Critique and graphic by: Chris Talbot-Heindl
This week is National Mental Health Awareness Week, and what kind of certifiable would I be without chiming in?
I’ve been diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder as well as Bipolar Disorder. I’ll get to that a little later.
First, I want to critique two things I’ve witnessed a lot lately: condemning people who have been diagnosed with a mental illness and accusing people who act irrationally of having a mental illness.
On the interwebs as well as in my personal life, I usually can’t go through a day without someone making a joke about either people with mental illnesses or people perceived to. It’s just a fact of life these days.
We have Miley’s public tweets about Sinead’s struggle with bipolar disorder (Thanks a heap Twittersphere, for letting me know this has been going on). We have Hollywood movies and shows that show how “fun” people with OCD can be. (And who knew it was such an advantage! Apparently, it can make us really great at solving crimes or enable us to be an amazing surgeon!) We probably do have tons of Lifetime movies that perhaps show the true nature of living with a mental illness. But, I’ve never seen one, because, let’s be honest, no one watches Lifetime movies.
People naturally like to diagnose people who don’t act in a rational manner as crazy. I’ll hear, “Oh, she’s bipolar,” or “That’s just the schizophrenia kicking in,” in reference to people they don’t understand and/or simply don’t like. While the people they are referring to may have a mental illness (2.6% of Americans are diagnosed with bipolar disorder, 1.1% with schizophrenia, and 2.3% with OCD), blaming every harmful action that person takes on a mental illness and disregarding what they are thinking, saying, or feeling reinforces the idea that these afflicted people are somehow lesser beings. And usually, the actions people are talking about probably have more to do with the fact that the person is an asshole than any mental malady.
Don’t get me wrong; I’ve done this too. Someone says the name, B____, and I automatically say, “which B____? The crazy one?” This act of denigrating the “crazy” is so pervasive in our society that it’s become second nature to refer to people based on their diagnoses.
I think part of it stems from the separatism we would like to see from the people who’s motivations and actions elude or scare us. A woman I know once threatened to sexually assault me with a knife (obviously not her words, but I’m censoring), then proceeded to punch me, and tear out clump fulls of my hair. My automatic reaction was that she was obviously completely crazy, and everyone who associated with her must be too (which, unfortunately, for me, would include the majority of my friends and family). While it was convenient for me to compartmentalize it and tuck it away, my diagnoses was completely wrong. This woman was hurting from an injury she perceived me to be at the root of, she was immature and didn’t think about what a threat and attack like that would really do (it kicked in my mental illnesses), she was aided by a cocktail of different substances, and at the moment, she was being an asshole and lashing out. But in my mind, she was a psychopath, and that was that.
The most natural reaction to something we can’t understand is to label it and file it away in our gray (matter) filing cabinet. Whether the reason is a violent threat that we need to compartmentalize, or we don’t want to take the time to know someone who has some quirks. What we don’t understand at the time is that others who do have mental illnesses also feel the brunt of this. “She must be bipolar” now means that people associate her action with my malady. Which means, I must be capable of this violence as well.
So, I’d like to take this critique time to tell you: stop doing that! But mostly, I’d like to tell you a bit about my disorders to help you better understand what is happening to the people around you who are afflicted, so maybe you’ll think before you automatically respond, like I did, “Which B_____? The crazy one?”
Here’s what happened to me yesterday, for example, a day when my OCD and bipolar disorder got the best of me:
I had a hard time getting up yesterday morning. I rolled around in bed thinking about what I didn’t have waiting for me if I did manage to get up. I didn’t have a job, because I was laid off two months ago. I didn’t have food in the kitchen, because my unemployment hadn’t been deposited when I went to bed last night. I didn’t have my husband, because he was at work.
I couldn’t think of what I did have. I had a job lined up that started next week. I might have my unemployment deposit in the bank this morning, and I had legs to walk to the grocery store. I had kitties and the interwebs to keep me company. I had subcontract work with web design that would be paying out soon. And the list could go on…
I couldn’t think of those things at the moment. I did finally manage to get out of bed about two hours after I woke up. I started doing what I always do, social media updates about The Talbot-Heindl Experience and The Bitchin’ Kitsch. I checked the news to see if this ridiculous government shut down had ended (it hadn’t). I did some research on how to be a good editor and editing etiquette.
Then my mind switched on with everything that I didn’t want to think about: how I was in my 30’s, about to start a new job that I would have been qualified for straight out of high school, that I was incredibly nervous about because my fake-extrovert skills have only been practiced in one company; that the company had laid me off out of the blue, after I had worked there for over eight years (pretty much my entire adult life); about how the things I had put into practice from research on how to increase traffic to a web site hadn’t worked yet; about how I was writing these critiques, but no one was reading them; about how my savings account was dwindling, how much I hated winters in Wisconsin and it was coming, how I should have moved out of the state when I had the chance, how my husband may die someday, how I was going to deal with that…
Then my mind went through entire story plots of what would happen if my husband did die. Then my mind went through the guilt and revulsion of some of the scenarios that were playing out…
Then my stomach growled.
I went to the kitchen, which hadn’t been replenished because I hadn’t received my unemployment deposit last night, and I hadn’t checked it this morning. It had a lot of things in it that I can’t digest (still does, as I still haven’t replenished it). At the time, because my depression was on full, the idea of checking my banking account on the computer and walking to the grocery store seemed utterly unbearably difficult. So, I grabbed the boxed mac and cheese that my husband and I bought for his brother to eat while he stayed with us. I made that with margarine and soy milk. Because, margarine and soy milk would somehow help the fact that I’m gluten- and lactose-intolerant.
After consuming a bit of that (more accurately, in the middle of consuming a bit of that), another symptom kicked in. The horrible anxiety. The images of all the outcomes – memories of me puking, bouts of diarrhea, images of the “food” physically knotting my intestines, video with surround sound of my colon blowing out, the lack of cleanliness of our bathroom in its current state, etc. Pictures, videos, sounds. My blood started to feel like it was pumping hot lava through my veins, I got cold sweats, and I b-lined for the bathroom, my anxiety having made my fears a reality.
This is what OCD partnering with bipolar disorder looks like. Actually, yesterday was more like an OCD/bipolar combo lite would be. Full bouts are usually a little less vanilla and can involve thoughts of suicide and bodily harm – thoughts, not actions anymore.
The depression stages of the bipolar disorder makes every moment spent “down” seem like an eternity. It makes you believe, for however long you are experiencing it, that this is how it’s always been, this is reality, and this is how it will always be. You can’t see past the stage and sometimes, you’re willing to do anything to make it stop. The obsessive compulsive disorder piggy backs it and makes all your thoughts go to the most negative thoughts, images, and horrors you can think of, and doesn’t let you think of anything else. The guilt from thinking the things you are thinking only feeds the anxiety, and that anxiety feeds the depression, as you believe it will never end.
On those days, nothing will make it stop. The pictures, the sounds, the video in your mind play on repeat. You chastise yourself for thinking what you think and seeing what you see. The anxiety fuels the depression. The best you can do is distract yourself with something stupid until it goes away. And when it finally does, you’ve wasted the entire day (or week, or month) on worry and guilt that you had no control over.
Mental illness isn’t something to entertain the masses with. It’s not a joke. It’s not an insult. It’s not a label. It is a serious affliction that can be quite debilitating, that should be understood. So, before you label someone, before you laugh at a joke at the expense of someone afflicted, before you tweet support to Miley, read up: National Mental Health Awareness Week website.
On an up note, once the cycle was finished, when my mind finally let up and let me come out of the downward spiral, I had the other, more pleasant reaction to my bipolar disorder. I had the manic state, where all of my creativity, my art, and my ideas come from. And I hunkered down and wrote all of this.
As some sort of would-be conclusion, you may feel the compulsion to compartmentalize horrible situations in the news and in your personal life by labeling the people who do them as mentally unstable. But if you do feel that need, realize that there is another end of this as well. You have to thank that mental illness for a lot of things: a lot of art, music, poetry, writing, movies, creativity, and most of all The Bitchin’ Kitsch.