stigma

Wanting to Die

The voices first started during the summer of my fourteenth year.  I was training heavily to run cross-country in high school in the coming fall, and as I traversed the Calabasas mountains, I remember a soundtrack beginning to appear.  I slowly gained awareness to the preludes and waltzes of Bach, Vivaldi, Chopin, all playing audibly within my ears.  No, this was not strange.  Not in the least.  In fact, I appraised it to be entirely normal.  I would run listening to the Four Seasons, the crescendos and decrescendos rising and falling with the hills I was climbing and descending.  The music was not threatening, but rather became an inherent part of my existence that summer.

Light turned to dark as the summer ended and I entered the first month to two months of ninth grade.  The music disappeared and was replaced by something far more sinister, far more malicious.  Where choirs once sang praises, now were the odes of death.  I could both hear and see my mind telling me to kill myself, showing me the ways in which I must do it.  Images of blood and pills flooded my mind and my awareness in an all-consuming fashion.  I became disconnected from the world, a floating entity whose strings lay cut far from the earth.  I picked and tore at my skin until it bled and scabbed and sliced the skin on my arms with anything I could find – glass, tile, shards of metal, razor blades.  My mind wished for me to die, and I was willing to do the bidding.  

The above depiction was one of my first experiences battling suicidal thoughts and ideation, and certainly not my last.  I still struggle to this day – to this moment – with intrusive thoughts, at the least, and intent plans at the most.  People question how one can contemplate the taking of one’s life or complete the action itself when he or she has what society holds to be the pinnacles of happiness – ample financial holdings, supportive family/friends, a strong faith base, and, in some cases, fame and stature, etc.  This question arose with the death of Robin Williams.  He seemingly had everything the world could offer, yet was unable to find the will to live.  This questioning – this mindset – induces feelings of guilt in those contemplating suicide, as they cannot reconcile the simultaneous existence of their dark emotions and the presence of pinnacles of happiness in their lives, and it also perpetuates the carried notion of the selfish nature of suicide.  

I often return to the quote of Thomas Browne declaring, “It is a brave act to despise death; but where life is more terrible than death, it is then the truest valor to dare to live.”  Wanting to die is a complex desire, a complex state of existence.  At times, it is my darkest enemy, and at other times my closest friend.  It becomes either a struggle to which I fight valiantly or a desire to which I longingly wish to acquiesce, deeply ruminating the possibilities within my mind like fingering a smooth, iridescent pearl between my thumb and pointer finger.  It is hard to articulate why my mind vacillates between wanting to fight and wanting to relinquish all power, but perhaps it can be best described as a longing to be free, an intense desire to rest.  My illness depletes my energy and wreaks havoc upon my body and mind relentlessly and mercilessly, leaving me incapacitated and dry.

In a recent conversation with my psychiatrist, she pointed out the degree to which I have become desensitized to suicide as a result of my years of battling contemplation and urges.  It no longer jars me to think about or see an image within my mind of me cutting my wrist and the blood flowing copiously, or swallowing a bottle of pills or stepping in front of a car.  She described a past patient of hers as the owner of a car dealership.  He would constantly and insistently talk about and describe his suicidal desires and plans with seemingly little emotional attachment.  On one occasion she challenged him: would he take a hammer to one of the new models on the lot?  He was repulsed and offered a resounding no.  She then asked, why would you do so to yourself?

What has jarred me was a conversation with a family member I had a few weeks ago.  This family member expressed openly that she knows she will probably lose me one day to suicide – that I will just be so tired of fighting and long to finally rest.  Hearing this put a pin through my heart, stole my breath but just for a moment.  I realized I truly would be gone and the repercussions my act would have upon my family members and those who love me.  To this I am not desensitized.  It shed a different light on the intrusive thoughts that have plagued me for so long.  

Though the nature of my illness dictates that I will likely continue to battle suicidal thoughts and urges, I know I must find a way to be free, to rest, within this world.  My desensitization to my suicidal thoughts has resulted in a disconnect between the way I view death by suicide and the result of the act of suicide itself – its definitiveness and finality.  My longing for rest and freedom does not have to equate death and the exit from this physical plane.  Challenging my thoughts is, and will be, of utmost difficulty, but I must show my strength and persist through the darkness, for I have yet to fully realize my purpose as a human being on this earth.

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Loneliness and Alienation

In an earlier post, I discussed the disappearances people with mental illness can make, evaporating stealthily from social circles following psychiatric hospitalizations and treatments.  Unfortunately loneliness and alienation have become such ingrained components of the lives of people with mental illness.  Not only do prolonged disappearances yield loneliness and alienation due to increasing absence in social circles, but stigma and confusion play a part as well.  When mental illnesses present in adolescence, this creates a prime breeding ground for the confusion that cultivates and fosters alienation.  Adolescents become confused when their friend and comrade disappear for a short – or even extended – period of time, and for reasons that are foreign, and at times, incomprehensible.  If one considers this situation, it may present with partial truth, in a sense, as mental illnesses are complex phenomena that even adults fail to understand.  If adults struggle with accepting and understanding mental illness, expecting adolescents to be entirely understanding and cognizant of the gravity and tragic nature of mental illness is a difficult request.  However this does not detract from the devastation and hurt felt by adolescents experiencing mental illness who make intermittent disappearances in the course of their treatments and who are ostracized when their symptoms and suffering percolate over, spilling into their academic and social lives, where their peers demonstrate limited understanding and eschew connection with things they just do not relate to or comprehend.  As a result of these factors, the social circles surrounding an adolescent experiencing mental illness slowly dissipate, support and friendships disappearing surely and swiftly.  In sets the beginning of alienation.

Loneliness and alienation are not restricted to adolescence.  Adults also experience disappearances – psychiatric hospitalizations, leaving jobs on disability – all of which affect their work lives and social circles.  Loneliness and alienation are such profound experiences, and probably some of the most tragic.  Social connection extends beyond superficial engagements, such as coffee at the cafe or a birthday party.  Rather it is such an integral part of human existence, providing sustenance to our minds and spirits, and the absence of this connection is debilitating.  People with mental illnesses experience this social ostracism and alienation, which peg away at their ability to push forward and, in fact, can hinder treatment and recovery.  I believe people have the power to be incognizant of the increasing distance they are placing between themselves and a friend or loved one with a mental illness, but recognizing this is imperative.  Loneliness is a crippling experience and is the antithesis to mental and emotional wellness.

Since adolescence, I have been battling the loneliness and alienation associated with having a mental illness.  I was lively and social with many friends in middle school, but when I hit my freshman year of high school, circumstances drastically changed.  About a month and a half into the term, I was suddenly hospitalized in the adolescent psychiatric unit at UCLA.  Thus I made a quick and silent exit from both my studies and my social circles.  I spent nearly five weeks in inpatient care before I was discharged, not long before Christmas.  I was psychotic, I was catatonic, and I was severely depressed.  My diagnosis was confirmed as bipolar, and after numerous medications trials, I was deemed well enough to reenter the “real” world once again.  The rumors surrounding my absence were numerous, and it was at this point that alienation began to ensue.

As the school year passed, I experienced four more hospitalizations for mania, psychosis, depression, and often times a simultaneous combination of the three.  Needless to say, my completion of my freshman year was quite difficult.  I tried to reenter my social circles sophomore year of high school, but my debilitating symptoms continued.  It was at this point that the deterioration of my social supports became severely exacerbated.  I felt as though I had lost many of the friends I had previously had, and this feeling only worsened.  I switched schools in attempts to have a fresh start, but that was to no avail.  Friendships never returned, and the loneliness and isolation became constant and  devitalizing components of my life.

At this point in my life, I would love to say that I have rebuilt and revamped friendships and reestablished my presence in social circles, flying high as quite the social butterfly, but I still battle the loneliness and stigma that have seemingly forever plagued my life, although thankfully to lesser degree.  While my significant friendships are few and far between, I feel as though I am gaining some sustenance, but my soul cries for more.  I wish I could regain the social breadth and confidence I held in my middle school years – no, I yearn for it with such intensity, expending my emotional energy and resources.  While I am slowly rebuilding and regaining relationships, but still feeling the pangs loneliness and alienation have wrought on my life, I am ever increasingly seeing the importance of implementing efforts to educate people about mental illness in order to erase confusion and stigma.  Perhaps a greater understanding of mental illness would work to abate the loneliness and alienation that can occur and threaten the wellbeing of those experiencing mental illness.

Why such hesitancy?

It has been a dream and an ambition of mine to begin a blog.  I have finally done so in the past few weeks.  Signing up on WordPress ignited an elation and sense of accomplishment within me, and I reveled in the joy of finally realizing a longterm goal of mine.  Such joy and elation should have been quite the impetus to begin posting right away, sharing my thoughts and emotions with a sense of urgency and determination, right?  No.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  Within me brewed such hesitancy, and my newfound bravery wavered.  How could such determination dissipate with rapidity to be replaced by fear?

Perhaps what comes into play in my hesitancy is the rampant stigma surrounding mental illness in our society.  Yes, it certainly exists, and with such a ferocity that deeply ravages and makes difficult the lives of those suffering from mental illness.  I have been open about my diagnosis – Bipolar 1 Mixed – with some people and institutions in my life while desperately shielding and hiding it from others.  How do I decide with whom I will share my diagnosis?  The answer rests in two factors – necessity and deep trust.  I must share my diagnosis with schools in order to survive academic life while fighting to not succumb to a tragic and life-threatening illness.  And then there are those I trust with such depth that I am comfortable in sharing such a private component of my life.  Disclosing suffering from a mental illness is a difficult, important, and necessary action to contemplate for all of those afflicted by mental illness.  I have suffered on many occasions the effects of stigma, and it certainly is an unpleasant and dehumanizing experience.

Opening myself to this blog, sharing my experiences of madness and a lifetime of instability, is another step of disclosure in my life.  I am sharing my diagnosis and experiences with my friends, my community, and the world.  The contemplation of with whom and whom I will not disclose my mental illness to is no longer relevant.  This is, in fact, quite a terrifying thought.  I am relinquishing my control and decision to disclose my illness to the tangled world that is the Internet.  So you can see my hesitancy in beginning this blog.  I realize that this can be an important tool in raising awareness of mental illness and issues affecting society, an important tool in reaching out and providing support to others experiencing mental illness, and also an opportunity for growth and catharsis for myself.  Hopefully I can once again muster my initial excitation and bravery and continue to post in this blog.  Such is my ardent intent.