Posts tagged mental illness

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.

Writing What Hurts: Using Words to Heal

CoffeeStainQuote The past is one of the hardest things for me to face. There was a time in my life in which I was very lost-- in the midst of an overwhelming depression that led to actions I hate. When many people think of depression, they might imagine a person sitting in a dark room, crying and penning suicide notes. But mental illnesses have many faces; how they present in one person may be totally different for another. For me, depression wasn't sadness. It was nothingness. I felt nothing. And when I say that, I mean it--there was no sadness, no happiness, no trepidation, no fear, no remorse. My actions became unpredictable and totally uncharacteristic. Only the most extreme behaviors would elicit a buzz of feeling, and even that was brief and superficial, like the hair on your arms standing up. Maybe that's why almost everything I did was extreme. That's what I assume, but what I know is that I acted insane (for lack of a better word). When you don't have feelings, it's brutally easy to hurt people. And I did--I hurt myself and others I loved without realizing it until it was too late. When I did realize, there was shame. But I didn't want to feel shame, so I felt nothing instead.

In any case, thinking about that time period hurts, and it will probably hurt me for the rest of my life-- unless somehow I forget those events and live out the rest of my days blissfully ignorant. That's unlikely, but the only thing to do besides forget about it is to write about it, so that's what I've done.  My current work in progress is based on true events from those months. Through the writing, there has been crying. There's been more regret and self-loathing and utter confusion than I ever allowed myself to experience before. But there has also been healing. There's been acceptance. And I felt all of it, which I'm so grateful to be able to do.

I don't think we're writing for our readers. I think we write for ourselves and just happen to affect our readers along the way. No one is alone in an experience. When you write "hard and clear about what hurts," you're writing about something that hurts other people too. And maybe seeing your truths in black and white is what those people need to face their own pain. If you write what hurts, you won't be the only one to receive comfort and understanding: you'll give it out to others too.

This is scary for me, but I'm going to share an excerpt from my book--my narrator writing down an experience she had during her depression. It's scary because her story is my story. The actions she took are actions I took, and now despise. But I needed to write about this to accept it as part of my past, just as I need to share it. So here it is.


She spun the diamond around her finger, watching the light catch the facets at every turn. It was beautiful—and she hated it.

The “yes” had passed over her lips like music when she was eighteen: an adult, but still a child. And she had been happy until an ugliness came: one that started in her mind like a seed, planted by nothing. It fed on her for months, changing who she was until only ugliness remained.

The ring was unbearable. Slipping it over her knuckle, she placed it on the bedside table. “You need to leave. I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she whispered. “What did I do?”

“We just kissed.”

“No. We kissed and then you fell asleep here—in my bed. You stayed all night. That’s more than ‘just’ kissing. Please—please leave.”

He looked so unfamiliar, sitting against her pillow—his eyes and hands and lips markedly different than the ones she knew so well. She had only met him twice. There was nothing attractive about him to her, except perhaps that there were no promises between them. “We can just forget it. We were drunk,” he offered.

Her hands shook as she cleared the glasses from the table. It was true: she had been drunk for months. She had kept enough alcohol in her system to try to pretend the ugliness wasn’t there; to pretend she still knew who she was. But no matter how much pretending she did, she kept growing uglier.

“I wasn’t drunk enough to—I’ve been engaged for a year. Why would I do this? I’ve never… I didn’t think I would ever…”

As she spoke to her own ears, he left without another word, his footsteps like drumbeats behind her. She never turned around. Nauseated, she lay down, the bed still warm from a body that hadn't belonged there. She grabbed her telephone and dialed the last number. The last number was always the same. Inside, her stomach twisted into knots, but she couldn’t delay. All too well she knew she had to call at that moment, while she still felt the sickness and shame. If she were to wait too long, the numbness would return and she would feel nothing. But she wanted to feel this. She had to.


This is part of my story: one of the most painful parts. But that's not who I am now. That isn't really who I was then--it's who my depression made me. As hard as it might be to believe, this experience wasn't even the height of my erratic behavior. I went completely off the rails for a while there, and when I was in the thick of it, I thought I'd never recover. It didn't seem possible that I could be even a shadow of a normal person again, and yet here I am. Writing has helped me understand myself, what I went through, and what I put other people through. And by way of that understanding, I've come to a place of healing. There's no place I'd rather be.

Today's Prompt: Write a scene based on an experience you had that hurts to even think about, whether it was something you did or something that was done to you. If you're comfortable, share it with someone who never knew that part of your history.

Happy (or not-so-happy) Writing!



Also-- Happy Birthday, Hemingway!


The Power of Self-Knowledge: How Understanding Mental Illness Made Me a Better Writer

IMG_3623 When I was 19, I took a ride in the back of a police car.

I hadn't been arrested; I hadn't committed a crime--I'd simply gone off grid at the height of a very public emotional breakdown. A consuming depression, along with a series of misunderstandings, led my parents to fear that I'd disappeared with the intention of harming myself. The police were enlisted to help find me--which they did. So I took a ride in the back of a police car and ended up involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital.

Physically, I was a danger to no one; I didn't need to be in the ward because of that possibility. However, I don't regret the time I spent there. Those days marked a turning point in my life--a defining moment, you could say. Locked up within its walls, I began to understand myself--my mental state--better than I'd allowed myself to do up until that point. Self-knowledge had been something I'd avoided because I didn't like what I learned. There was a brokenness in me I couldn't fix, so I refused to see it. But being committed forced me to see it--the whole ugly truth: who I'd hurt, what I'd destroyed, things I'd done that I'd never have done in my right mind. Only when I accepted that brokenness was I able to start working towards getting better.*

Mental illness is never someone's fault, but I didn't know that at the time. I nursed a deep self-hatred because of actions I'd had little to no control over, and it took months--years, even--to learn that though I had hurt and destroyed and broken things, the blame wasn't on me. The sickness that had altered my mind and behavior was to blame. Once past the point of despising myself, I was able to get to know who I was apart from depression. And once I knew myself, I was able to write.

My work in progress, Ourselves and Others, is based on true events--namely, my time in the psychiatric ward and the resultant occurrences. The only reason I'm able to write about it now, six years later, is because I finally understand where my mind was when the events occurred. There's a deep place I'm writing from, one previously locked away. And self-knowledge was the key to finally opening up that door. In fact, it opened many doors: doors that led to opportunities, art, new relationships, self-improvement. Knowing myself, I can excel in areas I wouldn't even have attempted otherwise. As Rosoff says, "Self-knowledge is essential."

Do you know yourself? Let the person you are come through in your writing. Write from that deep place that only you can fully understand. If you don't know yourself--if you've never been to that deep place-- get to know who you are and allow that knowledge to transform what you do. It'll be worth it.

Today's Prompt: Write a short story based on a defining moment in your life. As you write, try to learn something about yourself as a person: your state during the event; how the event changed you; etc. Let the story come from that place of understanding.

Happy Writing!


*Anyone who has ever struggled with a mental/emotional illness knows it isn't that easy. You can't just decide to get better. My story is not everyone's story. Denial stunted my healing, but many people accept and admit their sicknesses and still don't feel like they're improving. "Working towards getting better" for me included taking my medication, going to therapy, moving back in with my parents, leaving school, and being honest with myself and my family about my illness. It was a long road that truthfully, I'm still on. Depression hasn't been a part of my life for a long while, but I'm now living with Social Anxiety Disorder, which I think is largely due to the breakdown I had in 2009. Accepting that has been the difference between function and debilitation. You can't just decide to get better, but you can decide to get help.

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.


To learn more about mental illness, locate facilities, or seek help, visit

For a list of 24 hour mental health hotlines, click here:

Quote of the Day—Gustave Flaubert

I find this to be very true of myself. In writing my current novel, Ourselves and Others, which is based on my own experience in a psychiatric hospital, I've discovered a strong desire to defend those who struggle with mental illness. I've always believed mental illness shouldn't be taken lightly, but writing about it has multiplied that belief. Metaphorically traveling back to the psych ward makes me more present than I was when I was actually there—I suppose because I'm focusing on the details in order to write them, whereas when I was in the thick of it, I just tried to keep my head down. In any case, the awful realities of living with mental illness have hit me all over again.

So how has your writing revealed or shaped your beliefs? In what way has that manifested in your life?