by Traci Barr
What is life like when you have mental illness?
Now, there’s a question.
What is life like when you’ve had mental illness longer than most of the people around you have even been alive?
What is life like when you are teased as a teenager for being crazy? Is there anything possibly worse when you are a desperately confused, 16-year-old girl who is scared she’s losing her mind? I’m not sure.
Can you picture reaching levels of depression so deep you don’t have the energy to even cry? Can you imagine achieving a state of mania so high you don’t sleep for days and end up having hallucinations and seizures as a result?
I started my struggle with my bipolar diagnosis 36 years ago – when I was 14 years old. So, I can most definitely imagine these things, because I have experienced all of them.
I always have so many questions, like:
How do I think about a life that has been filled with dozens, maybe hundreds, of different medications, doctors, therapists, nurses, hospitalizations, shock treatments, meltdowns and breakdowns?
How do I try, every day, to not be terrified by the certainty that I will die alone? What do I do with the unbearable grief I feel for never having a child? How do I, at the same time, reconcile my grief with the outright gratitude I have for never actually becoming someone’s crazy mom?
Why do I sometimes behave in ways I truly cannot understand? Why do I sometimes have anxiety that is so paralyzing my own breathing feels like a threat to me?
How do I even begin to explain the feeling of extreme worthlessness I have for myself? It is very difficult to describe such a feeling. It’s as if we should all get a new word for worthlessness – and for extreme.
What is life like when you feel no one understands you for even one single second?
What words should I use to describe the relentless sadness I have that never really seems to leave me? Isn’t it logical to think that suicide would eventually feel to me like a twisted, final, ironic act of profound self-love?
Can you understand wanting to be euthanized like a dog?
How do I consider my own serious, but obviously failed, suicide attempt? What do I do with the knowledge that my suicide attempt landed me in jail, but left me with absolutely no memory of it?
Can you appreciate the fact that most mental health problems, while sometimes manageable, are not preventable…and not curable? Haven’t we all finally realized that it’s possible to help prevent so many other chronic diseases, simply by eating healthy foods?
Can you imagine my confusion over why most health insurance companies pay the costs associated with those preventable diseases, but why many of them won’t cover one thin dime of the costs associated with mental health care?
Can you feel my anger about the countless people who are desperate for help but cannot get it? Can you believe that in 2011, according to the Coroner’s Office, 75 people died in Greenville County as a result of suicide? How does that number compare to the 34 homicides or the 57 traffic fatalities in that same year? Do the math.
Do you know that one in four people has a diagnosable mental disorder and that mental illness is the number one cause of disability in the world, resulting in trillions of dollars of lost worker productivity around the globe?
Don’t you think that if businesses and other institutions showed leadership regarding the mental health concerns of their employees, many workplace tragedies would absolutely be avoided?
Don’t you think that it would simply be stone-cold good business for companies to start getting really real on the issue of the mental health of their employees and other stakeholders?
I sure do.
So, what is it like to have all these questions about life with mental illness?
Well, it can just about drive a person…crazy.
And, when you are bipolar like me, it can be quite beautiful, all at the same time.
(An edited (for length) version of this essay was previously published in the July 12, 2013 edition of the Greenville Journal.)