I remember it like Groundhog’s Day yesterday. On a 1990s winter’s afternoon in New York my boyfriend and I were having a silly fight over something or another—the subject matter now eludes me. We were in a homey Greenwich Village coffee shop in warm clothes and scarves and Robert was telling me his side of the story.
It was that point in the argument where we knew we were going to make it through the young-love pain and carry on as one. It should have been corny and sweet and everything you see in sappy TV shows, and I should have gone home and dried my tears and written in my diary and gone to sleep with sweet dreams of my imperfect but wonderful guy.
Would that have been the case. My mental illness was at a high in my twenties, crippling half the time, and on that day it was ferocious. My OCD/Intrusive Thoughts diagnosis had yet to be named or treated, and I spent months trapped inside the electrical wires gone haywire in my brain. I couldn’t tell my boyfriend—I was ashamed and spent half my days thinking I was crazy, the other half spitting back at god.
As I sat at the table listening to my boyfriend, my only wish was to be normal, to have normal fights, normal economic woes, normal hopes, to look around and see normal things—not de-realized people who were talking around me but not really there, Xanax-resistant anxiety tingling up my spine and making sitting still uncomfortable, repetitive thoughts that clogged up my brain like hair in a sink. I wanted a normal day, one in which my boyfriend could have told me he’d fallen in love with a goat and I could have processed the information in uninterrupted fashion. That “dilemma” would have been a welcome relief.
I don’t remember the rest of that day, but I’m sure I went home and drank. Back then liquor was the only effective treatment for my Intrusive Thoughts. And the desperate hope that I’d wake up the next morning as a free man.
On a hot, calm, beautiful summer New York evening about a month ago, Groundhog’s Day returned. I was on a date with a sexy, intelligent man at a Brooklyn Heights restaurant. It was our second date, the one where you analyze more than just the immediate attraction, start seeking out similarities and hesitations, and dive in to the romantic waters.
But I was ill, again, not as bad as in the 90’s, but the worst outbreak of my OCD in 20 years. It had come on unexpected, like an earthquake, and hit me with ripples of stress, a frozen block in the middle of my head that bounced back normal thought processes and sent them percolating in the muck of an airtight cave. As my date and I were exchanging pleasantries, I was looking around at my surroundings and trying to think them back to normal. When thoughts are the disease, however, they are also the symptoms. “Stop thinking about it!” is a magnet to horror.
There was a marked progression this time around. I’ve been on a life-saving combination of medication for two decades, which eases the outbursts and keeps them to a minimum, and I no longer think I’m crazy. I also told my date ahead of time about my condition, which eased the social-anxiety pressure, and I didn’t go home and drink. I learned a long time ago that self-medicating, though at times brilliantly tempting, causes only harm. Eventually death.
I’ve also excluded from my life people who think my disease is either non-existent or solvable by turning to my higher power or taking up yoga. And if I don’t agree or cooperate with their diagnoses, it’s something I choose to have. Need, even. Apparently I cling to mental torture in the same way I’m sure cancer-suffering victims cling to the feeling of their body being destroyed. Why don’t they just meditate the pain away?
More than 40 million Americans suffer from mental illness, yet, except in tragic terms, it’s the most misunderstood and under-discussed disease of our time. When a mentally unstable person goes on a shooting rampage, the stories and memes and posts about our threat to humanity go on their own rampage, with few people making the distinction between non-violent mental illness and psychoses that pose a threat to others (3 to 5 percent).
Try explaining that differential in a logical manner and you’ll be met with more non-statistical hyperbole than a Trump tweet. We become the enemy, the feared, the unknown, once again, and no rational dialogue can erase the stigma. We are crazy, all of us, again.
So why am writing this piece? It’s not today’s political rant, nor does it concern a 25-year-old private letter from a pop star. It’s not even hashtag-worthy because there’s no celebrity tie-in, no link to Carrie Fisher’s death or Shelley Duvall’s alien-invading mind. There’s not even a tweet-storm to tweet responses to.
This piece is being written for selfish, and public, reasons. Discussion of mental illness, verbal and otherwise, is therapeutic, and removes a corner of the black cloud that hangs over me. It makes me feel less alone, less abnormal, in huge part because I receive, in return, stories of others dealing with similar issues. Statistically, 1 in every 5 Americans will suffer some sort of mental illness in their lifetime and everyone reading this knows someone inflicted. Everytime someone else uses the term “mental illness” in regards to their own struggles, I feel less alone.
Publicly, it’s my duty to keep this conversation alive. Yes, we have mental awareness month—really?—in May. But you don’t need a calendar to know that approximately one in every three homeless people on the street suffer from mental illness, a figure that will only increase with Republican efforts to repeal funds for the disease. The current mental health budget is around 5.5 percent of the overall health budget and mentally ill persons are far higher to end up in prison than the rest of the population.
But we’re making progress, and I’m living proof of that. Friends and loved ones who once shunned my mental illness as non-existent or trivial are few and far between (the day after my date, the man called me and asked how I was feeling, not whether or not I approved of his fashion choices). I get daily texts from others asking about my health, and, with a few exceptions, acceptance.
I’m sick some of the time, like so many others, and among the many things I’ve learned over the years is to never be jealous of the person sitting next to you. No matter how wonderful they look or fabulous they appear or happy they surely must be, there’s always the chance they’re in pain, just wanting what every human being deserves: The chance to wake up and enjoy the sheer beauty of a shitty day.