Posts in Mental Health

I am afraid
Of people behind counters
And of talking on the phone.
“Here; you answer it.
I don’t know who it is.”
My husband shakes his head,
Takes the phone, and says,
Like it’s not the hardest word.
He smiles,
Calls me ridiculous,
Kisses me on the cheek.
I laugh even though
I’m not funny;
I am not a joke.

I am afraid
Of neighbors across the street
And of visiting our friends.
“Our friends”
Because I don’t have any of my own.
My husband says hello again.
“Dinner next week?”
He raises eyebrows at me
And I nod my head,
like I know he hopes I will.
The next seven days are
Composed of dread and low expectations.
During dinner my mind
snaps a picture of every awkward silence
and confused stare.

But after is the worst,
When I take the photographs from their box
and read the writing on their backs.
They hate you.
You always say the wrong thing.
Why do you—
Now I am especially aware
That they are our friends.
“Our friends,” not mine.
Because he is the one
Who answers the phone
And I am the one who is afraid.

I am afraid
Of congregants in their pews
And of talking to the pastor.
My husband isn’t here to answer.
He’s across the room,
A link in a circle of strangers,
Talking to our friends.
So I sit next to the pastor’s wife,
Our bibles on the pew between us.
She tells me it’s the devil
Saying those things I hear;
It’s the devil
Making me afraid of the telephone,
Of being a link in the circle,
Of singing the wrong note during worship,
Of talking too much, too little,
Too fast, too loud,
Too soft, too slow.
“It’s the devil,” she says
When I bring up brain chemistry
And therapy and medicine.
“It’s the devil,” she says.
“Let me pray with you.”

So we pray.
And I try to concentrate,
But I’m too busy being afraid
That I will say the wrong thing,
Pray the wrong thing;
That she will notice
My stutters–
My halting phrases–
That I am holding her hands too hard,
Or that my fingers are too cold,
That I am too open, too closed,
Too little, too much.
But most of all I am afraid
Because we are calling God
And he might notice too.

I hang up before He answers,
Smiling at the pastor’s wife,
Letting her hug me after “Amen.”
She laughs at the devil,
Her way of giving glory.
I laugh too, even though
This devil is me
And I’m not funny;
I am not a joke.
“Just pray,” she quips, looking away,
Punching a number
into her cell phone,
Like it’s something she
does every day.
“Call on Him and He will answer.”

But that’s what I’m afraid of.

Counting Bridges

You’re counting “No Thank Yous”
like pennies that I owe you.
Counting birthdays, anniversaries,
dinner parties I’ve skipped.
But me?
I’m counting bridges.
three of them
that I have to cross
to get to your house
on the other side of town.
Counting the minutes it would take me
to get my children, all
three of them,
out of their belts and into
the life jackets I’ve stowed
under the back seat
just in case one of the bridges breaks.
I’m counting the feet of rope I should bring
to tie their tiny arms to mine
so no one floats away from me.
And if there were no water,
and no bridges between us,
I’d be counting
stovetops left on
doors left unlocked
broken blinds
for the monsters to peek through.
I’d count electric poles
that might snap in half;
trucks weighed down with logs
that want to come loose
and roll into the street like hand grenades.
I’d count everything–
everything I didn’t want to.

You think I drive you away,
But I never drive if I can help it.


I saw you
across the Atlantic,
coated in claws,
And I miss you
so much that it feels like
claws hooked in my chest,
Because to you I am nothing,
but you are still something
to me.
I resent you like hell
because you didn’t keep fighting
when I gave up–
when I was so tired of having my claws out.
Because you didn’t see how confused I was;
You only saw how much I was changing–
not how much I didn’t want to.
I resent you like hell
because you thought
my illness was who I was.
So did I.
But I needed you to tell me different.
To see me different.
So I’d know I was different
than the thoughts inside my head.
But what were you supposed to do?
I can’t resent you at all.

I’m afraid to talk to people.
Did you know that?
I’ve wished you seven silent happy birthdays
and none of my new friends are closer than
“How’s work?”
“Good! How about you?”
“Well! See you next Sunday.”
because I still love you
like I love my childhood home,
like the bannister I curled my fingers around
when I first tried out my feet.
And I’m afraid I’ll hurt everyone
the way that I hurt you;
lose everyone
the way that I left you.
And that they will all think
my illness is who I am
because no one will be sane enough
to tell them any different.

Seven silent happy birthdays,
and my sickness still stalks me like a lost prize.
Maybe one day it will catch me
and mount me upon the wall,
forever with my claws out.
Maybe you’ll see me suspended there,
shake your head and say,
“Yep. There she goes again. Some things never change.”

Let's Stop Laughing at Mental Illness

Photo by flickr user AndreasS. Click photo to visit original image. Lately I've been seeing a lot of these "you're in a mental hospital..." chain statuses going around on facebook. The content is as follows:

You're in a mental hospital.  Use the first 7 people on your text list in order... No cheating!

  • Your roommate:
  • Person licking windows:
  • Person helping you escape:
  • The doctor:
  • Person running around naked:
  • Person yelling nonsense:
  • Person you went crazy with:

Let's see if yours is as true and funny as mine!

I get it; it's just for a laugh. It's supposed to be "true and funny." But the reality isn't funny at all, nor is it likely to be true about the people whose names someone plugs in.

Now, to those who have posted these statuses, please don't feel embarrassed or shamed. That's not my intention. The issue is much deeper than that one status. Jokes about mental illness are peppered throughout many types of media in various ways for one reason: because we're expected to laugh. Somewhere along the line, our society decided that as long as it was kept at arm's length and talked about in general terms, mental illness was okay to laugh about. But it's not. Mental illness is just as real as physical illness and its effects just as devastating. It leads to the ruin of—and for some, even the end of—lives. It's stigmatized and misunderstood, which only contributes to the problems.

To help illustrate this, I want to show what an accurate chain status about a mental hospital might look like. It'd probably be a lot more like this:

You're in a mental hospital.  Use the first 7 people on your text list in order... No cheating!

  • Your roommate, who is there because of her fourth failed suicide attempt, and who will probably try for a fifth when she's released:
  • Person licking windows because, although he's a forty-five year old man, he has the mental capacity of a three year old child. He's there because his parents have both passed away and he is unable to care for himself:
  • Person helping you escape because she has Paranoid Delusional Disorder and is unshakably convinced that the doctors are systematically murdering the patients. She is constantly terrified:
  • The doctor, who became a psychiatrist because when she was ten years old, her mother, who suffered from bipolar disorder, shot herself in their living room:
  • Person running around naked because he suffers from schizoaffective disorder. He's in the midst of a hypomanic episode and has no control over his impulses:
  • Person yelling nonsense because he suffered a psychotic break and can no longer communicate effectively. He has a wife and two children who may never have a normal conversation with him again:

(I'll answer the next one for you.)

  • Person you went crazy with: You, because you have been diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder and have two entirely separate personalities. They hate each other.

Let's see if yours is as true and funny as mine.

So is it still funny?

I'm currently writing a novel (Ourselves and Others) partially based on my own brief experience as a patient in a psychiatric ward. It occurred several years ago and it's not something everyone knows about me (until now, I guess), but it was an important experience. Being in one of those places and seeing firsthand the kind of havoc mental illness can wreak on people and relationships changes a person. Mental health is no longer something I struggle with, but there are others for whom every day is a battle. I can't laugh at them or make light of their situations anymore. I can't enjoy a joke about a psychiatric ward any more than I could a joke about a cancer wing. I can't laugh because all I see is the ugly truth buried beneath the humor.

I'm not saying I'm above anyone else; I admit that I used to find lighthearted talk about mental illness (like the initial chain status) funny. It's easy to laugh about something intangible and unfamiliar. Only when I experienced it firsthand did I stop laughing.

And while I hope you never have to share that experience, I hope just as much that you stop laughing too.


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