Female artist sitting with her brush and painting

Defying the Picture Society Paints of People With Mental Illness

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I have been recently discovering a lot of snails in my garden. I, in my tendency to succumb to the seduction of a silent reverie, found myself wondering about snails, their purpose and why they are the way they are. Why a shell? Why have they their houses on their back?

Then, I thought, “Snails are independent in a weird way.”

They rely on themselves for their shelter and their security, unattached to anything but themselves. They travel leaving only a trail of glittering experience of the path they’ve taken, despite how long it has taken them.

A snail didn’t choose to be a snail. It didn’t choose to be slow and burdened with its shell, but despite its wavering purpose in nature, it still carries itself. It still travels to a new place, independent of all that surrounds it and irrespective of what humanity thinks of it.

With its beautifully grotesque shell, intricately designed by the hand of nature, the snail climbs up walls, unaware of what is before it, never questioning. It goes on, until a bird comes and ends its insignificant life, fulfilling its purpose as a meal for its avian predecessor on the food-chain, and the world goes on.

I think, perhaps, I’m like this snail. I, too, am burdened by an unreckonable force upon my back, my mental health. With such a heavy burden, I’m tempted to wait in hope of a winged figure to pluck me from the perils of my physical encasement on this Earth. Despite the weight and the fear of an ominous shadow, I have become accustomed to it. I, too, can keep going despite what humanity thinks of me. It’s only with my “beautifully grotesque” mind, my perseverance and struggle that I can leave my glittering trail of experience.

Perhaps, my purpose is to show that despite the weight of my mental illness, I can still travel to new places, explore new grounds and live, unattached to the stigma and social “impressions” of what it means to have a mental illness. To show, that despite all the odds, I can still live.

I have come out of my shell and accepted who I am. My mental illness has conditioned me to be strong, to persevere through everything life offers. I chose to turn something negative into something positive. Going to therapy, taking medication and working on myself holistically has taught me to realize I can have control over how I feel.

I consider what I thought was a curse to be a blessing. I feel blessed because what was once a burden is now a monument that signifies my success through the toughest struggle I’ve ever endured, and I’m leaving my glittering trail of experience.

Living with a mental illness doesn’t define who I am as a person. Having a mental illness does not make me any less a dreamer, any less a daughter, sister or girlfriend. Being a snail doesn’t mean it’s any less an insect. Having a mental illness means I just have something extra to deal with in my daily life.

There was a time when I considered myself “cursed,” questioning why I was given such a struggle, convincing myself I was being punished. How I perceived my mental health is indicative of how society can penalize and ostracize anything or anyone who is considered “abnormal” or “taboo.” In the daylight hours, society doesn’t blatantly outlaw those who have mental health issues. In fact, it encourages inclusion and well-being of everyone.

It’s only in the dark corners of quiet moments, when the day has yawned and the tie is pulled off, that the other face of society looks warily from the corner of its eye upon us and wonders if we are actually monsters like the people in those horror movies.

Society paints a sloppy picture using only limited colors to portray those with mental illness. We deserve to be painted by our own experienced hands. We, who have experienced the inner turmoil that mental illness can cause. If each of us could choose to contribute to what mental health looks like using our own artistic technique, our own stroke of the brush, our own unique color upon the canvas of society, then perhaps the art depicting mental health wouldn’t be abstract art but instead naturalism, a reflection of our minds and our struggles, beautiful dashes of color with trails of glittering experience.

We owe it to ourselves to keep going and to make our own purpose despite what nature has given us.

This post originally appeared on The Red Dutchess.

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Things People With Mental Illness Needed to Hear at Their Lowest Moments

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People with mental illness describe what they needed to hear when they were at their lowest point.

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Esteban Santiago Mugshot

We Can't Ignore the Fort Lauderdale Shooting Suspect's Mental Health

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There’s something we need to talk about it. It involves mental illness, violence and guns – three words that, if you’re like me, induce an involuntarily grimace when used in the same sentences.

But, two things are true:

1. People with mental illnesses are not more violent than the general population and in fact are more likely to be victims of violence.

2. This November, 26-year-old Esteban Santiago visited the FBI office in Anchorage, Alaska, claiming U.S. intelligence had taken over his mind and were forcing him to watch ISIS propaganda videos. He was brought to a hospital for a mental health evaluation. The police confiscated his gun. A month later, CNN reported, he got his gun back from police headquarters.

Just last week, he used that gun to kill five people at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Florida.

Right now, we don’t know what the mental health evaluation said and whether he’d ever been “officially” diagnosed with a mental illness. We know he checked himself into treatment voluntarily, but we don’t know his circumstances when he got out. We don’t know what kind of support he had from his family or friends or whether or not that would have mattered.

What I do know is that this incident is unacceptable, and I don’t think we should pretend it didn’t happen.

Too often after a publicized shooting, the “aftermath” conversation turns into a two-sided, black-and-white debate: you’re either in favor of tighter gun control, or you think the answer is better mental health services. Gun control is assumed to be the more “liberal” view, while conservatives like Paul Ryan have used fixing the mental health system as an alternative to fixing how we sell/distribute guns.

What has always bothered me about politicians like Ryan, who suddenly have something to say about the mental health community after a shooting, is that they speak as if the only pressing reason to fix the mental health system is to prevent shootings — to save “us” from “them.” Not because people deserve access to basic care, but to protect anyone innocent who might get in a “crazy” person’s way. In reality, it’s not that simple. And those with mental illnesses only cause 1 percent of gun violence against strangers.

To quickly distance ourselves from every act of violence perpetrated by someone with a possible mental illness also doesn’t tell the whole story. Because there is a connection between untreated serious mental illness and violence, especially when substance abuse is involved. But where does this fit into our “end the stigma” narratives?

I think it’s time to make some room.

What if instead of limiting our “after shooting” dialogue to gun control vs. health care, we opened up the dialogue that badass advocates are already having? We need to fix the gaps in our mental health system, not only for people who are asking for this help, but also for those who are more at risk for violence. Yes, we should talk about gun control, but instead of pushing ourselves away from people who quite possibility wouldn’t be violent if they were properly treated, what if we used their narrative to highlight the gaps in our system? We too often let the media run the narrative, splitting the issue down the middle. I’m wondering if there’s a way to paint a narrative that acknowledge violence, but doesn’t perpetuate stigma.

What if there was compassionate and adequate care for Santiago? What if someone made sure there was some kind of treatment plan/any plan before he was released from care, and before he was given back his gun? Can we have compassion for his situation without aligning ourselves with what he did? It’s also fair to note he was charged in a domestic violence case in last January. What if proper precautions were taken after that?

I don’t have any answers to these questions. I don’t know whether “the right” mental health system could have saved him and the people whose lives were lost. But I do think it’s worth talking about when there’s such a clear gap — we’re not doing ourselves any favors by ignoring it.

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10 Things I Want People to Know About My Complex Mental Illnesses

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Depression.
Anxiety.
Major depressive disorder.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Complex PTSD.
Stress-related anxiety and depression.
Cyclothymia (misdiagnosis).
Borderline personality disorder (BPD).

That’s quite a list, isn’t it? Even I have trouble keeping up with the multitude of symptoms, (mis)diagnoses, maybes and what ifs, medications and referrals. In my short 25 years, I feel like I’ve fully wrung out the mental health system, and I’ve certainly been around the block a few times, shoved from pillar to post with no one quite sure what to do with me.

Somehow, this has landed me with a multitude of interweaving mental health issues, which I find rather alarming at times. But it must be even more overwhelming for people who I have to explain my mental health issues to – reeling off a list of issues makes people back away in horror, confusion and embarrassment. I’ve gotten so anxious about listing my mental health issues that I frequently just stick to the old adage, “I have depression.” It’s a lie, but it makes my life easier than having to cope with the pitying and patronizing expressions that people give you when you go into details.

I feel so awkward explaining my mental illnesses to people because I feel like I’m attention-seeking or asking for pity because of the multitude of diagnoses and illnesses that have crept out of the woodwork over the years. Even listing things for medical purposes gets me worked up – if only because I run out of room on the form.

So here are 10 things I want people to know about my interweaving, or complex, mental health issues.

1. I’m not after your sympathy or attention. If you’ve asked me to talk about my mental health and you genuinely want to know, please don’t start getting twitchy after illness number three. Mental health is much more complex than a single diagnosis.

2. I wish it were a lot simpler. Unfortunately, “simple” is rarely the case, and the intertwining of illnesses makes it very hard to find the right medication or therapy.

3. I don’t understand much more than you do. OK, that may be a bit of an understatement, but 90 percent of the time I’m as in the dark as you are, which is incredibly frustrating. I am a naturally curious person, and I want to understand things to their fullest with as much information as I can. To not be able to even understand myself is an extremely painful experience.

4. Yes, I am aware things exist to help me manage my illnesses. Sadly, getting access to the correct treatment is incredibly difficult. I once waited two years for trauma therapy because the waiting list was so long. The NHS does all they can to help, but mental health services are incredibly underfunded and access to the right treatments is getting harder and harder.

5. Please don’t let this list define who you think I am. I am much more than my mental illnesses. At times, when I am in a crisis, or particularly unwell, I will become all-consumed by my mental health. But there is much more to me than my mental illnesses. I am a baker, I am creative, I am a writer, I am a blogger. I am clever, witty, funny, kind, generous and somewhat eccentric. Please don’t pigeon-hole me.

6. I feel as awkward as you do when discussing my mental health. Trust me, it is no easier for me to sit down and reel off the list than it is for you to sit and listen to it. I am extremely adept at picking up people’s subtleties in their body language and I know by the time I’m halfway through the list, you’re tuning out. If you really want to know, understand you cannot have a simple answer.

7I am not a monster. It is more common than you think for people to have multiple diagnoses or mental illnesses, and it does not make us terrible people or people to avoid. I am just like everyone else. I just have some extra layers to peel and decipher.

8. Please do not make assumptions. One of the worst things someone can do is go away, read up about my diagnoses on the internet and come back to me thinking they understand everything. Mental health is unique to the individual, despite having blanket diagnoses and terms. Half the stuff on the internet doesn’t apply to me, and the other half is very bland. If you want to know more, just ask. 

9Do not be afraid. I would much rather be open with someone who genuinely wants to know more about (my) mental health issues than have someone skirt around the issue every time I see them. I am not ashamed of my illnesses, and if you have questions, I will answer them.

10. This is not something that I can get rid of. I have recently had to (finally) accept that I will likely be medicated for life and that despite my best efforts, I will never be “cured.” I will be able to manage my illnesses with medication and therapy and support from friends and family. I cannot say I will be able to live a “normal” life, free of worries because in all likelihood I never will. I cannot predict when the sneaky mental illnesses will rise again and tower above me causing unbearable pain. Please be patient with me when I am ill, and do not assume I am “better” until I tell you I am.

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10 Things I Want People to Know About My Complex Mental Illnesses
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When It Feels Like Your Own Insight Is Gaslighting You

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Who do you trust when your own mind deceives you?

Last week, I logged into the online system for my daughter’s dance studio. I had signed her up for a class six months earlier which we had then withdrawn from almost immediately because of a scheduling conflict. However, when I logged in this time, there was a balance of over $700; the studio had been charging me for the class all along without my knowledge (and, fortunately, without my credit card number). Aghast, I turned to my husband and said, “How could this be? I know I withdrew her. We never even went once!” He comforted me by saying that it was clearly a mistake, and that we would get it worked out, but my mind went into panic mode.

“Did I take her?” I asked. “Do I just not remember?”

As my mental health has challenged me again in the last few months, I’ve had so many moments of questioning myself, being wrong about the class had become a distinct possibility in my mind. My self-doubt has become constant: are my catastrophic thoughts accurate, or are they signs of disordered thinking? Am I reading people’s reactions to me correctly, or are my impressions coming from my plummeting self-esteem? Is my mood disorder doing as much harm to my family as I think it is, or am I blowing it all out of proportion? When you know you are ill, it becomes second nature to doubt your own thoughts, and by the time I saw that bill, with enough practice, I had begun to question everything. This reaction is similar to what happens in abusive relationships in which one person gaslights another, except in my case, I was doing it to myself.

Gaslighting refers to psychological manipulation which causes someone to question their own reality. According to Dr. Robin Stern, there are three distinct stages of gaslighting: disbelief, defense and depression. In other words, you first avoid accepting that the manipulation is occurring, you then try to fight against it and finally you are convinced there is a problem with you. By stage three, you may feel like you are, quite literally, “going crazy.”

This is an issue of one’s internal voice battling a contradictory outside voice. In most cases of this type of abuse, it is the lies of the outside voice that tell the inside voice it is wrong. Many of us with mental illnesses can recognize the three stage gaslighting pattern in our own lives except that, for us, it is the outside voice of reason that contradicts our internal beliefs. For example, if we feel worthless, the outside voice tells us that is a myth, even though we feel that it is true. The disbelief feels wrong, but we coach ourselves with the more positive perspective. Later, when we still feel worthless, we defend ourselves against the voice of reason. “Shut up!” we might want to yell at it. “I always do everything wrong, and I hurt everyone around me. I know that my worthlessness is real.” This represents a defense against the contradictory voice. In the end, though, we accept that our beliefs are unreal and the outside voice is right, but rather than leading us to adopt the more positive outside viewpoint, it drives us to feeling like we are “crazy” because our “unreal” feelings still seem real to us. “Maybe I’m not worthless,” we might think, “but I cannot stop feeling that way. What’s wrong with me?” We tell ourselves that we are unreliable and that our thoughts, memories and experiences are distorted. We tell ourselves our beliefs are false and, therefore, feel even crazier when we cannot shake them. These outside voices contradict our beliefs to the point where the positive message takes on an abusive effect. Though the positivity of the outside message is well-intentioned in a way that no one could ever attribute to true gaslighting, the parallels in process and psychological consequence are real in a way that many of us know all too well.

This mirroring makes sense when you consider the goal of gaslighting; gaslighters manipulate their victims in order to achieve a level of control over them. When we are ill, we want to regain control over ourselves at all costs. One of the markers of a psychologically competent person is their level of insight, meaning there must be some sort of awareness of the fact they have a mental illness that colors their thoughts and experiences. Therefore, in a way, we gaslight ourselves out of necessity; we must manipulate ourselves in order to be sane, and this, in turn, makes us feel insane. It is a cycle that is simultaneously indispensable and disabling, and sometimes it goes too far.

The night I discovered the dance class balance, I hadn’t needed to doubt myself. I emailed the studio and confirmed that the error had been on their end. The problem at hand disappeared, but I am primed for more like it; the practice of maintaining insight has taught me to question my thoughts in a way that sometimes takes on a life of its own. It’s like having a cheating lover; once you have questioned their faithfulness, it takes time to rebuild trust, particularly when you know that you are right to be wary.

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10 Ways Going on a ‘Social Media Diet’ Helped My Mental Health

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A couple of weeks ago (17 days to be exact), I decided to try a little experiment. I decided to go on a “social media diet.” At the time, I felt like I was being swallowed alive by the symptoms of mental illness. I was being completely attacked by insecurities about myself and kept comparing myself to others. I felt really lonely as if I had no friends, and my brain held a continuous whispering soundtrack called, “I’m not good enough.”

So, I decided to go on a social media diet. I removed Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter from my iPhone. I would allow myself to check them on my computer once a day if I wanted to.

Here’s what happened:

1. My brain began to feel less cluttered and more serene.

I had less (useless) information to absorb.

2. My anxiety levels decreased.

This was because I wasn’t thinking about the things I had just seen on Facebook or Instagram.

3. I stopped comparing myself to others.

This happened by day two of the diet! The insecurity just seemed to vanish.

4. I stopped feeling sorry for myself.

I stopped thinking that I didn’t have a life that stacked up against so many of my “friends” on social media. My self-esteem improved.

5. I became more present.

I stopped saying, “Uh huh” while checking my phone and became a present listener for my kids. This improved my sense of connection with my teenagers, and it made me feel like a better mom, stopping the “I’m a bad mom” brain soundtrack.

6. I soon found I didn’t want to waste time checking social media.

My house was cleaner, and I actually focused on getting some writing done while at my computer. This gave me a sense of accomplishment.

7. I felt more connected to people.

One day, I did a Facebook check on my computer, and I saw it was a good friend’s birthday. Writing on her Facebook timeline seemed cold and distant somehow. I hadn’t talked to her in a while. So I picked up the phone and sang “Happy Birthday” to her. I began to pick up the phone instead of Facebook message or even text. I felt less lonely.

8. My mood improved.

I was actually out of the house getting some errands done, and I had the energy to pop in at the flower shop where another friend works just to say “hi.” I realized I do have good friends who care about me a lot.

9. A relapse on social media left me feeling bad.

A cheat day one Sunday afternoon (two hours of pure wasted social media time) left me feeling completely anxious, frazzled and negative about myself. Just like a sugar binge on a regular diet.

10. I filled my time with more productive activities.

I spent time actually reading some of the self-help books that were sitting dusty under my bed. I wrote positive phrases on sticky notes to put around my house.

One sticky note says, “Live loved.” Every time I walk past the fridge, I am reminded that I am loved and I can love myself, too. I want to live my life based on giving love to others, and I certainly don’t need social media to do that!

Leaving social media stopped the trigger for many of my own insecurities, self-doubt and negative thinking. My “social media diet” has become a conscientious lifestyle change, and I feel better.

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