I want to put something out there, but I want to make sure it’s understood in what spirit it’s proffered. In my journey I’ve met a large number of people with mental issues, and by no means will I ever meet enough to say I’m an expert. Everyone I’ve met is uniquely different from the next. Everyone’s experiences of mental illness are going to be very different, no two illnesses and how they manifest in your life will be the same. Someone with depression will not experience the same thing as someone with post-traumatic stress disorder, that’s a given, but two people with depression aren’t going to have the same experiences either. I know of one woman who was so depressed she started hearing voices, while others can’t bring themselves to lift their arm.
However, with that in mind, diagnoses of mental illnesses posit that there are common experiences, common hindrances, common complexes that categorize disorders into diagnosable conditions. Mental illness is an objectively measured thing in terms of how it hinders your life. I say this to put forth the idea that just because our experiences aren’t exactly the same, each person’s experience has a common clinical ground that can be discussed. If this wasn’t the case what-so-ever, therapy systems and treatment approaches, such as dialectical-behavioral therapy, would break down, and things like group therapy would be absolutely impossible.
This leads us to the recognition that, despite the fact that some things will work for some people and not for others, that others do not have the same abilities as others, that others don’t have the same background as others, there are points in the discussion, in the discourse, that can apply to any one of these people.
It seems to me there is a school of thought out there that when you have a mental illness you are compelled with absolutely no recourse to act dysfunctionally. This manifests in the idea that mental illness is a cancerous part of your unchosen identity, to be laid out, and to be exercised because it’s there. This idea encourages the individual to blame others for their reactions, they obviously have no power themselves, so the assailant is the aggressor. You MADE me angry. You MADE me depressed. You MADE me go into an absolute fugue of terror filled anxiety by saying that, by doing that around me, by writing that, by MAKING me read that. You MADE me hate myself and stab myself in the leg because you decided to do inappropriate acts in public, to use myself briefly as an example.
It encourages the idea that you are special, that you are incapable, that you need protecting by others or isolation of yourself. Again, an example from my own life for a moment, my therapist told me repeatedly that maybe my neurosis, my vomit-inducing anxiety, my reactions to specific things was just part of what made me special.
I rejected this, and I encourage others, no matter your experience, to reject this. Only in this rejection can you gain any semblance of any control over who you are, and what you do; the goal of all therapy and treatment. When you go to therapy, you are rejecting this idea because you are hopefully learning how to manage yourself and your symptoms to accomplish what you want. When you wish that your life wasn’t like this, you are starting to reject this idea.
Is it easy to reject this? Absolutely not. In fact, for many people, this is an impossibility for them right now. For quite a while for myself, I had no way of rejecting anything. I had zero ability, because of my current experiences of mental illness, to even consider this idea. I thought my reactions, my obsessions, my hurt and pain would go on forever, day after day. My own mother told me that if I had to live like this for the rest of my life, she’d understand if I committed suicide.
But, when you’re ready, and I impart to you emphatically as well, you will be ready someday (I’ve learned on a very deep level, nothing stays the same forever), you can at least consider the idea.
What makes up this rejection? It may seem that I am saying, “Oh, just reject the idea that you’re sick, and you’ll just get over it.” I really, emphatically, am not saying that. What you are rejecting is the idea that you can’t do anything about your mental illness and its dysfunction in your life, and because of that aren’t ultimately responsible for what you do. Whether you successfully reject this notion, you will always have a mental illness that you will have to manage. But the key here is, manage.
I pull some inspiration from Nathaniel Branden’s book Taking Responsibility: Self-Reliance and the Accountable Life. I also take some inspiration from William Glasser’s book Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom. I believe the first step in this rejection is to establish that you are responsible for yourself. And the final step in this rejection is to establish that you are in control of how you ultimately behave.
The first axiom of Choice Theory is that:
The only person whose behavior we can control is our own.
This is very important in this new school and era of trigger warnings. This is a tough pill to swallow and internalize, but nobody else but you is responsible for what you do. Verbal and physical abuse, abandonment, disagreements, crowds of people, being raped, stabbed, shell shocked are not responsible for what you do right now. These things hurt, they wreak havoc and pain, and you are not always successful staving off the compulsions these experiences have led to. I had to be stopped from stabbing myself in the leg by my partner right before the police hog tied me and injected me with haldol because I was no longer under my own conscious control. That’s okay. Some of these compulsions may very well be absolutely impossible to control, but, because it is our behavior we are ultimately responsible for engaging in them.
What do I mean by this? This extends from the fact that we are responsible for our own therapy. If you haven’t rejected the idea of unchosen misery, then you would logically expect the therapist to MAKE you better. When you reject the idea of unchosen misery, the only conclusion is that we are responsible for the management of our own mental illness. That means, when it is mismanaged, it is our responsibility. If I don’t eat for three days, lay in piles of laundry, cut my arm up, sleep for 20 hours a day, stay in contact with few people if any, and so on… I’m not taking care of myself. If I have a total breakdown in this time, such as losing my job cause I don’t show up anymore cause I can’t bring myself to do it, or because the little people in my head won’t shut up (or they’re all dead) then that’s because of my mismanagement of my own disorder… and, as being discussed, that’s my responsibility.
Will there be times that we just can’t do anything regarding the whole mess? Sure. That’s part of mental illness. I’m not saying that those times are any sort of value judgement on the sufferer, but they can be minimized as much as possible when you reject the idea that you have no control.
YOU are responsible for managing your symptoms, not others. If you take no action to manage your symptoms, if you make no effort to function better, that’s YOUR responsibility, not others.
I know that there are many people with mental illnesses that say, “That works for you, but not for me.” Well, my question is, does it? I don’t care what therapy you’re seeking, I’m not saying one way of treating the illness is the only way to do things, take everything that works and go with it! The specifics that worked for me are, in the end, completely irrelevant to you.
I didn’t get to choose what my personal biological and psychological makeup would be. I didn’t get to choose to be be hurt when I was uncontrollably vulnerable, but dammit I do get to choose to be better.
I’m not saying that if you don’t do all of this, if you don’t ever get better it’s a failing of you. I’m not blaming you. Some people may never ‘get better’. Some individuals may always have irreconcilable compulsions and dysfunctions that make them unfit to live outside of an institution. But, nothing stops you, just like a cancer patient hopes for a cure and in the mean time does chemo, from deciding that you’re going to do something about it (even if that only means focusing on positive things). That, even, you are responsible for doing something about it.
When we grow up, we become responsible for our own existence. We end up having to secure our own shelter, our own food, our own money, and keep ourselves clean. Why is there any difference when it comes to mental illness? Aren’t we also responsible for managing our own illness? Sometimes we fail, sometimes we succeed, that’s life, that’s the illness, but that doesn’t erase our responsibility.
For some background on myself, as a proof that I have experience with these things, I relate my situation. It in no means is put forth as a measure against someone else experiences. Any mental illness of any degree is important, personal, and unique. It is relayed as a measure of my own experiences.
For a very long time, my head was full of misery. Years of growing constantly brewing self-hatred, loathing, envy… a complete stripping til absence of my will to live. I put myself in a 36 hour coma in the starting stages of this illness (present in my entire adult life). I obsessed about my own lack of stature, destroying myself from the inside out. I literally sucked all joy and energy out of a room. Just the perception that something existed in the universe was enough to crush me completely, the mention of even a single concept derailed me to complete dysfunctional apoplexy, just the idea of an imagined scenario that would play over and over in my head for months.
My emotional system was completely and utterly broken, short circuiting, and eventually failing completely. I had the emotion of being horrified constantly, shocked constantly, and it wreaked havoc on every part of my life. I was ‘bipolar’, ‘psychotic’, ‘dysmorphic’, ‘anxiety not otherwise specified’, and it sucked. The whole time I wanted to be ‘better’, I didn’t want to be that way, but as time progressed it seemed like I had no choice. That I had no choice other than to feel this way, but I still wanted to be ‘better.’
I eventually was on the cusp of an anxiety attack at the drop of a hat every waking minute of my life. I was known to throw up over my anxiety, partly because I couldn’t eat a normal plate of food because of my chronic gag reflex.
It finally culminated in complete dis-association where I couldn’t even think my own thoughts, felt like I existed outside of my body, lost weight, and could barely speak. I couldn’t even watch TV without it altering my brain processes significantly. I eventually couldn’t read. The whole time this was happening I was trying to ‘get better’. I worked at it and worked at it through treatment, medication, and therapy, but it just kept getting worse and worse. I thought I would always be this way, and that nothing would ever change, and the only reason I stayed alive was for my Mom. And eventually all I could do is lay still, with my eyes closed, sheltered away in some hospital acute ward behind a locked door, alone.
Then, something changed.
I realized, in a barely cogent thought, that if I did nothing, I would be here forever. I would be re-certified for another 90 day hold. I would be shipped to the state institution as completely chronic, hopeless, and unable to return from any decompensation.
I had spent the years up till then thinking and considering things about myself extremely deeply.
In the sea of people, thoughts, experiences, hurt, abuse, characters, voices, entities, words, passages, scenarios, memories, false memories, and existential reckoning that swam through my mind with no control (when I was lucky to have them), there was one thing I was barely holding on to, and that was the idea that things could change.
I had nothing to go on, no evidence at all that this was the case. All I had was the compassionate doctor’s assertion that, “Don’t worry about it, you’ll be out of here in a week.” That was it. I didn’t believe it. So I endured, I just let the pain and dis-association happen, rack through my body wave after wave. And I repeated to myself, “Things change.” I repeated this to myself in my nailed down bed, I repeated it to myself in the motion sensor shower, I repeated it to myself constantly. I didn’t believe it, but I thought, “Mom said it, so it must be true.”
I did get out of the hospital after a week or two, and life moved onward. I cried every night like clockwork, and just let the disorder, let the static just happen, just engulf me as I repeated, “Things change.”
Once I had my own train of thought back I was able to realize that in order for things to change, somebody had to do something about it. And I decided, and this may not hold for everyone, but I decided it was me.
Very slowly, very very slowly, things started to get better as I learned to cope more and more. Do I still freak out when people talk about masturbation? I sure as hell do, but what I do with that is my responsibility. Can I ever take a nude figure drawing course? No, I can’t. Can I step into a classroom in a high school? No, I can’t. That’s my problem, my responsibility.
We are not to blame for having a mental illness. You can’t blame somebody for being what they are. I can’t blame you for having brown hair. This isn’t about blaming. If you have trouble and can’t manage your dysfunction one iota, that’s okay, that’s where you are in your journey right now. But, I’m off to the side chanting a chant I hope can help others, “Things change.”
I live in a one bedroom apartment now, and am married. I’ve been given an official diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder, and you know what? That’s my problem, and I’m ready to take responsibility for it. In fact, I take medication: an anti-psychotic, an anti-depressant, and a mood-stabilizer. I’m never going to ‘snap out of it’, no one can ‘snap out’ of a mental illness. But I can watch myself and my boundaries with others so as not to become socially dysfunctional, I can watch myself and my reactions to things to gauge whether I should do something or not, I can watch my mind and realize when there are people in there doing stuff, I can watch my emotions and delusions and decide what I’m going to do about them. Therapy helped me accomplish this. And it wasn’t easy. It’s been eleven years and I’m still working towards ‘being better’ every single day.
Telling someone this is not telling them to ‘snap out of it’.
Sometimes I’m a rat. Sometimes I’m a raccoon. Sometimes I feel so small that I’m just a terrified little kid. Sometimes I am in such pain all I can do is feel it in my chest. Sometimes the people in my head are dead, sometimes they are noisy. Sometimes I have static and can’t focus on one thing at all, or have an anxiety attack over silly things.
At the same time, sometimes I’m sad, sometimes I’m alone, sometimes I’m disappointed, some times I’m happy, some times I am excited, some times I’m depressed, sometimes I’m absolutely bored.
Our experiences color our lives, but they don’t make up who we are.
Now, in my journey, I’m at the point where things finally did change. And I hope that others who find themselves in similar situations can glean from what I’ve written and be able to apply any part of it at all to their lives so that their life can change.
Everybody in this process is going to be at a different step. Everything I’ve written here may seem completely irrelevant to you and your case, and, it just might be. If I had read this when I was throwing up in the snow, I probably would’ve said, “Yeah, well that worked for you, but it’s not going to work for me.” I know I would’ve said that.
There are so many amazing things in my head now. It used to be a vacuous black gaping void of nothingness, but now, I can’t get enough of it outside of myself. Now, I don’t hate myself, and I never think about suicide. I just think about turning into a raccoon and helping the homeless people sort through garbage.