My Mental Illness and Explaining the Inexplicable

By the time I turned 16 it felt like everything had happened. I'd worked as an actor for 8 years, most notably touring with the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. Those days were life inside the diamond, and I always got the best parts because I was funny and loud, with a booming voice. A director once told me to be quieter onstage -- my voice was drowning out the rest of the cast.

I trekked to New York at age 10 (I kind of made Mom take me), where I saw the original Chicago, Pippin, and Equus (all eyes were on the boy in the box seat, not the actors, when the leads stripped). They were so immature. New York was my actor-destination just as soon as I could escape suburbia. It was Emerald City, and home and bullies and being fat and gay was Kansas via Lord of the Flies.

I was the youngest person ever to be hired as a reporter for the Bay Area newspaper "The Contra Costa Times," after I wrote a lengthy letter-to-the-editor complaining about a columnist's report on reckless teenagers. I had already senior-edited my elementary school newspaper and written a rock column for my high school's paper. I also lied about my age to get a job at Wendy's, and did theater at the local junior college so I could speed through a circle of grown-ups. The professors were my friends.

I got a call asking if I wanted an Internship at the "CCT," and within six months I was offered a job as Assistant to the Real Estate Editor. I knew nothing about real estate, but, as the woman who insisted I be hired, told me abruptly, "Learn." I was 15. Grown men whom I interviewed called me Jimmy Olsen, and not as a compliment.

All of that happened before 16, and then everything else happened.

First, it was death. I knew I was going to die, there would be black, and nothing mattered. I was bed-ridden and unable to cope. My mom took me to a therapist, and he told me, in subtle terms, that I was covering up for being gay. I didn't believe him; still don't. Next I became obsessed with nuclear war. I knew it was imminent, and every noise, sound, Emergency Alert, meant I was about to be vaporized. It was debilitating, and homework and friends and life went out the cold nuclear winter window. I put pillows in front of them before bed.

There was a pattern developing. I began to realize that any obsession took over for a few weeks, clogged my brain like red-horn-blaring cement, took away freedom of mind, and then dissipated, like when a fever breaks.

But they always came back, and they were just getting started.

I was accepted to UCLA, somehow, and I hated it. Between recurring obsessions, which struck like earthquakes, I craved a normal life. Soon I developed de-realization, an illness in which things around you are not actually there. They are like movie screen images, projected in front of you but detached. I would look out of my dorm window every morning hoping that the view of campus would turn real. It didn't.

When that lifted, I became obsessed with the thought of thought. I would try to make images disappear from my brain, which can't be done while you are thinking about them. It was psychological torture, and I lived in the chamber 24/7. And in a new twist, the obsession never left. My last year of UCLA was spent with my brain tangled up by burning wires. I drank to diffuse the pain. For that hour or so before a blackout I was at peace. During the day I would play Pinball at the school's rec center. I'd play for hours, the same machine. I got so good I never had to pay for more than one or two games.

I remember an old woman in an elevator one morning who looked at me and said, "You're so young. You should be happy." It's hard to tell people that your brain isn't working. I didn't have missing limbs or visible scars, and I wasn't coughing or running a fever. I was the All-American, white, good-looking, Sunny Southern California kid. What could possibly be wrong?

The psychologists at UCLA told me that I was hiding something, that perhaps I'd been beaten as a child. I knew they were wrong, and the lack of any diagnosis made things worse. I did know that my dad suffered from mental illness, and killed himself at the age of 37. I, too, was crazy. And ashamed I wasn't the happy college kid, the sparkling youth, the son your mother dreams of creating, and deserves.

I left UCLA without a diploma -- I asked for a pass/fail on an exam and found out months later that the professor never did the paperwork -- and moved to New York, where my actor-boyfriend said he'd help me get better. He hated my illness and resented me, and said it was something I chose. The relationship ended within a year.

Then came my obsession with sleep. I couldn't be awake and asleep at the same time, and the paradox kept me up all night. I trembled, I couldn't sit in chairs without anxiety ripping through my back. I developed an obsession with speech. My brain tried to process every word, syllable, movement that came out of my mouth. I would stutter and have to rephrase sentences while my words stuck inside like a clogged drain. Try doing that when you're in the middle of a monologue. There were also the obsessions with swallowing, even a period where I tried to count every time my eyes blinked. In between, all the other obsessions would return. I got a job as a juggler at City Opera and one night performed in front of a crowd of 3,000 people who weren't really there.

My juggling partner turned to me during one rehearsal and said the thing he loved most about me was that I was always so funny and carefree. Humor deflects pain so well it's easy to forget how cruel it treats us.

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Me, in the middle of it all, age 28. Photographer Unknown.

There were all of those obsessions and countless more. The older you get the more they find ways to destroy you. I stopped acting for good after anxiety attacks occurred onstage and I would hold onto prop furniture until my exit. I tried to write, and pretended I wanted to quit theater, still the biggest lie I've ever invented. I had no career, no enjoyment, no "goals" except to get well, which, after about a dozen doctors, seemed impossible. I drank every night, ended up in the hospital after going through a couple of bottles in a day, and came back to my apartment with nothing but the riddle of hope.

All of that happened before I turned 30.

A few years later I met a doctor who specialized in OCD, and he diagnosed me with "Intrusive Thoughts," a term I'd never heard. He reassured me that the proper combination of medication and therapy could greatly reduce my illness. We tried at least a dozen over a year's time, unsuccessfully. Then, on a trip to my sister's wedding (I'd not opened my mail for three weeks and she called me to beg me to come), I felt a kick in my head. I had been prescribed something new, and it started working. Things lifted, slowly. The world grew color. Freedom seeped in like air holes.

It's been almost 20 years since that summer, and I've had ups and downs and bad months and great months and setbacks and strength. I've adjusted medications as many times as birthdays. It's hard to imagine now, but when my disease was at its worst we didn't live in a time when meds were common and mental illness much discussed.

I've never seriously acted again, and I miss it like a lover every day. The few times I've tried, the obsessions pile up, as well as stage fright, and life becomes unbearable. But like that kid who first saw the Empire State Building rising above a puff of clouds, I can now penetrate the blue. I'm alive and thriving and catching up and rebuilding self-esteem, the first casualty of the invisible illness war. Mental illness is like living in someone else's nightmare, because you can't control when you wake up.

Patty Duke died on March 29, a woman who bravely spoke about her manic-depression, and who helped pave the way for others to talk about mental illness. I am tremendously grateful for her, and decided I would honor her passing by opening up my own sealed, often-shameful doors.

And I want to do all of this before everything next.

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Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.