I’ve been sitting on what I wanted to write for #MentalHealthAwarenessDay, allowing it to percolate until it congeals into something coherent.
I don’t want to make any assertions without first telling my story, so here goes. (Some of this has appeared before on my twitter.)
Age 8: I begin displaying dissociative behaviors such as “daydreaming.” One of my teachers describes me as “ethereal.”
Age 16: I begin displaying symptoms of depression – uncontrollable crying, despair, isolation.
Age 24: Depression is exacerbated by anxiety, specifically anxious attachment in relationship. Boyfriend suggests therapy/psychiatry. I go on meds, first Wellbutrin (makes things far worse, I experience uncontrollable bouts of anger), then an SSRI (Zoloft, ftr). I mistake its “exaggerated sense of well-being” side effect for wellness. Predictably, it wears off; my problems return, only now due to sexual side effects I am also now having trouble orgasming or desiring sex.
Age 25: I titrate off the SSRI. I get certified in NLP, and attempt to solve my problems through clear communication. I resolve the anger issues the Wellbutrin had brought up in a Timeline Therapy session with my NLP instructor. Turns out I inherited them from my paternal lineage. (This is an important detail: in ONE TIMELINE THERAPY SESSION, I solved the uncontrollable emotional response of anger pulsing in my throat.)
Age 29: I face my worst depressive episode yet. I seriously contemplate killing myself, but more to the point, I feel like I’m dead already. I face a team of psychological evaluators and I tell them that my ex thinks I have Borderline Personality Disorder. I agree that I do see the world as dangerous, that I experience anxiety in my attachments, that I became a dating coach and published a book in order to create a strategy to deal with my fears of rejection, and I ask them sincerely, have I created an entire career as a coping mechanism for a psychiatric disorder? Am I just vomiting my issues on everyone? They stare at me blankly – they have never met anyone like me and they have no answers for me.
I see a new psychiatrist. She puts me on Lamictal, an epilepsy drug that has a secondary indication as a mood stabilizer. I return to functionality. Nothing fazes me. I take up parkour and krav maga; I seduce the goth musician whose pictures I once hung in my high school locker. But I also feel… nothing. I lose the ability to feel pain. I break my hand and can’t feel it. I start losing my hearing. My doc swears hearing loss occurs in 0.5% of Lamictal users, but I KNOW. I’m having tinnitus and swimmer’s ear. It’s affecting my singing.
I titrate off Lamictal. I make plans to move to LA. I have no idea what higher force is guiding me but I do know I’ve lost my ability to feel.
And I begin to understand that it’s my inability to feel that is landing me in bad situations. I can’t see red flags bc I can’t feel pain.
I move to LA; I make a last-ditch attempt to be loved in my brokenness. I date a famous (now-disgraced) director who enables my dysfunction. Predictably, it ends badly. Being consciously accepting of your dysfunction is not the same as healing. He treats me as badly as I let him.
After our fifth breakup, I finally walk away. I surrender and set an intention to actually heal.
Something guides me to read The Body Keeps the Score and I learn about the mechanics of trauma. And for the first time I see myself. And I’m really angry that I made so many cries for help and nobody understood them, that it took me READING A GODDAMN BOOK to get it.
Let’s look back at what was ACTUALLY happening that whole time:
Age 8, I was in an abusive household, parented by an abusive father. No shit I was “ethereal.” I was escaping my reality.
Age 16, I had tried and failed to legally emancipate myself from my father. No shit I was depressed.
Age 23-27 I am in a relationship with an abuser who frames what I now understand to be trauma reactions to his abuse as “mental illness” so that he can better control me and make me more pliable, more palatable through medication. I’m not even sure he does this consciously, though he certainly does not examine how his behavior is affecting me. The idea that I’m mentally ill is simply a more convenient narrative, and in fairness, in the 2000s it’s a more socially accepted one too. It takes an actual incident of domestic violence to make me realize something is wrong.
NLP helps. But you can’t use an NLP cert to communicate productively with an abuser who also got certified in NLP to better control you.
Age 29 my friend group is a bunch of mean girls (not all fem-identified). Long story but the search to replace my relationship led me there. They (and the man I’m dating) pull a mean-girl move and arbitrarily cut me out. My bff/roommate bounces leaving me with 6 months of rent arrears and a housing court date on the morning of my book party.
Predictably, I think there must be something wrong with me if people feel ok treating me so badly. I try to fix it with overachievement.
Predictably, it doesn’t work. I have a book published, a band/album, a slew of modeling gigs… I have a pair of $6000 shoes bought for me by the wealthiest investment banker in Canada, whom I casually date when we’re in the same city (lovely man but we do not have compatible lifestyles). Nothing helps.
There is, of course, the famous quote:
“Before you diagnose yourself with depressions or low self-esteem, first make sure that you are not, in fact, just surrounding yourself with assholes.”
If I had understood trauma then the way I do today, I would have said “Oh! These people are abusing me! That’s why I feel bad!”
Instead, PREDICTABLY, like most trauma victims, I was made to believe something was wrong with me and that’s why bad things kept happening.
A short list of all the people in the system who failed me:
– the school guidance counselor in whom I confided about my father’s abuse, who reported it all to him instead of helping me (I was writing about self-harm in the 7th grade, and nobody looked into my parenting situation)
– the (female!) judge who heard my testimony about my father’s abuse (age 15) and decided to send me back to his old custody schedule anyway
– the clinical psychiatrist who prescribed me Wellbutrin and then peaced out on vacation for 2 weeks leaving me no recourse for side effects… who also then prescribed me an SSRI instead of recognizing that my boyfriend was acting abusively toward me when I described it
– I can’t fault the psych who prescribed me Lamictal, it was what I needed to survive at the time BUT she did not dig deeper into the causes
– therapist I saw for 2yrs who was nice enough and tried to guide me in the right direction but who also didn’t see obvious signs of trauma
ALL OF MY PROBLEMS WERE FRAMED AS SOMETHING BEING WRONG WITH ME RATHER THAN SOMETHING BAD HAPPENING TO ME THAT I WAS REACTING TO.
This is not something I can blame on one person, whether abuser or negligent professional. This is a society-wide problem. This is the story of a young woman who grew up with abuse being tolerated/normalized and who didn’t know til her 30s how to stop it.
Yes, it was my responsibility to change, because it is my life, and no one is responsible for it but me.
But FOR FUCKS SAKE, I had professionals along the way who should have recognized what was happening to me, who should have tried to save me.
This is about something that’s wrong with the world as a whole. And I see it. And I can’t unsee it. And all I can do is help you see it too.
So on #NationalMentalHealthDay, I’m not looking to destigmatize labels.
I’m looking to stop our society’s overuse of labels, disorders, and prescription drugs to justify harm.
I thought for years that I was broken and that I deserved the treatment I received because as a mentally ill person I was so much harder to deal with than a normal person, and that’s what explained my terrible relationships. “Mental health awareness” as it exists in society did nothing for me except reinforce the idea that I was unlovable, and deserved the treatment I got from whomever was kind enough to put up with me.
These “disorders” are made up by a bunch of old white fucks writing the DSM and I can pretty much guarantee they don’t give a fuck about your well-being. They didn’t even include a C-PTSD entry in the DSM-IV in 1994 when it was decided on with 19 out of 21 votes. Even the person who proposed the C-PTSD entry and wrote the book that helped me identify my trauma, Bessel Van Der Kolk, was just this year fired from his research facility for bullying his staff. Don’t tell me these people care about how you feel.
The reason I waited so long to write this is that I look around on #MentalHealthAwarenessDay and I don’t see a decrease in stigma. I see a lot of people clinging to labels that limit their ideas about what is possible for them, labels that reinforce ideas about their brokenness.
Don’t get me wrong, PLEASE. Your pain is real. Your suffering is real. You may need medication, at some point in your life or throughout all of it. I am not anti-meds, because I think that being anti-meds is like being anti-fire extinguishers. The trouble is that I see too many people thinking that their fire extinguishers are going to rebuild their house.
If nothing about the psychiatric industry was real, how would you deal with your pain then? Would you go to the source and find what’s really causing it? What if, this whole time, it was really that simple, and that difficult?
I’m not saying that there isn’t such a thing as chemical depression. I’m just saying it’s a lot less common than we make it out to be (trauma researcher Johann Hari says 7 out of 9 known causes of depression are external rather than internal).
And I’m saying we owe it to ourselves to dig deeper than the poor mental health services available to us currently are able to do.
It’s 2018. I am meds-free save for cannabis, which helped me gain perspective on all of this. The world is as much of a dumpster fire as it has ever been during my lifetime. And yet, I’m happy. The happiest I’ve ever been. Because I’m now steering my own ship.
Just know that words have power, and watch for the ones you put on yourselves. Make sure you are choosing words that serve and empower you. At the end of the day, it’s all about knowing what’s working.
And if I had known that ten years ago, I could have saved myself a lot of time.