Is there an alternative to being mentally ill? | Bleader

Is there an alternative to being mentally ill?

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A ball model representation of Amoxapine, a tricyclic antidepressant
  • A ball model representation of Amoxapine, a tricyclic antidepressant
For the transgression of disliking The Avengers, I recently found myself on the business end of several dozen hateful comments. Some were sent directly to my e-mail address, but most were left in the comments section of my online review, on proud display for the public like so much toilet paper on a front lawn. (I suspect they've polluted other virtual spaces as well, but there are better things I can do with my time than to look for them.) I have little intention of entering a dialogue with these commenters, for all their confrontational goading. If the rampant spelling and grammatical mistakes were any indication, most of them were motivated by impulsive anger rather than desire for genuine conversation—though, in their defense, I wasn’t too interested in entering a dialogue with The Avengers either. I guess that means we’re even now and we can all have dessert.

Still, the negative comments were instructive in a few ways. As a benign manifestation of lynch-mob mentality, they reflect a stance towards culture that’s worlds apart from my own: the insistence that there's no alternative to one’s own opinion and that one can be only "right" or "wrong" about a work of art. I also learned, courtesy of a commenter who identified himself only as Morganthus, that anger doesn’t always hinder one's capacity for character assessment. "This reviewer, who've [sic] I've read on and off over the years here in Chicago . . . is very emotionally imbalanced," he wrote. How did Morganthus know?

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2004, though I suspect I've lived with it my entire life. As a kid, I always had phases of acting out and extreme introversion, bouts of sleeplessness when the weather changed, the tendency to cry for hours over trivial offenses, among other telltale symptoms. But I denied that anything could have been wrong with me: like many others with mental illness, I found it too humiliating to admit I may not be responsible for my own behavior. I accepted these symptoms as badges of a unique personality, which psychiatric treatment would succeed only in sterilizing. I cherished my periods of euphoria—when all experience seemed to possess the vitality and visual beauty of my favorite movies—and I didn't want those taken away.

My childhood didn't lack for friendships and my parents were as tolerant of my moods as I could have hoped. (My dad would try to shake me out of my depressive episodes with the brusque but helpful "You’ve got to grow a thicker skin, kid," advice that came in handy when reading all those silly comments.) Still, I never identified with groups of people and felt excluded from most cultural trends. I couldn't fall in line with any sort of consensus, I believed, since an internal sea change could always throw me out of it. My relationship to art—though founded on deep gratitude—was erratic and largely private. I liked the movies, literature, and music that I did because they gave form to emotions I couldn't organize in real life. I still respond to them in this way, even after years of counseling and antidepressants have brought me out of my hermetic worldview. The arts have been so integral to my development—indeed, my stability—that I find it difficult to issue anything like an objective assessment of what I see, read, or hear. I think Morganthus picked up on this too.

Is there an alternative to being mentally ill? I wish there were; I'd probably have an easier time making friends. Living with bipolar disorder allows for only two courses of action, really: acknowledgment and denial. Knowing the risks associated with the latter (such as lapses into self-destructive behavior, which had gotten so bad with me that my parents and friends all but dragged me by the hair to a psychiatrist's office), I’ll take acknowledgment, thank you, even if it's not always easy. It means accepting that I sometimes need to hold still for a few hours lest I do anything rash. It means checking in with a shrink at least once a year to make sure I'm getting treated appropriately. (Since I don't have health insurance, this is a lot harder to do now that Mayor Emanuel closed half of Chicago's public mental health clinics, but that's another story.) And it means admitting my vulnerability to family and friends, who do want to help me, I learned, when I feel I can't get through life on my own.

This ongoing admission has been the most humbling as well as the most rewarding thing to come out of psychiatric treatment. I feel far less isolated now than I did before being diagnosed; and knowing there are accepting, supportive people in my life is encouragement to be more accepting and supportive of others. I still have trouble falling in line with large groups—especially when they're cheering for violence and rejecting serious thought, things that used to get me into trouble—but I don't mind when the small one I belong to is as good as it is.

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