When You're Not 'Not OK' Enough
I’m a nice guy. Like, really nice. So much so, I instinctively say things that don’t even make sense. A typical day in the life of me might go something like this:
(Holding door open for stranger.)
Stranger: Well, thank you.
Me: No, thank you.
I wish I could tell you that exact interaction happened only once. Or, only three times.
I have a job making an OK living. I’m educated and well-spoken. My mother passed down great genes so I can get dates pretty easily, and one of my hobbies is collecting perfume so I always smell fantastic to boot. I smile at everyone, and being gay, I’m basically required to dress nicely and match, lest I get my membership privileges taken away. My community has no problem calling you out. I am thankful for all of this. Including my fabulous membership privileges.
The first time I tried to kill myself I was about 16 years old. I had been biting myself as a form of self-harm and release since I was very young, so it wasn’t a big leap to eventually find my way to all the shapes, chromatic shine and colors in my mom’s sewing kit, and graduate to some of the materials one would find there.
From there, it was only a small leap for me to decide this was not the life I wanted, asked for or wanted thrust upon anyone I loved, and maybe I should just end it. It took three hospital stays over the years for me to finally decide I was alive, and maybe wanted to try staying that way for a little longer. As non-committal as that may sound, I’d sure as hell take it.
Fast forward another 16 years later, and I come to find out my demons can only be kept under the bed for so long. A breakup and engagement break-off, job loss with loss of income and loss of a best friend can really expose somebody with mental illness to a person they’d tried so hard to leave behind. Sometimes, you begin to wonder if your brain is just simply a perpetually pin-less grenade with infinite lives, only needing one hard-enough bump to go off again, no matter how long it may lay quiet. It’s terrifying.
So, when I call around to therapist offices, psychiatric centers and crisis hotlines, one might think that because of my obvious capacity to quickly have things reach a severe tipping point, help would be a readily available safety net to prevent me from falling again.
I’m here to tell you, that’s not necessarily correct.
From many years of practice, I know how to not scream out when somebody’s watching, despite how loud I’m screaming inside. I feel useless at helping myself, so if there’s anything I can do to help you walk away from our interaction feeling better about life and yourself, I often make it my personal mission. I stand up straight, have my hair done, smell good and make you feel loved.
The biggest obstacle that’s prevented me from getting the help I need is being kind and “seeming fine.”
Doctors’ offices put me on a waitlist. Crisis centers give me other numbers to call and other places to visit. When I call those numbers, I’m put on hold and met with scripted sympathies and verbal head nods. This isn’t my first rodeo. I’m simply asking to get help, and get it soon, so I’m not staring at sewing kits again. And I thought that fact would make it all easier. But it makes it harder.
I’ve been told, verbatim, on more than one occasion by workers and clinicians, that, “There are people worse off than you, and they take more priority, so this is why you’ll wait.” But how do you know how bad off I am, or how bad off it can get? How are you so sure things won’t get worse while I wait if I haven’t even seen somebody with a degree, trained to assess me? Should I have not showered today, maybe screamed a bit or cried just a little bit harder?
My heart goes out the the woman who came in the door behind me on my last crisis center visit, sobbing and stumbling, leaving perforated trails of deep red as she walked to the admissions desk because she had sliced her wrist and then drove herself there. This woman is a goddamn superhero, and please, please take my spot in line. And then take the next spot after that, too. I know that place, and girl, I want you to get everything you need faster than that admission’s clerk can even spell my last name on the intake sheet. I’m one of those people who love you, who you have no idea even exists, and please get better for me.
But when I finally got back there to see somebody that same night, I could only talk to a staff clinician. They told me the psychiatrists and actual therapists had gone for the day. I thought about that woman. I could either stay there at the facility that night until morning and speak to one of them when they got in, or come back on my own accord that morning, since the facility already assessed me, and I could talk to a mental health professional then. This was a more open-ended crisis center, and I was thankful for that. I had some Four Roses Small Batch at home, as well as a box of truffles, so guess which one I picked.
This was one of those nights my comfort items at home could actually, maybe, hold me — as long as I knew that in the morning, I could talk to somebody who would help me. When you’re used to living like this, you hold on tightly to even the smallest joys. You learn how to become enamored with nuances, and sometimes that’s why you can wake up.
The staff looked at me awkwardly during my exit process, as if I were a strange little man, silently wondering through their eyes, “How could anyone not feel better sleeping in our disinfected half-dorms? Our mattresses are a thin, but mighty, vinyl! Doesn’t he know we have popsicles here?!” If one of the nurses had told me she knew how to make a Manhattan, I may have indeed stayed.
So, I went home. I let the truffles melt and pool on my tongue, and bit the soft centers. I drank my whiskey, slow and neat, savoring the oaky burn. I took a shower. I started crying again. I got exhausted and stopped. I drank a glass of water, took some deep breaths and slept. It was truly the best and only thing I could have done at the time, knowing struggling to sleep at some strange crisis center would have made all of this so much worse.
I arrived at the center the next morning as instructed. I told the new admission’s clerk why I was there. I was told my name wasn’t on the list to see the doctor that day. He was too full, too busy. If I’d stayed, I’d have been on the list, and apologies, the clinician I spoke with misinformed me. I could sign in again, get re-assessed if I wanted to, wait, but then if he saw me, he’d want to keep me there for a couple days anyway, just in case.
“Medicines could take some time to adjust, you know? But just so you know, he might not give you anything, anyway…”
I walked out the door with little fanfare because I had no energy left to fight them, to rail against what I was told, to stand up for myself. I walked out knowing I had gone there because my mental health was in such bad shape, I couldn’t even wait until next week to see my therapist. I walked out knowing Celexa works quite well for me without so much as even weight gain. I know what I’ve been on, why, what diagnoses and what didn’t work. I was calm, respectful and asking for help at the right places. I thought this would make it all easier. Somehow, it made it harder.
I’m not one of the ones who got sent away, only to write their final note and never come back. I wrote this instead. I’m so pissed and motivated it might all actually work this time. Nobody who has ever met me will ever tell you I’m easy to send away. But what about the ones who are?
Getting to a point where you feel like you can’t even handle your own brain in your own head is bad enough and embarrassing. Not being able to handle it to a point where you can’t even fake you know what you’re doing is painful. Having it get to a point where you have to say, out loud, to the people you love, and/or a complete stranger, “I need help,” is humbling at best, but let’s call a spade a spade, because everyone who has had to do it knows it feels humiliating at the time.
There surely is a stigma with mental illness and being sick in ways that no one can see. I’m so happy to see it slowly changing. But there’s also a stigma with not being sick enough — and the unspoken truth is, sometimes it’s not as easy as getting help. Sometimes, you need help to even find help. There are crisis centers, suicide hotlines, halfway houses, addiction treatment centers and I’m so glad there are. I wish there were even more.
But where does one go when they feel those possibilities curl up in them, and don’t want to ever have to get there? This country’s mental health treatment model focuses on waiting until there’s a crisis. Sometimes, I can smell the air, and know when rain is coming. I don’t want to be in a crisis
Sadly, sometimes the very crisis point necessary to prove that something is truly wrong is an irreversible act there is no returning from. The system itself is in crisis, and we are the ones suffering. To walk up those steps, to those buildings, is difficult and embarrassing, but then to have to turn around and walk back down them, to hang up the phone, because your bad isn’t even good enough, is exactly why semi-healthy people stop fighting and become un-healthy people. Then, they can be seen.
But in my not-humble opinion, then is too late.
I wrote this to tell you that right now, no, I’m not OK, but I will be. I wanted to tell you that if you met me, you might not even know. I want somebody else reading this who’s not OK too to know that you can still stand up, get out of bed, write articles, love somebody, have a drink, eat truffles, enjoy them, and to use all that love and will you have to give a huge middle finger back to anyone who’s ever told you that it’s not OK to be not OK, or made you feel you need to look worse if you’re going to be not OK.
I’m sorry if you have to fight to even fight, but fight, and speak up — loudly. We need you. Let this fact itself, and this terrible crisis of care, make you feel like you’re part of an army. You’re not alone. Let’s go.
Getty image via Katerinjiyuu