“I am I am I am”
-Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
**Please understand that the intention of this post is solely to display my personal experience with mental illness and my journey to overcoming its challenges. This is not in any way meant to belittle the experiences of others, or suggest that medication and/or talk therapy are not helpful forms of treatment for individuals struggling with chemical imbalances.**
I graduated college not only with the usual looming question of “What’s next for my career?”, but also with a sickening voice ringing in my ears that continuously repeated something like, “There’s something wrong with me”.
I was a two and a half years into an abusive and all-consuming relationship with a boy who was diagnosed as Bipolar 1. Bipolar disorder and alcohol abuse ran in his family, his stepfather operated a treatment center for recovering addicts, and his mother was a therapist. All that to say, talk of mental illness, manic episodes, and cocktails of mood-altering drugs were nothing more than polite dinner conversation. The openness when it came to discussing inner demons was something that I was definitely not used to, but quickly reeled me in. Ever since I could remember, I felt like the odd one out amongst my peers for a reason I couldn’t put my finger on precisely, but had grown to recognize as “sensitivity“. I was always too emotional, too anxious, too easily upset… too sensitive. I used to regard of my sensitivity as a weakness because everyone told me it was– teachers, friends, and there were plenty of times where I felt the inability to express myself to those closest to me because I had already created a story in my head where their next line would be “you’re over reacting/ you’re just being sensitive”. When I started dating my college boyfriend, for a brief moment in time, his blunt and unashamed admission about his mental illness paired with my apparent otherness from those around me, seemed like a comparable match. I had finally met someone who was “just as messed up as I was”.
Well, as they say, hindsight is 20/20 and now as a 26 year old, I sit here typing this and I feel so much pity for my vulnerable younger self.
My college boyfriend’s family made fixing and diagnosing others in their lives a hobby just as casual as a morning jog or collecting stamps. They also made having a diagnosis seem like a rather glamorous and mysterious title that followed your name. For my boyfriend in particular, it was a scapegoat– an excuse he would often use in lieu of an authentic apology when we got into arguments.
A diagnosis was an identifier not unlike your name, your zodiac sign or your regional dialect.
I was convinced that I was different, that my boyfriend was different, and that we were the only two people in our theatre department, our school, Nashville, the world that could ever relate to each other… as a result of this “Us Against the World” mentality, I became extremely attached to him and his family in a dangerously short amount of time. I had been coaxed into opening up about my own insecurities and perceived differences, so, needless to say, I was not safe from the Diagnosis Game. After a while and with their encouragement, I started to truly believe that I was severely and clincially depressed due to a chemical imbalance.
I spent the second half of my college career going to weekly therapy sessions (provided by his mother for free…) and experimenting with my own personalized cocktails of antidepressants. Every trip to Vanderbilt, I convinced myself that I getting better. Every time I picked up a new and improved prescription, I thought I was one step closer to normality. I took note of the fact that I never in my life had a panic attack until after I started dating this boy, I never had thoughts of self harm until after I started taking the antidepressants, and I never felt more out of control than when I eventually moved in with this individual and started to realize that there might not be a way out of this chaotic relationship or my own toxic mind… but… I ignored those facts.
I used to cope with my mounting catastrophic thoughts by denying myself things I enjoyed– food, time with my family, socializing with the few friends I had left, and restricting myself from acting and attending theatre. I used to scratch my arms, my thighs, my stomach. I would sleep for hours on end, compulsively clean the condo we lived in, and spend entire days searching for someone, something, anything to blame. It seems absurd now, but I would actually manifest a disaster in order to have a real reason to be anxious and sad. Since medication wasn’t working, I would act impulsively in attempts to change my surroundings with the hope that maybe that was the source of my unhappiness– I was hired and quit four different jobs between graduating in May and October and I cut off so many people in my life, it’s hard to keep an exact tally.
To be honest, the first six months after I graduated college are a blur to me now; a messy swirl of intense arguments, guilt trips, hiding, blaming, rash decisions and flip flopping between taking medication loyally and cutting it out cold turkey. The months of internal struggle and external chaos all came to a crashing halt when I attempted to secretly flushed the meds down the toilet… and my boyfriend noticed that they came back up, floating in the toilet ominously. We got into the most hideous argument of our relationship. I’ll spare you the details, but it ended with him telling me that I would never not be dependent on these drugs because I was sick and I reacted to that declaration by leaving the condo and driving to my parents house– but actually just sleeping in my car a few blocks away because I was too embarrassed to go home and explain what happened. At that point, I decided I was tired of being a walking disaster and feeling like I wasn’t in control of what I had resentfully named the “mind monsters”.
That was the beginning of the end. As you would predict in an abusive, codependent relationship, it wasn’t so easy as simply walking out. And it wasn’t until later that I realized just how deep his claws sunk into my skin, attempting to soil future relationships and stalling my progress into independent womanhood. I’m not afraid or ashamed to discuss what I went through in that relationship anymore, because I now understand that it–like my false diagnosis–happened to me, but it doesn’t define me.
I do, however, want to make it clear that I do still battle the mind monsters on occasion even if it’s been years since I seen or heard from my ex. I’m still unlike what I consider to be “normal” people, but I’ve learned that my differences mostly have to do with my unique reactions to situations rather than a chemical imbalance that needs medical treatment. Situational discomfort, sadness and anxiety, no matter how intense, does not make you crazy or messed up— these are absolutely normal human experiences and should not be categorized as wrong or inappropriate. For now, the definition that I am most comfortable with embracing is what Dr. Elaine Aron (one of the leading scientists studying the psychology of love and relationships) calls a highly sensitive person (HSP).
An HSP has a sensitive nervous systerm, is aware of subtleties in his/her surroundings, and is more easily overwhelmed when in a highly stimulating environment.
To me, it means that my lows are misery. It means that I’m quick to tears, even when the last thing I want to do is cry. It means that I’m more or less constantly coaching myself how to navigate out of the mind monster’s web. It also means that my highs are extraordinarily through the roof, that I’m creatively inspired by something multiple times a day. And it means when I care about something or somebody, I commit ten thousand percent.
What I’ve learned is this: sensitivity is STRENGTH and a weird but beautiful GIFT. Because of my sensitivity, I have the ability to be a compassionate partner, thoughtful artist, worthy teacher and understanding friend. I have come to discover my own kind of magic– the power of the human mind when I give myself the credit that I’m capable of talking through the pain instead of letting it temporarily consume me. I’d like to go back and tell certain former teachers, friends, family– and I’d be lying to myself if I didn’t admit that I’d even like to shout over a megaphone directly in the face of my ex boyfriend–and say, “You know what? You thought I was weak, but being a highly sensitive person actually requires a lot of bravery that you probably can’t even begin to comprehend.” On the other side of my battles with the mind monsters are real discoveries, instead of superficial happiness that allows you “just get by for now”.
If you are wrestling with your own mind monsters, here’s my advice: Let them trample around and throw things, spit out nasty words. Go ahead, don’t be afraid to let them throw their tantrums because they have to be heard, seen, and felt. But afterwards, you have to address them. Guess what? Logic is the secret weapon against the mind monsters. I can be in the middle of telling myself a story about how I’m alone, I’m a failure, whatever, but when I compare those stories to cold hard facts–facts that reveal that there are people out there that have love and patience for me, that I have accomplished enough to be proud of– the mind monsters can’t argue and they have to go back to hibernating in their grim cave in the corner of my mind.
I adopted Sylvia Plath’s quote from The Bell Jar as my personal mantra because with all the flaws, all the things that are lovely and heartbreaking, hard to think about and fond to remember, I am all of them combined and I am okay. I am still here. I am as consistent and steady and frantic and unpredictable as a heartbeat. I am, I am, I am.