The Don’t Ask Don’t Tell of Mental Illness: Invisibility and Eccentricities in the New Millenium

The other day I found myself  lost in thought as I followed the hand movements of a young therapist intern who was making notes on a whiteboard for myself and others diagnosed with  various illnesses caused by biological and trauma-related hypersensitivity and emotional dysregulation.  It is in this room we gather once a week for instructional and motivational therapy.

Paul Klee, "Siblings"

I was especially focused on the way she drew the circles for the o’s and a’s,  beginning at the right of the round shape and then continuing the curve in a clockwise path.  It was fascinating to study that process, at the same time overwhelming from a flood of sadness and empathy;

though I may have been projecting, I imagined the act of mirror image character-making as a kind of struggle, as if her wrist and brain were working harder somehow. . .maybe some leftover trickled down from the fine motor constaints of the Spencerian Method.

And in doing so, I got lost in my own inner dialogue drawing parallels between that act and the act of trying to thrive and survive as an uber-sensitive intuitive in a world that is forever trying to suppress that in you. . .and force its own agenda of bootstraps, categorization,  and adherence to inflexible schedules.

Suddenly, I flashed to the memory of those stories of left-handed children forced to make letters with their nondominant hand.

And those mental images were followed by the ones of native American schoolchildren, severely reprimanded for speaking in their native languages; in the meantime. .. all those beautiful and musical syllables and sounds silenced and sentenced to death by the queen’s linguistic lynch mobs.

The truth is, I don’t think I’ve ever had a left-handed instructor before, so I’d never had the chance to ponder it from the perspective of a student.

But recently as I’ve been trying and trying to function in the workforce at various times and venues, and thrive under the supervision of management who, for all intents and purposes, are just doing what’s asked of them, (those things that every manager of personnel does to keep an employee on the straight and narrow),

it’s just become increasingly apparent to me that for all their efforts to keep me in line, for all the admonishment, advice and disciplinary actions, it’s just been making things harder for me to get the job done.

I am not a left-brained, linear, logical thinker.  What  I am is a right-brained, emotionally-charged intuitive and creative thinker.  And it’s been a whole lifetime of trying to fit into that first category. . .a lifetime of going against my better instincts after having been accused of laziness or stupidity or willful disobedience . . .that has kept my world in a constant state of chaos and frustration.

And I guess what hurts most about all of this is having to live with this label of not trying hard enough. . .of all the above mentioned things. .because damn it nothing could be further from the truth.  I am a madhouse of activity when I get rolling, but the part where I have to keep drawing all the circles backwards to suit the tyranny of a system that just keeps taking the pencil out of my hand and trying to make me write the other way is nothing short of exhausting.  And if I am resting, it’s because my god does anybody hear me when I say that I simply must work twice as hard to fail at being someone alien to the way I was born?

And so rather than follow along with others who say that mental illness is mostly caused by biological factors and family stress, I would like to offer that maybe just maybe it gets even worse when everybody tries to make us contort into some other version of ourselves that is not only inauthentic, but freakish. . .like a sideshow of misfits on display to make the rest of the world feel glad about being healthy and normal.

And in suggesting this, I am not saying that I am impervious to working on strategies to fit in better, because I know there are areas of my brain that can be re-wired in ways that will make it easier to manage the navigation of these rocky waters. And I am more than willing to work at that.  (At this point of already having tried everything from isolation and shock treatments to medication and trauma talk, I am ready to try anything that brings relief from this and results, which isn’t so much admirable behavior as anesthesia seeking)  And the truth is, the new therapy, which through some miracle of miracles, I’ve been fortunate enough to qualify in getting financial assistance for, is working.  And the reason it’s working is because the repetitive coaching and calming techniques are helping to rebuild the broken bridges in my brain, ones that have made it extremely difficult to manage complex emotions of feeling trapped and isolated as a result of this misfit existence I’ve been living forever.  Sadly, this therapy is mostly unavailable to most folks because insurance companies refuse to pay for it (due to the enormous costs of constant on-call monitoring and coaching) so you can imagine what it’s like trying to get it for the uninsured.  Like I said, I’ve been blessed to have it, but also I had to be recommended for it by a team of therapists, and after I was approved (mostly by virtue of repeated suicide attempts and hospitalizations) I was put on a 2-year waiting list.  My heart goes out to others who go without such help to manange  illnesses as borderline personality disorder and complex post-traumatic stress disorder as they must simply endure without effective treatment, via medication and cognitive therapy, treatment that oftentimes has proven to do more harm than good.

I am also insanely thankful to my therapists and doctors, friends and family so very much as well.  Without their patience, love and caring, no doubt I would have just given up altogether and banished myself to a life on the fringes somewhere. And to Dr. Marsha Linehan, the patient turned physician who, through her own struggles and suicide attempts, became the creator of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, therapy that has been life-saving to the others of us with similar challenges.

But also to those who have come forward to share their stories of hope and survival, I say “thanks for lighting the way for the rest of us who are afraid to speak openly about this.”

It is because of you, all of you, that I am certain we can do this thing, come out of the mental illness closets and find a way to ask for back-up and support somehow someway if only we push for legislation and listening from folks who could help us be safe in talking about it.   I mean, anybody who’s been there, done that knows that it’s at best humiliating and awkward to ask for any kind of accomodations in this world, let alone inappropriate and unreasonable, where the policy of “don’t ask; don’t tell” is pretty much a given.

And to those who say it can’t be done, that the only way to fit in is to suffer in silence, I can only quote the words from John Lewis in 1765, words that have re-emerged to become the outcry of the civil rights movement:  “If not us, then who?  If not now, then when?”

painting

painting (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

–Vincent Van Gogh, “The Sower”

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10 responses

  1. I applaud your courage in giving voice to these issues.

    I am an INFJ on the Meyers-Briggs scale — introverted, intuitive and feeling. I have spent most of my professional life trying to be who I am not. I graduated #2 in my law school class, and although I loved the law in theory, I hate the law in practice. I am FINALLY, after 40 years, giving myself permission to STOP trying to be a good lawyer and to be myself.

    I love this quote from Albert Einstein: “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

    LeAnn

  2. Thanks for the validation, LeAnn. The nice thing about blogging is, it brings us together, helps us feel a little less alone with our quiet struggles. (MIne can be loud at times too though. )

    I love that quote. It’s beautiful. (And it has a fish, one of my favorite totem animals) The other day as I was trying to put words on the process of coping with such challenges, I said it felt like climbing Mt. Everest in ice-skates. .xo

  3. Hello, I appreciate your post and I can feel your frustration. You are very talented and your blog is brilliant. I don’t usually refer to my posts on others comments but thought you may be interested in reading my post called “changes”
    http://sherrylcook.wordpress.com/2012/04/12/876/
    I work at a vocational sheltered workshop and the government is ending alot of the funding for the work that we do…..totally disgusting and if the people really know half of what goes on they may get more involved.

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