligent individual by the name of Brooke Siem.
Our discussion centered mainly around mental illness as an identity. If you try and suggest that someone's mental illness is anything other than something out of their control, it's as if you've tried to stab them with a dangerous introject from which they'll never recover.
I get it. I remember fighting tooth and nail to stay labeled because it gave my emotional pain legitimacy. But I had some decent reasons to feel depressed as a teen. It never occurred to me that, due to my dad's mental health, I was destined to fight it my whole life.
For too long, people suffering from real emotional pain were waved aside, told to "man up" or "get over yourself" and they were demeaned as weak, as ungrateful, as self-involved, and the list goes on.
But until we stop telling ourselves that we will struggle with _____ for life, we will embody that self-fulfilling prophecy.
So who benefits from a mentally ill population? What would change if normal, human emotions, even ones that were emotionally painful and lingered for weeks on end, were treated, not as pathology or destiny, but as something with which we all struggle, and therefore, something we all can help each other through?
I've posed or gently challenged individuals who seem hell-bent on their labels. Why challenge them? Because their diagnoses pose significant barriers to them, moving forward, achieving all they want to achieve. Otherwise, why would I care?
I've never met anyone who has said, "Yep, on the meds, doing fan-tastic!" And no, "fantastic" is not the end-result to expect, is it? But the visuals being shown to people in emotional pain tell us a different story, or rather, a fairy tale.
From a drug commercial for Latuda:
This is the screen-shot of a woman as the voice-over talent says the words "...may cause suicidal thoughts or actions..."
But she looks so peaceful, doesn't she.
So, here's a truncated version of how the conversation goes, usually, when I ask someone why they believe they are always going to be anxious and depressed.
Me: You keep saying "your" mental illness. I "am" depressed. Why not "I feel depressed?"
John X: Because I've been depressed my whole life. My parents both had it, my grandparents, and it's genetic. And I've got severe anxiety, too, like my mother.
Me: Your whole life? Who told you that?
John X: No one needs to tell me anything, I've never not been depressed. Plus, I got diagnosed when I was really young.
Me: I see, so do the medications help, then?
John X: Yes! They saved my life. Well, most days. I still struggle a lot with anxiety and SAD, but the vape pen for MM helps when I can't sleep, so...
Me: Sure, sure. So, how many kids do you have?
John X: Four, three boys and a girl.
Me: I'm so sorry. How awful for them.
John X: How do you mean?
Me: Well, genetics, John. No escaping genetics. Which kid will get the depression/anxiety combo meal, do you think?
John X: No, they won't have any problems, I mean, my one son gets down but that's just being 13, right? And they're all doing great in school, I'd see the signs. It's not like they don't have more choices than I did. Plus, my dad was verbally abusive and my mom, she just hid from the world in a bottle and daytime TV. That's not me, not my wife.
Me: So, your environment played a role in you becoming depressed and anxious.
John X: Yes, it's complicated. It's not just genetics. I watched my mom drinking herself into a stupor every night and my dad would just leave us to go out and do whatever. It was awful.
Me: I see, so how have you modeled healthy coping behaviors for your children so they don't succumb to genetics?
John X: Well, I don't drink booze to escape, for one thing! I fly all over the country and run marathons as a matter of fact, so...
Me: So your medication is prescribed, not self-prescribed, and you have a socially sanctioned escape as opposed to a mysterious one, like your dad.
John X: You know what? You're old and dumb and you hate America.
Well, he's right about one thing. His kids have a lot more choices. If we look at John's narrative, though, he's really not giving them any choices at all.
It's all in the narrative you want to have, maintain, or change.
My doctor told me once that if you're a hammer, then the whole world looks like a nail. That's called confirmation bias, but it's also dabbling in narrative.
For a long time, having bipolar disorder was my narrative, and all things passed through that before anything else. When that label was wrenched out of my fingers, medication side effects became the new lens. No one is immune to narrative.
If you currently identify as someone with a serious mental illness, ask yourself what the world would be like for you without it. And time to be radically honest. On the surface, it's obvious no one wants to feel depressed and anxious all the time.
But like John, up there, what gets threatened if you decided you had more power, more control over it than you think? That doesn't remove its legitimacy, but it does create more personal ownership, and that can feel scary and invalidating. How can we validate emotional pain while opening up an array of treatment options that don't involve mucking with our brain chemistry?
Look, if I don't take a specific medication, I can't walk or speak. I literally cannot control the movements, the spasticity, of dyskinesia.
But, that's also my experience and a narrative. Because I haven't tried to come off the drug and learn work-arounds to heal my brain. I don't know, not yet. But for right now? I need the medication. And had someone warned me a long time ago that I'd need a pill so I could walk and speak normally as a trade-off for the other pill that matched the narrative?
I think back then, had I the same information at my fingertips that we do now, I would have gotten extremely creative on how to deal with the emotional pain I was in.
The part that's so insidious is this: you have no idea what your trade-off will be. None. Is it worth it, that label? Because once it's on your medical chart, there's not enough legal bleach to remove it.
I strived my whole life to never let my mental health conditions define me. The narrative of "suffering as romantic" or as the genesis of creativity is an illusion. There is nothing romantically tragic about the kind of pain medication side effects caused me and my family. It was all tragedy.
The only way to redeem the narrative, the story, is to stay as open as I can, and try to offer more storylines to consider so to help ourselves and one another.