OK, I’m coming out of the closet—I have mental illness. It’s time to say it loud and proud, seeing as it’s Mental Health Awareness Month. It’s part of me, part of my identity, and always has been. I hope that my experience coming out in these pages might help others.
You can call me crazy; I don’t take offense. Like the word “queer,” I have taken the word “crazy” back and wear it proudly. But many others don’t feel that way. The stigma against mental illness is still so strong in our society. So, consider how—and with whom—you use that label.
Mental illness runs in my family, as it does in many families. My mother had it (undiagnosed) and others in my family live with it as well. For me, it currently manifests in three ways, with three diagnoses: bipolar 1, PTSD, and panic disorder. I see a psychiatrist, take medication to manage the worst of the symptoms, and work with a therapist to help manage the rest. This enables me to function fairly normally at work and elsewhere. Not always, but most of the time.
Like many, I did not have a happy childhood. Throw in some severe traumas, not as bad as some, but worse than most, and ones that exacerbated an already fragile emotional state. At 13, I began withdrawing from things I had previously enjoyed, like sports. I started smoking cigarettes, drinking, and doing drugs. Anything to calm the roiling inner turmoil I felt. That backfired spectacularly later, but that’s another story.
While this was happening, I also came to know that I was different and that I liked other girls—something that in 1973 was not acceptable in my family. I presented as “normal,” meaning I got good grades in school and rarely got in trouble with school authorities.
It all came to an ugly head when I was 16. I started having auditory hallucinations, first just inside my head. A running commentary about what people were thinking. But when I started hearing the voices (with British accents, no less) outside my head, I finally told my mother.
To her credit, she started taking me to see my town’s only psychiatrist. I underwent batteries of tests, mainly to make sure it wasn’t schizophrenia (it wasn’t). Seeing him was unhelpful—I was sure he would report most of his findings to my mother, and I was right. I had no intention of telling him what was going on with me.
It remains the worst psychiatric treatment experience I ever had. He put me on powerful drugs—anti-psychotics, barbiturates, tranquilizers, and anti-depressants. The only good result was that the voices went away and I was able to stay in school. How, I don’t really remember, but I kept my grades up, managed to graduate, took my SATs, and got into college.
Things got better at school, especially since I was 600 miles away from home and could start exploring my sexuality. But it was up and down (literally). I made the Dean’s List my first two semesters but nearly flunked out my sophomore year. I fell in love for the first time, got my heart broken, and made good use of the helpful campus health center counselors. I switched majors, got into journalism, and was already employed in the field by the time I graduated.
My work took me from college in South Carolina to DC, then to New York, the city I always wanted to live in. But in each case, my mental illness stuck with me. No matter how hard I’ve worked on what seems like the same, frustrating issues, I take me with me wherever I go. In every city, with every new shrink and psychopharmacologist, I get a new diagnosis and new medications.
I’ve been on almost every psychotropic drug they’ve invented, from MAO inhibitors to tricyclic anti-depressants, from SSRIs and SNRIs to mood stabilizers and everything in between. I call it the meds-go-round. They usually work for a while, then they don’t. Right now, the meds regimen I’m on helps well enough. For how long, I don’t know.
One of the best things that has happened is the therapist I found in New York in 1993. We have stuck together for most of the intervening years. Sandra has been my lodestar. She tells me I am resilient, and I finally believe it.
At nearly 62, I realize that my mental illness is not likely to be cured. I always imagined that if I worked hard enough, or found the magic pill, it would go away, like the voices did. I would peel away those layers of the onion one by one until there were no more. I know now that this will probably never happen. I’ve had a pretty great life despite my mental illness, and I’ve been quite fortunate to have had the means to deal with it. For now, things are working. And for that, I’m grateful. ▼
Beth Shockley is a public affairs specialist and a former editor of Letters.