Mental Illness is not Contagious

It was my second day in the mental hospital. I had anticipated being exhausted, isolated, scared. Instead, I woke up refreshed at 6:00 AM, even without an alarm. It was mostly because they had given me a sleeping pill the night before. I had agreed largely because I was slightly panicked about having a roommate in the mental hospital. I mean, what if they were really off their rocker and strangled me in my sleep? Additionally, the doors didn’t lock. 

(The irony of fearing death via murder was not lost on me. How was it that I was cool offing myself, but if someone else tried? Well, hell no!)

I took a shower that morning. Breakfast wasn’t for another two hours. Again, no lock on the bathroom door was sort of a turn off. Showering at 6:00 AM before anyone else was awake seemed like the ideal situation. I didn’t want any weirdos walking in on me naked!

 I walked down the hallway afterwards and smiled at the nurses sitting around a single computer. They looked up at me and stared. I tried to think of something to say. I turned to my mom status for a rescue comment.

“I’m used to waking up early and getting the kids ready for school.” I said, shrugging. 

In retrospect, it must have seemed super odd to them that I woke up so early, showered, got dressed. Aren’t depressed people sluggish and struggling to handle the day-to-day of life? Sometimes. Trust me, I have been sluggish and I have not showered for at least 10 days, multiple times in a row. 

Later that day, I sat with a psychiatrist. He quizzed me about symptoms and thoughts. I replied with one word answers. Then, he said I had atypical depression. I think I sniggered. Of course, my mental illness would be “atypical”. Figures. I added this to the growing list of things that made me odd or a black sheep. 

After that I went to a group session in which they compared mental illness to diabetes. If you had diabetes, then would you just stop taking your medicine when you felt good? No, you would check your blood sugar and keep track of yourself. This was how we should treat mental illness – as a health condition. 

At the time, this really helped me to accept what was happening to me, as well as take my treatment seriously. 

I made friends while I was there. For the most part, I stopped worrying about being murdered in my sleep or raped in the bathroom. They were good people, experiencing things like me. I could see the ways in which they were unhealthy, just as they could see the way that I was unhealthy. We even talked about first impressions of each other. People said they thought I worked there for the first 24 hours, because I had regular clothes on. I said I had a really good husband who brought me clothes and books. 

On my third day, the mood on the floor shifted drastically. It was visitor’s day, which only happened once a week. Many of my new friends had been there for almost a week or more than a week. Basically, every one was super high strung and anxious – myself included. I would be so happy to see my husband, but I would also be seeing my parents. You know, because they love me and wouldn’t miss an opportunity to see me – hospital or no hospital. 

Except seeing my parents…in the mental hospital….it made things real. I had a problem. I had a condition. I would be handled with care. 

The truth is, sometimes, the people who love us the most can’t help us. If they could, then they would have done it long ago. Both parties hurt, because both parties know. 

“This isn’t something I can fix. I don’t know what to do.” We all say to ourselves. 

Leaving the hospital, I was determined to treat my mental illness as a health problem. I quit caffeine, forced myself to exercise, shower and do the things that “helped” depression. For the next week, I was a task master driving myself through slavery. Then, my therapist drew my attention to something. 

 I frequently said, “It does no good to dwell on things. You just have to keep going.” I stared at him, clueless. Then, he said, “Generally, when people wake up with thoughts of harming themselves, then their day doesn’t proceed as normal.”

Huh? Umm….things still have to get done. I wasn’t sure what he meant

It took a really. really long time for me to realize that I could cut myself some slack. First, I had to actually open up to people and tell them what was behind my smile. Then, I had to sit with what I told them, because I had acknowledged it existed. Suddenly, I wasn’t the girl waking up at 6:00 AM, getting a shower and going on with the day. I was the girl lying in bed, crying and feeling so many, many things. 

About nine months later, I quit everything I had been doing for the last two years – every obligation, every responsibility. I left it all behind (except for being a wife and a mom). We even moved to a different city. Everything started over.

 This is when I finally started to feel free. I was still depressed. I was even more anxious. Yet, I felt free.

 You see, I had a lot of loved ones and friends. People, good people, cared about my family and I. Loving, kind, generous people. We all sat in a room awkwardly with each other, just like the night my parents visited me in the mental hospital. Except, this time it wasn’t just a room – it was our lives. My mental illness wasn’t something they could fix. They didn’t know what to do.

And I didn’t know what to do either.

Sadly, people largely don’t know how to respond to mental illness. I wish they wouldn’t call it mental illness. I wish I wasn’t referred to as the mentally ill.

I’m just Ash.

If people could just respond to me as Ash, then this wouldn’t be so hard.

 There is so much stigma around mental illness, that I’ve come to hate the word stigma itself. People have said to me, “Thanks for being vulnerable. Thanks for ending the stigma!” and even “I don’t know how you are so honest.” I can tell you how I have done it. I’ve come to know my truth.

I cannot live any other way.

I must be honest. I must be vulnerable or I will break again. Their is elasticity in vulnerability. It allows me to come back from the falls.

The Vulnerable, Mentally Ill Person Wants to Say This…

Ending the stigma of mental illness shouldn’t be the burden of the mentally ill. Social justice and responsibility mean speaking up for the speechless. Unfortunately, this has never once been the way the of the world. I learned it first with autism and the church. Evan was almost four before anyone addressed his autism at church. The church that addressed it was one of the best ones, but we had sought them. We had come to their church because he had autism.

I learned then that I would always be the one advocating for our family as a special needs family. No one else would do it for me. Now, I know this to be true for mental illness. No one else will advocate for me and my dear friends. They will pretend not to see me so I must make myself visible, even at times a spectacle.

I am willing.

It isn’t fair. It will never be fair. Do I fear that one day I may take my life and make all of these words null? Yes, yes, I do. Do I fear how my words will reflect and affect my children? Yes, yes, I do.

But I fear far more what saying nothing will do to the world and what it will do to me.

For this reason, I cannot keep silent.

I am an abolitionist of stigma. And I wish to find a new name for the mentally ill.

Candidly,

Ash

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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One thought on “Mental Illness is not Contagious

  1. Love how your writing keeps growing, as you keep growing. Seems like your writing voice keeps getting stronger, and perhaps figuring out what it most wants. It’s amazing to witness your journey. Love you. ❤

    Like

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