At the risk of being misinterpreted as being somehow passive-aggressive, I’m going to write about something pertaining to an interpersonal spat I’m kind of in the middle of right now. I’m going to share my story of struggles with mental illness, as well as my personal thoughts about the way “normal” people think and talk about mental illness. For some of you this is old news, many of you probably know bits and pieces, and if you’re a stranger, acquaintance, or someone I just met within the last year, it may be brand new to you. I would appreciate it if you kept the jeering and judging to a minimum.
Ever since I was about ten years old I have suffered from a whole slew of anxiety disorders. I like to joke that I have every anxiety disorder on the books. I always have a very difficult time staying still because I’m constantly filled with so much anxious energy that I just have to keep moving to expel it all or risk exploding. Among these anxiety disorders are obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), social anxiety disorder (social phobia), and pathological perfectionism, which is not technically a recognized mental illness, but most of the doctors I’ve spoken to tell me that the general consensus is that it is closely related to anxiety disorders and specifically OCD. On top of all of that, I have had major depressive disorder (clinical depression) since I was 12.
My mental illness is generally described by clinicians as “severe” in that it greatly negatively impacts my social, school, and work life. In fact, in 2007 it led me to flunk out of school, which is why I’m almost 26 and still not finished with college. The combination of the fact that I have a bunch of rituals which I can only do in private and the fact that I used to have a hard time being in groups of more than three strangers without freaking out led me to miss a lot of class. On top of that, I spent a great deal of my free time playing video games, not because I was a lazy geek, but because gaming for some reason has always helped me with my anxiety. (I just recently found out that that’s why one of my neighbors games, so apparently I’m not the only one.) Despite the fact that I almost always got As on assignments and tests, my grades would suffer from my attendance problems. Once m grades began to suffer, my pathological perfectionism kicked in and I began punishing myself for not doing well by forcing myself to stay in the class as opposed to withdrawing before the late withdrawal deadline and I would just take the F or C- or whatever. In the first semester of what should have been my senior year (I was still only a junior though)–Fall 2007–I ended up flunking all of my classes and getting kicked out.
This led to me beginning to drink heavily to cope with the anxiety and depression. By May 2008, I was in the beginning stages of a complete psychotic break. I had begun to develop paranoid delusions and heard the occasional voice or two. (Voices in your head are never nice; mine laughed at me and told me what a failure I was.) I ended up spending most of the summer of 2008 in the psych ward of the local hospital, followed by nine weeks in partial hospitalization. It’s still unclear why I had a psychotic break, but my suspicion is that it has something to do with the pathological perfectionism and the fact that I’m an obsessive planner, and flunking out of school, becoming an alcoholic, and entering into an abusive relationship was not part of the plan. After that, I spent a while trying to get back on my feet before finally entering into a social rehabilitation program run by the Lancaster County Community Mental Health Center. Despite the fact that the anxiety and depression became worse than ever after recovering from my brief psychotic episode, I began to make progress, and since the summer of 2010 things have been looking up. I still have an insane amount of anxiety, but the depression is under control and I’ve learned how to cope with the anxiety.
Anyway, the thing that really offends me as a person who has suffered most of her life from a severe and persistent mental illness (“SPMI” in the biz) is the fact that no one really understand what a mental illness is or what it’s like to have one. There are two types of misunderstanders: those who fear us (the general public) and those who romanticize us (usually artsy types).
The frightened people are victims of the mass media’s portrayal of the mentally ill. The only time we make the news or appear in movies is when we’ve done something illegal (usually murder), which creates the stereotype of the raving mass murderer. Unfortunately, nothing can be farther from the truth. Last I knew (2010), the mentally ill were perpetrators of only 2% of violent crime. However, we were victims of 40% of the violent crime in this country. Why don’t you ever hear about hate crime against the mentally ill? Because it’s okay to hurt us: we aren’t fully human.
What’s got my panties all in a bunch right now, though, is that minority of folks who like to glamorize and romanticize mental illness. These people are generally people who would be described as “artsy”, and I think that they come to identify with the mentally ill because of the fact that they feel like social outcasts because of their career choices, and there’s no bigger social outcast than a crazy person. These people like to talk of a “fine line between genius and insanity”, which is perhaps my least favorite expression simply because of how ignorant it is. Aside from OCD, which is startlingly more common in people with higher IQs, there is no link between mental illness and intelligence. In fact, people with SPMIs tend to be markedly undereducated, simply because their mental illness gets in the way of their education. People with SMPIs often have a hard time functioning and a lot of times when are symptoms are severe we can barely take care of ourselves and need serious help. We frequently lose our jobs and friends, which are both things I went through in 2008-2009. Mental illness is a disability. It is not simply eccentricity or idiosyncratic behavior. It is a severe disorder.
I’ve been fishing around for the past few hours for a fitting analogy, and I’ve come up with one which is probably not a completely true analogy, but will have to do until I can think of a better one. Glamorizing the mentally ill is like when rich white suburban teenagers glamorize gang violence because they come to develop some ignorant and narcissistic identification with the plight of poor inner-city blacks. Like I said, it’s not entirely fitting, but it comes close to my point.
So anyway, this glamorization of the mentally ill by artists and other “outsiders” has got to stop. We need your help and support. We do not need you to idolize us.