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Mental Illness as an Everyday Struggle

When I wrote my post “What is Mental Illness?” back in December 2017, there were a number of ideas that had to be thrown out because, while space on the Internet is theoretically unlimited, a person’s time is not.

Mental illness oftentimes defies description — it can be the very essence of the intangible. And so I’m planning on revisiting the question of what mental illness is from time-to-time over the next few months and/or years. Not to describe or pin-down or define it in any explicit or final sense, but to elaborate and elucidate on the fungible nature of how I experience schizoaffective disorder.

One idea that has the ring of truth to it comes from the song “Everyday Struggle” by The Notorious B.I.G. (aka, Biggie Smalls), especially the line “Another day, another struggle.”

I often describe myself as a “Professional Crazy Person” not so much to portray or assume any authority or expertise on mental illness (I can only speak to my experience, to my truth), but to convey the sense of responsibility. It’s true that part of being a professional is being an expert, is being given a certain authority — but along with the expertise and authority comes responsibility, and with responsibility comes consequences. For me, the responsibility came before the expertise, the consequences came before the authority. It was very much like being thrown in deep water and having to learn how to swim while also not drowning.

And it’s in that sense that I identify with this song and why I’ve adopted it as one possible definition, among many, for what mental illness is. Biggie Smalls begins the song: “I know how it feel to wake up ****** up.” And beginning the first verse that way reminds me of the medication-induced haze (really, a hangover or sorts) that I wake up with nearly every morning. My morning “hangovers” aren’t the products of a carefree life, aren’t enabled by a steady supply of disposable income and a lack of responsibility, they aren’t “cured” by going out to brunch — they’re an everyday occurrence. And that’s how Biggie Smalls portrays it — waking up like this isn’t something to celebrate, it’s just how it is sometimes.

The entire song has a sense of peril about it, a sense of teetering on the edge. Life is a balancing act and it took virtually my entire life falling apart — my future, my home and livelihood, my memories, my abilities torn from me by the electric haze of ECT – for me to realize just how precarious that balance is. It’s easy to be fearful, to be scared motionless and inept when made aware of just how perilous life is, but it’s essential not to fear, but rather to respect it. And it’s this sense, a deep realization of the fragility and precarious nature of our lives as well as the need to respect rather than fear that perilousness, in which I relate to the song.

If you want to check out the song, here’s a YouTube link to the song which has lyrics attached to it.

***

Mental illness requires my attention 24-hours a day, 7-days a week, every single day of the year. There are no weekends, no holidays, no vacations. I’ve learned to be prepared for anything to happen wherever I go — I rarely leave my apartment without my “survival kit”: rolling papers and tobacco, a day’s worth of medication, my PRN medications, a bottle of water, a snack, something to read, something to write on/with, a jacket, hoodie, or sweater, and my headphones and iPod are essential. My hat is never far from my head. I’ve compared my well-stocked bag of tricks and so forth to a diaper bag before but it’s really more that my mental illness has trained me to be a most diligent Boy Scout. I’m always prepared.

My illness can express itself at any time. And if I don’t take care of it immediately, if I choose to ignore the warning signs — the impending sense of doom or despondence looming over me, the slight electrical haze that starts to define everything around me, things tend to tumble out of control rather quickly. So, it’s not just being prepared, it’s also being aware. When I was first diagnosed in 2007, my illness would express suddenly and rather unexpectedly. After seeing a Cognitive and Behavioral Therapist, I learned to pay attention to the signals of impending psychosis, melancholy, and dissociation. And as I’ve honed those skills I’ve been able to detect my illness’s impending expressions earlier and earlier. Just like every second counts in being able to detect something like a tornado, so too does every second count in being able to detect when my brain is about to be loosed from my grip on it.

Because mental illness is a slippery slope. Unlike most logical slippery slopes, the slippery slope of mental illness is not a fallacy but rather a simple truth. I cannot recall a time when I’ve ignored my brain telling me psychosis is imminent and it’s gone well for me. That peculiar trickle of electrical current that shoots its way down from the top of my head out my fingers and toes is like the first signs of an avalanche — if I don’t heed those signs, I’ll soon be overwhelmed and then buried in the flood of insanity.

I’ve learned to respect those early signs rather than fear them. It’s not that I’m unafraid (I don’t think I’ll ever not be afraid), it’s more that I know respect will lead to productive countermeasures whereas fear can easily turn to panic.

The thrumming is a call to action, a call to arms. My catalog of responses has grown rather expansive over the last 11-some years. There’s no real logic or flow-chart which can describe what I do or when, it’s based on what feels most appropriate as well as what’s best given where I am. For example, if I’m by myself and not able to get home in a reasonable amount of time, a heavy dose of sedating medication is a bad idea. My dog, Kerrin, is one of the best tools (and friends) I have. She has a keen awareness of my mental state and mood — sometimes a better sense than I have. She’s always willing to lay in my lap or next to me in bed and there’s no shortage of kisses from her when I’m not feeling well. Oftentimes, a few quiet minutes with Kerrin is all I need to feel better. Or else I read or look at pictures from when I was a little kid, I have a collection of comforting Bible verses printed out on notecards I keep in the drawer of my coffee table. Writing is helpful (but can also make things worse, depending on the kind of writing I’m doing. So I try not to do professional kinds of writing when not feeling well). Music has long been a passion of mine — listening to it rather than playing it. If I have a strong cup of coffee, my puppy on my lap, and the right album on my turntable, all is well with me.

I’ve tried to make things easy for people to take care of me when I’m not able to. I have instructions written out on how to make coffee for me (which is mostly for my Dad, who is not a fan of coffee whatsoever), I usually tell people who are over frequently (and also have a key to my apartment) how to get Kerrin into my lap, that she’s trained to respond to snaps as well as voice commands as oftentimes the snaps are less jarring when I’m not doing well. I have also burned specific albums onto CD and put them in an easily accessible place to make it as easy as possible for people to play the music that soothes me.

The Andrew Jackson Jihad album, People Who Can Eat People are the Luckiest People of All has never let me down. I’m known in my apartment building as the guy who plays loud music but never at obnoxious times. Usually people compliment me on what I listen to. My Dad and I are very similar in our love of music, but the kinds of music we love are rather different. For us it’s not necessarily defined by genre, my Dad has told me he tends to prefer music that’s in the range of his voice so he can sing along to it. My music taste tends to be rather wider and seems to defy genre. But there’s a unifying characteristic to the music I tend to like. I used to describe the type of music I love as music with soul, which is certainly true — there’s nothing more grating to my ears than a musician playing their instrument and not imbibing life into it. But more specifically I want to relate to the music. I want to react to it on an emotional level.

Emotions were elusive for me for nearly all of my 20s, in the sense of the breadth of them, their variety, not in that I lacked them. One of the only ways I could experience the subtleties of emotion was through music. To me, when I react to something in an emotional way, I relate to it on a rather substantial level. To me, understanding something intellectually is certainly important, but it’s just a surface sort of understanding. Understanding something in an emotional way (a visceral way) is much more substantial.

So the music I’ve burned CDs of and put within easy access for people to play when I’m not doing well, are the albums that make me feel less alone, the albums that communicate they understand me in some way.

To feel less alone, to feel understood — to feel like someone else gets the struggle of life, the impossible demands it sometimes makes of us, is a comfort. Mental illness isn’t the only everyday struggle, life itself is an everyday struggle. And in that sense, it echoes what I wrote last month about how people who suffer from mental illness aren’t so different from everyone else.

***

I started my path to recovery when I discovered (well, was more informed by my 4 year-old cousin) that I don’t have a monopoly on suffering, that other people suffer with me. And there can be a dignity in suffering.

The word “dignity” comes from the Latin word dignus meaning “worthy, proper, or fitting.”

Pain is a fact of life. C-3PO was right, “We seem made to suffer. It’s our lot in life.” But that doesn’t mean we can’t do it properly. Having experienced an awful lot of pain and suffering in my time on earth, I’ve learned that pain is information. Pain isn’t there to be pushed aside as an inconvenience, but as a warning that we’re approaching our limits, that if we exceed those limits damage will happen. And that’s the dignity of pain, of suffering — that there’s a reason for it, a point to it.

Boundaries are a healthy, necessary thing in any relationship. And they’re especially healthy, especially necessary in your relationship with yourself. I had surgery recently and as such a limit (i.e., a boundary) was imposed on how much weight I could lift with my left arm. It was frustrating to not be able to pick up Kerrin and cuddle her, it was frustrating to know that I couldn’t even open a sliding glass door with my left arm — but my body and I came to a sort of consortium. I tried to remain conscious of the limits imposed by the surgery and my arm let me know when I was exceeding it by aching.

When it ached, I rested it and I rested my body. I only took aspirin for the pain, I didn’t take anything that would completely eliminate the pain. One reason was knowing that pain is information and that if I cut off the information I wouldn’t know when I was exceeding the capabilities of my healing incision. I was rewarded for that when I went for my second post-op checkup the other week and the surgeon was amazed at how well I’ve already healed. It was like I’d had the surgery six months ago as opposed to just 6 weeks ago.

It’s similar to mental health. I started seeing a more enormous improvement to my mental health once I started respecting the boundaries my brain was trying to establish. The pain I experienced — the psychosis, the despondency, the hopelessness, the nightmarish life I’d come to know — wasn’t without reason, my brain wasn’t pointlessly torturing me. I was exceeding the capabilities of my brain, I was violating a boundary my brain was trying to establish. I was in desperate need of rest.

Mental health hygiene and care certainly isn’t as clear cut as post-surgery hygiene and care. My surgery will leave a physical scar, a tangible reminder of it having happened. The things I’ve experienced through mental illness leave no such obvious marks. My incision is a well understood, universal thing — there are many knowns, very few unknowns. My mental health seems to be comprised almost exclusively of unknowns. But that doesn’t mean mental health lacks reason, that there’s no logic behind it. Mental illness is a negotiation, a relationship. And, as with any worthwhile, healthy relationship — it takes time to develop and flourish.

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