4 or so years ago, I wrote this. Since then, we’ve had at least three hundred and seventy national instances in which we were all going to finally talk about mental illness. Finally, the American populace was going to put on its collective skirt-of-seriousness and talk about what it means to have a mental illness, the inaccessibility to treatment for people living with mental illness, the stigma people living with mental illness are forced to shoulder, and a path forward.
But we didn’t.
Instead, we talk about video games or gun control or gun lack-of-control or how we need to put God back into our schools or take God out of our schools or ask God why “Better Off Ted” got cancelled but ‘NCIS:LA’ is allowed to be a continued pox on all of our houses.
And I get it.
It would be easier if mental illness were something like cancer – something apart from you, who you are. If mental illness were like the flu, moving into and out of your life and leaving used tissues and a nasty cough in its wake, we could talk about it. Some people still talk about it that way – wanting national registries of people living with mental illness so that we can make sure they don’t get guns or bombs or large attack cats. Even using the term “mental illness” implies that it might end; that someday, you’d kick schizophrenia or bipolar out of your head like a bad ex and move on with your life.
But it’s not. Mental illness becomes you. You become mental illness. Mental illness is another layer of the onion that is you, who you are at the very epicenter of your being. It bleeds across the pages of you.
In the movie “The Matrix,” Morpheus explains to Neo why he has hair in the Matrix, but not in “real life.” In the Matrix, you look the way you think you do. Your appearance is “the mental projection of your digital self.” My mental illnesses are part of that projection. They’re who I am.
I’ve been battling depression and anxiety for so long that I have no idea what or who I would be without it. Would I still like crime shows? Do I really like action movies as much as I think I do? Would I stop developing elaborate funeral plans for myself in my head while waiting for the dentist? If I could process anger like a person without an illness, what would I have done by now? Who would I be?
Who are you, really, if you’re not what you think about? If I’m not my anxiety and my depression, then who the hell am I? Am I still a rational human being if I see events in my life in an inherently irrational way?
That’s why diagnosis is so difficult. That’s why treatment is so difficult. That’s why I’ve never really gotten help. I’m not sure what I’d be if I weren’t anxious. It’s how I think about things, see my life and my experiences. In some ways, I feel as if maybe I’m not depressed and anxious, maybe other people just aren’t depressed and anxious enough. I’m not sick, you are. I can’t imagine what it must be to have auditory and visual hallucinations that would feel as based in reality as my anxiety does to me.
It’s difficult to explain to people the difference between the sadness at losing a loved one and the depression of continuing to exist when you really have no desire to do so, when getting out of bed seems like a bell you just can’t answer, when your anxiety makes it terrifying to leave your house because you’re convinced that everyone on the other side of the door hates you and just won’t be ballsy enough to tell you, and all of this feels so goddamned rational that you just have to believe its true. How it’s not that you want to die, it’s that you want everything to just…stop.
So I get it. Really, I do. We don’t want to talk about mental illness.
But I do. I want us to talk about it, because I need to know that I can. I need to know that I can get help if I choose to pursue it, I need to know that people won’t think that I can’t handle my job or my finances because I tell them I’m struggling with my own brain, I need to know that I can feel comfortable sharing what I’m feeling without worrying about how others will see me.
If mental illnesses were like colds, we could talk about how to cure them. But they’re not, and we can’t. That doesn’t mean we can’t still talk.