April 20, 2017

ARRAY | Over the Dreamwall

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“Dream Wall,” 1988. Bryan Charnley often drew artistic inspiration from his mental battles.

Usually I try to write something with facts, figures and opinions, but this time around I’m going to do something a little bit different. I’m going to talk about my personal experience with mental health. Take from it what you will. You can choose to extrapolate from my voice and the voices of people I met along the way, or you can view us as exceptions.

But before I begin, I want to put out a bit of information. In 2000, a study found that for people hospitalized due to mental issues, rehospitalization ranged from fifteen to twenty-nine percent without post-hospitalization care, and ten percent with it. At a minimum, the average readmission rate was one in ten people. There’s a lot to this whole mental health thing, and as wonderful as it is to hear people on campus pushing to destigmatize these kinds of health issues, few of us will ever understand the personal effect that treatment for many types of health issues, particularly bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, has.

In the spring semester of 2016, between classes, relationship disasters and general extentensional dread – pretty much the typical college experience – I found myself less and less in control. There were days (in reality, weeks), when I felt like crap. I didn’t want to get out of bed, I didn’t want to do anything. I knew that something physically was wrong. I was waking up sore because my body was clenched up in my sleep. The saying “a weight on your shoulders” took on a literal meaning. During those weeks I didn’t want to do anything, but then there were the really bad weeks where I couldn’t do anything except lay in bed. Sounds pretty typical right? But then as winter wore on, stranger things began happening. Some weeks I had so much energy I could barely sleep. For days I would lay in bed awake, working on two or three hours of sleep during the day. Things seemed to slow down around me. I felt, really really good. School became easier. I would become confident, possibly arrogant, certainly different. But every time I felt that way, I knew in the back of my head that I was going to fall apart again sooner or later.

Then, after a particularly miserable week, I awoke to sunlight with little understanding of where I was. I was missing my shoes and all sense of place. In search of both, I wandered out of what was presumably my room and into a tiled common room outside. There, people dressed like paper ghosts wandered about. I walked up to the nearest person I saw – a girl with brown hair who was muttering into her book – and tried to ask where I was and if she knew who to ask about my shoes. In retrospect, she may not have been the right person to ask. She looked at me with the clearest “how do you not know where your shoes are?” expression and told me: “Gravity took them.” I gave a please help me stare to the nearest person that would make eye contact with me: another girl, short, black hair. She got the message, smiled big and rushed over. She looked at us and said, “Yup, I believe in gravity.” This was my first interaction at the Cayuga Medical Center.

I made friends quickly and we played little games to pass the time. Reading, writing, crafts and so on. One game in particular, which is also probably familiar to many college students, was called “How the Hell Do I Get Out of this Place?” Some of my long-term friends asked me how I made progress with the doctors so quickly. The answer would have been painfully obvious to the average person. You shut up and do what your doctor tells you; you take the pills they suggest and go to the therapy sessions they want you to. We played a game with them too. The doctor would ask questions and you had to get the right answer. The more right answers you got in a row, the closer you got to fresh air – a rare commodity. What I found was that the right answer was usually “yes” – something other patients struggled with. I was a pretty mild case. They gave me some pills to pop, made sure I was stable and shipped me out in a few days.

I think the ones I left behind understood that unwavering “yes” answers would give them the results they wanted, but for them it was a kind of moral stand. Many of them, like me, had not come in voluntarily. They did not think that there was something inherently ‘wrong’ with them and if there was, they certainly did not want to focus on it. Because ultimately, as much as we hear from people that mental health is like a disease or an injury or something curable, it’s not. For the people I met, and for people like me, there really isn’t an end of the tunnel. As one of my friends claimed, “The ups and the downs are just part of me. There’s nothing wrong with me, that’s just who I am.” Another pointed out – and this is true for me as well to an extent – that the drugs change who you are. For me it was – and still is – harder to write well, to think creatively, and, for that friend, to be the artist he was (amazing). It’s hard for people who are bipolar, schizophrenic and so on to admit that there is something wrong. They seem to draw inspiration from it. Because it’s not just a disease. For many of us it does not feel like an illness. From our point of view, it is a greater system – the doctors, the hospitals, the man (fight the power) – telling us that who we are is fundamentally wrong. You can feel that the pills make you more stable but, in a way, less yourself.

Let me make this clear. I’m not suggesting that people don’t take their pills. I don’t want to romanticize my experience. Many people become dangerously unstable, do horrible things when they’re unmedicated. But I do want you, and those who are advocating the mental health as disease narrative, to consider this: that equating it to a disease is trivializing. To make the choice to actively alter who you are, for your family, for reasons other than yourself is not the same as living with most other illnesses.

Would you want to take that pill? Would you accept that so many of your experiences, your history, could’ve been ‘fixed’ with an extra chemical compound running through your brain? That your human experience is not your own, but rather a single issue that can be isolated down to a single broken piece? Every single idea seems to come back to your sickness. You have to focus on it, be aware of it everyday. All your friends find out about it eventually, and it becomes part of your character for them too.

Like I mentioned at the beginning, I think what we’ve done with mental health is wonderful. Hospitalization rates are down, and the idea that there is a physiological difference between people considered mentally ill in any respect and a normal person is a huge step forward, but it  isn’t right to understand these issues as diseases. They are a completely different beast.

Even now, if I call my mom to tell her I had a good day, she’ll ask if I’m manic. If I call her and say I had a bad day, she’s afraid I’m depressed. You can’t wish it all away, but a pill isn’t a cast – it’s a sign that in the eyes of the people around you, there is something wrong.