Trigger Warning: Mental Illness, ignorance thereof.
This past August, the worst panic attack of the summer happened during one of the best experiences of my life to date. I was at a writer’s retreat, after a tumultuous summer following the end of a four year relationship among other major life changes. That Friday in Los Angeles, in a room with twelve skilled writers I spent a week striving to feel worthy to talk with, I fought a panic attack as the word crazy ricocheted off the walls. Crazy came out to discuss the main character having a mental breakdown in the workshop piece.
After a week of struggling with anxiety at a writer’s retreat every insecurity screamed at me I didn’t earn my place at, I found myself at a loss. The bullet points I’d written to talk about blurred in front of my eyes as I tried to calm down. It wasn’t my piece being workshopped, and it wasn’t me they were talking about. How could I justify objecting to the language used? In reality I rapidly lost the ability to speak at all that session. I bolted from the room at the end, then ended up fleeing the lunch cafeteria as if pursued, unable to face the crowd. In reality, I was being pursued as far as my body was concerned, it urged me to run, screaming anyone in the area would attack. Years of conditioning kicked in and flight mode carried me right into my room and into one of the loudest panic attacks I’d had in months.
I am grateful that this event had a positive outcome, thanks to the receptive, compassionate fellows and faculty at the retreat. From my roommate, who offered to bring me food when they ran across me fleeing the cafeteria, to the retreat faculty member who was experienced enough to catch my harried express as a request for help, and finally to my fiction fellows, who the next day, when I asked them to listen, obliged ears, minds, and hearts open.
Crazy, isn’t the worst way to describe a situation, event, or object. It isn’t the best, but not the worst. When people, when their words or behavior are called crazy, I get that prickle on the back of my neck. That creeping feeling that the only thing between me and whoever that “crazy” person is, is that the speaker has never seen me, sobbing and gasping to breathe in the middle of a panic attack. They have never witnessed me repeatedly checking every cabinet, corner and door in my apartment out of fear there is something there. They have never heard me give myself a pep talk before driving somewhere new, or making a professional phone call. They have never been struck by me when they try to prank me with a jump scare. If they did, maybe then I would be crazy.
Crazy invalidates whoever it is applied to. It dismisses them as delusional, as unhinged, or mentally unstable. Crazy implies they seek to harm, they are violent, or morally weak. Crazy and its heavy baggage, kept me in the closet with my mental illness for years.
Crazy and its baggage keep millions in the U.S. alone in the dark with their disease.
Even now, this far along in therapy, in building healthy thought patterns, working to break the abusive conditioning I experienced, I still hesitate every time I reach out for support. Before I tell someone I had a bad day, or text someone that my anxiety is bad, or my depression has been rough lately, I hesitate. Because what if that admission brings me down in their estimation? What if I’m deemed incompetent at my job? What if my friends decide I am a burden? What if they decide I am too much drama?
I work for a nonprofit with mental health as one of its major tenants. Many of my closest friends have a mental illness of their own to cope with. If ever there were safe spaces. But when so much ignorance persists about mental illnesses, when villains are cast as sociopaths, as bipolar, when someone with depression is depicted as given up, when the person with major anxiety disorder is a punchline, hesitation comes first.
High cholesterol runs in my family, so does type two diabetes, cancer, and hyperthyroidism. These are genetic predispositions, if at some stage in my life I am faced with this unfortunate inheritance, no one will blame my character. No one will say it’s my personality. Or that I developed my condition because I was weak. Depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and addiction in various forms also run in my family. But any of these manifesting in me, are my own fault. They are a sign of failure, that I have not done all I could to be happy, that I am overthinking things. That I just need to try a little harder and I’ll be fine. As a society, we take the genetic predisposition for chronic illnesses in the rest of the body for granted. But if the disease is mental, we treat is as a phase, as an imagined ailment of the afflicted.
This ignorance only perpetuates the struggle for myself and everyone like me. I have the privilege of education about my illness and freedom to speak on it. I take advantage of this as often as I am able to change people’s knowledge about depression, about anxiety, about PTSD, about what people with these conditions look like.
Anyone can have mental illness. No matter how accomplished, how rich, how competent, how high functioning. There is no one face.
This week, October 5 through 11, is mental illness awareness week. This week, examine how you think about people you call crazy. Think about how you look at mental illness, how you see people with mental illness. Don’t dismiss what you don’t know, seek out understanding, please. Remember that sticks and stones break bones, but words build entire systems of thought.