You don’t know the light without contrasting it with the dark. You don’t know true beauty unless you’ve experienced true ugliness. Clichés to be sure. But, like all clichés they bear with them a certain amount of truth.
I’ve been exposed to a lot of ugliness in my short life with mental illness; a lifetime’s worth of trauma in the past 8 years. I’ve seen grotesque creatures, putrid and disturbingly proportioned follow me around from coffee shop to doctor’s office and back home. I’ve seen my dog, Kerrin, who means more to me than just about anything, torn limb from limb and left in a gory heap right before my eyes. I’ve stared out at my bleak, featureless future and had to decide between wandering aimlessly or ending my life right then and there.
I’m glad I chose to keep living; to wander that wasteland, apparently directionless. Because I walked out on the other side with a new understanding of beauty. I’m not looking forward to peering at that dark, featureless field of mud again; but, I know it was worth it because I came to appreciate those quiet moments everyone else seems to take for granted. A special perspective, a special grace granted to me because I’ve seen some truly horrible things, because I’ve experience a special kind of excruciating torture, and because I’ve come out of it alive and whole.
There’s something to be said about a passive approach to mental illness, there’s something to be said for that Taoist notion of being like a reed bending with the current so as to avoid snapping. Fighting mental illness is a sure path to defeat. Mental illness can’t be reasoned with, it feels no pity, and it absolutely will not stop, ever. Mental illness takes every opportunity to drag you down, humiliate you, and kick your teeth in. But I’ve found a special kind of passive fighting, guerilla warfare if you will, is key to holding it at bay.
I’m speaking not only of my attitude toward my illness but also that of my family’s. What’s the old adage? you can’t reason with “crazy”.
I’m not crazy all the time, but it does happen from time to time. And early on, we all tried to fight it. I remember a particular episode in which mom was driving me home and I became so psychotic I started banging my head against the passenger window. Mom got us home as quickly as possible and, as soon as she pulled into the garage, I ran inside and locked myself in the downstairs bathroom. I thought I would feel safe in there – where it would be dark and quiet and I wouldn’t be exposed to anything else that would overwhelm me even more.
But mom and dad were worried about me, “panicked” might be a better word. They had no idea what I was doing in there. So, after banging on the door to the bathroom and receiving no reply from my even-more-terrified psychotic self, dad got a screwdriver and pried the lock open. It felt like a violation of my safe space – the banging on the door, the forceful entry only served to make my psychosis even longer and more intense. They’d invaded my safe place, they’d violated the sense of safety I’d created for myself to ride out the psychotic episode. It’s understandable that they were concerned about my safety; but their actions only made things worse.
Fighting my psychotic episodes traumatizes me. When it hits, it’s overwhelming and the only thing anyone can do is calmly ride it out with me; to stay there and placate me, speak to me lovingly and quietly. My parents are there to make sure I don’t do anything stupid, there to intervene in case I try to hurt myself; but, because they remain calm, because they don’t fight the illness, I very rarely get to the state where I do anything reckless. Mom prays for me and reads from a list of bible passages I’ve picked out. Dad tells me that I’m going to be okay, that it’ll be over soon. He gets Kerrin in my lap so she can work her magic. We’ve worked out a system of accepting the illness, of letting it run its course and doing self-care afterwards. I know it’s scary for them to see me like that – to see me in so much pain, to see me being tormented by the demons that haunt me. But their well-honed, gentle reaction to my illness makes the situation all the better.
Remaining calm is key, acting in exact opposition to my stressed out, panicked condition is crucial. I feed off of people’s emotions like a starving dog – absorbing every ounce of whatever emotion they’re expressing. This is especially true when I’m psychotic. When I’m psychotic, I’m an emotional-super-sponge – if those around me are panicking, banging on the bathroom door and breaking their way inside it only makes things worse by a substantial order of magnitude. Fighting the illness leads to trauma, it lengthens and intensifies the episode.
I don’t mean to suggest that one shouldn’t do everything in their power to prevent an episode from happening in the first place. I don’t mean to suggest that one should just sit there and let things happen to them without fighting tooth and nail to prevent it. My actions are aimed at preventing the illness from taking control in the first place – it takes discipline and tenacity, but it’s worth it. My psychotic episodes aren’t as bad as they used to be, I’ve found a system that works for me. I take my pills and go on walks religiously, I take my bi-hourly breaks every two hours, without exception. I do my breathing exercises, listen to music, and cuddle with Kerrin when I feel the dark wasteland start to take control. One ought to fight the illness – it’s just that the fighting is the complete opposite of the way we understand the word “fighting”. Calmness, low expressed emotion, love, gentleness – these are the things that are needed in fighting mental illness. And, in that way, it’s less about fighting and more about accepting. It’s less about stubbornly standing your ground and more about bending like a reed against the current of the water.
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