Monthly Archives: August 2014

I Can’t Talk about Mental Illness

I can’t talk about mental illness.

The words want to come to my lips and I feel the need to shout them to the world. Yet I keep thinking of the ramifications. The calls and the new yet older-than-time names I would receive: Insane, out-of-control, drama, hysterical. If I talk about it, the phrases I say will come back to haunt me, giving people who want a way out of knowing or associating with me an excuse to do just that.

I can’t come close to this subject without fear of how it will come back to bite me. It’s for others, separate from us yet at the same time people who we know; like our beloved Robin Williams, whose demons were out in the open for everyone to see. He was far enough from us so it’s there, but not up front. If we put it on ourselves, it becomes a fire-breathing dragon that would be happy to take us out, because it’s not “normal.” Mental illness is not a part of our everyday lives. So I can’t talk about it.

Yet as I take off my clothes and see the areas where there once were stretch marks on my body, imprinted on my skin even after all these years. There are no words for my body thinking it was pregnant due to a medicine called Risperdal. At 16, my breasts began stretching out to their current huge size and my body took on 40 more pounds almost overnight. A manic teenager faster than the speed of the ADHD medication flowing through her veins was paired with a psychiatrist curving his mouth into a sympathetic, “I’m just like you” before shoving the tiny white half-tablets down my throat. As my body morphed, he said, “Look on the bright side: You’re not lactating.”

It took two years on this medication and my first college psychology textbook before I found out he was slipping me a medication more commonly given to schizophrenics, when clearly I wasn’t one. When I confronted him, he shrugged. So I can’t talk about mental illness.

Yet it was an echoing story that seemed to come everywhere with me throughout my life, my so-called mental state used against me. At 13, when I first had suicidal thoughts, being threatened regularly to be sent to San Bernardino — the closest mental hospital — if I didn’t get my act together. Sitting in my crush’s El Camino at 16, I was hoping he would kiss me but instead my eyes were left staring down at his Oasis CD as he called me crazy and pushed me out the door. Being threatened with institutionalization as early as two years old, when I couldn’t speak and one lady my mom took me to see was convinced I had autism (I was simply born without a language center in my brain). And when I was in Israel at 17, the fact that I was on medication was used against me, because obviously who would believe a crazy girl?

I can’t talk about the pain where you wonder how nuts you are versus the people who are supposed to be treating, protecting and loving you, shaking the core of where trust should live. Sometimes you can’t see through all the “take this and you’ll feel betters” you’re given. Throughout my life, everyone would tell me I lived in a fantasy world or wasn’t in touch with reality before slipping me a pill and telling me to shut up and be good. Even though I swore off all my medications at 19, this talk could be gotten away with because it was a part of my life’s fabric. I was normal — or normal enough, I should say — yet my past checkered with misdiagnoses and medication chugging was haunting me.

To this day, I have to check myself with every uncontrollable crying fit and depressed swing of life. No matter how many times I’m told it’s okay to lose it every once in a while, I watch my back around others, wondering if I’ll be threatened with an institution again. So I can’t talk about mental illness.

Yet that cold night two and a half years ago still haunts me. There was a green duffel bag in the back of my silver Saturn, where I was told to pack his light blue jeans and red polo shirts. Emptying the toiletries from the shower and the medicine cabinet, although remembering the clear instructions not to pack razors. Driving down to that fluorescent hospital off Pacific Coast Highway, listening to the tut in his family’s voice over the phone as they said, “This is really inconvenient.” Then two days later told by them to hide what had happened from our friends as he told everyone I knew.

So I can’t talk about it.

Yet I can’t shake how, 24 hours after I told my work about what happened that night, they let me go. Or how his behavior in the months after embarrassed and shamed me. Or my once-beautiful home, which I was told to leave for my own safety, that I had to see over a year and a half later covered in roach excrement, deep black dust and broken glass. Where he lived. Where we lived.

We’re not supposed to talk about mental illness or even the idea of it. We can’t. But we need to.

I have lived in a world where shame has ruled my life due to something that is part of the human condition and has been for centuries. Approximately nine percent of the American population suffers from depression. It’s the tip of the iceberg: Mental illnesses range from anxiety and eating disorders to even ADHD. Some surveys even argue that one in four Americans suffer from some kind of mental disorder. We constantly want to categorize mental disease as for “the others” because perhaps we dream of padded rooms and lobotomies. We can’t be like them. They’re crazy.

That “they” in that sentence is the problem. “They” are crazy. Yet I think of Robin Williams and his last TV show: It was called The Crazy Ones. Not just Robin. We aren’t all zany comic geniuses, but the truth is we are all the crazy ones, with our own little idiosyncrasies and quirks that make us who we are. Forcing us into little boxes of shame hidden behind facades is not the way the world should work. If it’s a “they” problem, we can’t help our fellow man. But we have to for the sake of the people who love us and that we love.

As I have taken up the baton of comedy, I have observed a change as I have graced venues over the past few days. The hint of somber tones is in everything we say after we lost him, but the laughter is like music. It’s louder and stronger, hitting beautiful crescendos and fueling us as we know that we aren’t alone in our fears and insecurities as we take the stage. We will stand strong for Robin Williams, embracing his brand of crazy and sadness, and we will be better for it.

Maybe we can’t talk about mental illness. But we can sing about it, dance about it, write about it and make people laugh about it. We can share our experiences and tell stories to make the world a little safer and a tad bit wiser. After all, there are multiple ways to speak.

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Reina the Brave

You can’t always put on a brave face. Depression is a very real disease that can sometimes be deadly. You don’t have to go it alone, though: Call the National Suicide Prevention Helpline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and information.

He called me to come downstairs; he was outside waiting for me. My big sunglasses hid my red eyes as I walked slowly down the stairs, trying to shake off the dust and find my inner brave self so he wouldn’t worry about me.

I sat in the car and looked at the man in the passenger’s seat. He used to have black hair and a mustache, his face a little less worn. Now my father was white with wrinkles from the worry of the past six months. He looked at me and spoke to me softly as he always had in the moments where I was weak. And I cried, the tears slipping past the armor I had placed on my face to hide.

I couldn’t fight anymore, I cried to him. I had been lying in bed for days, refusing to talk to concerned friends and hiding behind masks when I went out. He touched my hair softly as he drove down Venice Boulevard to my favorite coffee shop.

“Don’t cry,” he said, but then stopped himself. Time had taught him better. “Or let it out, if you have to.”

This was the man who would sit with my sister and me on the couch as a child, watching The Secret of NiMH. He would tell us to always be brave, like the little mouse Mrs. Brisby protecting her home. Courage was vital when facing a harsh world. I didn’t know then these words were meant for everyone in the household, including himself.

As I got older, the more I discovered that the world was a very difficult place indeed. When I left Israel at 17, I found out later my dad was offered the choice to come and get me so I could spend a couple of extra days in the country. He said no, probably on account of the expense, but it taught me that many of my battles have to be faced alone. There would be plenty of frightening days where that one came from, from the dog days of divorce to the rebuilding of my life, and most of them would be solitary wars that only I could fight. Although people would give me weapons to fight them with, no one can protect you from them. And for me, the most essential tool because my game face, which my father always used the business cliche, “Never let them see you sweat.”

The Halloween after my divorce, I slipped on a red corset, blue short shorts and a gold tiara, proclaiming myself Wonder Woman. It’s a costume that has gone down in legend amongst my friends; a friend of mine said he referred to me as Wonder Woman for six months before he actually knew my name. It was my game face for my new world post-married life, my Mrs. Brisby costume if she were a superhero. And for quite a few people, I sometimes stand in for one.

On the surface, I’m brave. Everyone knows me as the shoulder to cry on, the joke teller, the girl who has fought for everyone else. Sure, I’m not 100 percent brave (ask any girl who has quizzed me as to why I can’t ask a guy out to save my life), but I’ve been pretty damn close. I’m not afraid to walk into any room by myself and have complete confidence in approaching almost anyone. Any personal struggles were mine alone, kept hidden in dark corners but once conquered brought out as if they were no big deal.

Yet I was weak now; I had fought to two and a half years to get my life on track, and the moments where I’d think everything was back to normal, it wasn’t. Whether it was my ailing mother or the struggles to keep myself afloat, there was always another obstacle to overcome, and I was getting tired. Stressed and worn away, depression was coming to infect me like a disease. Often I would say that I was stronger than it, fighting despite the walls crumbling around me. But sometimes you need a break, and there wasn’t one.

Now I sat with my dad in my favorite coffee shop, and the caffeine in my pour-over was the only thing breaking down the wall of depression that separated my father from me. His voice calmed me, and then we started talking about the things we always used to talk about. The power of storytelling and music. The creative powers and how they are given to us. The future of our lives as father and daughter against a harsh world. Basically, important conversations we weren’t able to have for at least six months. Life had blocked us from our natural state, and circumstances being what they were, freaking out was hardly an option.

As we confronted each other, we still somehow found comfort in one another. No matter the sins of what had happened over this time, he was still a man I loved and one of the most important people in my life. Meanwhile, I was still the young woman who he admired for her ferocity and spirit, yet now was weak from depression, a demon he knew all too well. Having seen me for so long, he knew exactly what to do: Pick me up to wash my face and remind me to breathe — possibly the most courageous thing to do when you feel like you’re weak. And then from there, small steps onward.

As he dropped me off at home and hugged me tight, I walked up the stairs of the apartment, unsure of my next move. I was alone again, yet strangely I wasn’t. And perhaps because I was so used to fighting my battles alone, the idea that I would have to face this one by myself was taken without a second thought. But sometimes bravery isn’t all about the game face; it’s knowing when you can’t fight alone. And it’s not necessarily about winning the battle, but walking out the front door.