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.