Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Ed. note: I maintain that the rituals we go through after someone dies is for our benetfit, not theirs'. They've already passed on; maybe there is an afterlife and maybe there isn't, but death rituals are designed to comfort and support those who are left to carry on. I'm not naive enough to imagine that posting about my experiences with mental illness are going to right any cosmic balance in the world. I'm not even naive enough to imagine that the current conversation taking place about mental health and suicide is going to mark a shift in the way we deal with those who deal with mental illness; the story will fade away in the next news cycle, and the next time a high-profile person kills themselves, everyone will exclaim that they could never have seen it coming. So I'm not writing this because I think it's going to make a difference. I'm writing this for me.

Have you ever seen someone in really extreme pain?

I don't mean a skinned knee or a bumped funny bone- those hurt, but they're temporary. I mean broken bone, gutshot wound, got-mauled-by-a-bear pain. You know how they can't do anything but scream? Even if
they need to do something to help themself, even if there's another person in pain who's lying five feet away from them, there is nothing they can do but scream because the pain they're in is so massive and overwhelming that it overrides everything else going on in their brain. It's selfishness, but it's an understandable kind of selfishness: when what's happening to you is so all-encompassing and keeps you from doing anything to help yourself, you can't really be expected to help anyone else. It's not within your ability.

Mental illness is a lot like that.

Only when you're mentally ill, it's not socially acceptable to scream constantly because unless you can show someone your gaping head wound or broken limb, they're inclined to disbelieve that anything's wrong in the first place. Best-case scenario is usually: well okay, something's wrong, but you can walk it off! Eat better! Go out and enjoy yourself! Which is about as helpful as telling someone with a broken bone to get up and walk until their body knits itself back together. Ever heard of a bone that managed to repair itself while its owner was hopping around putting pressure on it? No! Because that's not how biology works! But somehow people expect to apply the same logic to a broken brain and get a magic "ta-da! fixed everything!" result. Because the real kicker is, we know how to fix a broken bone or gunshot wound or bear-mauling: stitch it up, slap some tape and plaster on it, wait a few months, and you're golden. We can't apply the same principle to the brain, because we just plain don't know that much about how the brain works. I toss back a Celexa pill every night because the contents are meant to make up for the seratonin my brain isn't producing that in turn somehow fills my mind with images that make me want to jump off a bridge. Why does decreased seratonin production do that? What causes the decreased production in the first place? We don't know! Nobody knows! But I keep taking those pills, because I'd rather not jump off a bridge.

Speaking of:

When I was sixteen, I wanted to kill myself.

I had- although I wouldn't know this for several years- purely obsessive OCD, or POCD for short. You've never heard of it, because someone rocking back and forth and sobbing about how they're a terrible person makes for much less compelling television than someone with cute quirks like lining their dining utensils up in order solving crimes with their magic OCD. Or jokes about how OCD you are because you hate a dirty kitchen. I'm inclined to ask who the fuck doesn't hate a dirty kitchen, but that's beside the point. Point is, at sixteen, I'd never heard of POCD and consequently had no idea that a seratonin imbalance was responsible for putting all those awful thoughts in my head. All I knew was that they were there. So my thought process went:
  1. These thoughts mean I am a terrible person
  2. So terrible, in fact, that I shouldn't be alive
  3. I have to kill myself
So I went out for a walk. There's a bridge about ten minutes, on foot, from my parents' house- it's fairly low to the ground, as bridges go, but it's also an overpass. I figured, if the fall didn't kill me, one of the cars on the road below would undoubtedly run over me as soon as I hit the road. I had my cell phone in my pocket, like I always did when I went out for a walk- my mother wanted to make sure I could text her if I was in trouble. I was wearing a purple t-shirt and shorts. I still have that shirt. As I stood on the overpass, three thoughts were going through my head:
  1. Do it! What are you waiting for?
  2. How can I do this to those drivers? Anyone who ran over me would have to live with it for the rest of their lives.
  3. If I'm going to be late, I'd better call Mom to make sure she knows.
I think it was the third one that saved me. It's weird to think of now, but it was the one thing that put a barrier between me and the bottom of that overpass- "I have to get home on time. I don't want to worry Mom." And I wasn't late. I turned around and walked home and never told anyone what I'd been planning that day. A few weeks later, I went to the doctor and was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder- a fairly common mistake, when treating people with POCD. The doctor handed me a perscription and sent me home. There's more to this story- my eventual re-diagnosis, my switching to a different medication because of the side effects of the first, the side effects I still get from the Celexa. But the point of this story- the reason I'm telling it- is that no one who knows me now would ever guess that I nearly threw myself off an overpass. It's not the kind of thing you think about a person, you know? You expect a warning sign.

You expect them to scream.

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