What it is Like to be Mentally Ill

On the final episode of the TV series, The Newsroom, the character Gary Cooper poised that it would be fun to teach kids something wrong, such as wood coming from birds, and keep it up as long as possible. When they’re all grown up, they’d say, “It took a lot of sparrows to make that table.”

Living with mental illness is like living with a bird, or being taught as a child that there was a colour called banana. Only to grow up finding out the colour banana doesn’t exist and all along, the colour was red. And, sometimes, the colour banana will kill you for no real reason. This is the reason why most people with mental illnesses never come clean. And why, for most of them, it takes them being pushed to the brink of a mental breakdown, social death, and/or physical suicide to even see they have a problem. They simply think that wood comes from birds, because that’s all they know.

For a very long time, I thought it was normal for people, when stressed, to repeatedly punch themselves in the face and body. For a long time, I thought it was normal for people to feel better after being physically abuse, and it was a notion reinforced from pop culture’s ‘slap yourself awake’ idea. As a child, I thought the phrase, “Beat yourself up” was quite literal. It was not until I was 14 that I learned of masochism and thought I was simply some strange guy who got off on pain. I was weird, but I was still part of an understandable ‘normal’. Everyone has fetishes, after all.

But it was not until 16 that I learned that was not what I was. I was self harming. I wasn’t feeling some form of sexual excitement from the pain. I just wanted new pains to overwrite the old ones. I wanted to feel stronger physical pain to distract myself from the psychological ones I was experiencing. And this caused lasting harm to my body, including a permanent bone injury on my feet and scars from infections that had to be surgically removed, all because I felt the physical pain was not as bad when compared to my psychological pain.

Dying though, that’s the most mysterious part about bipolar. It’s so odd, as many people think they would live forever, never really confronting their mortality. Having bipolar, depression, or any mental illness that directly or indirectly contribute to a suicidal mindset lets you confront your mortality. You think about it more often than you’d like, which is one day more than you want. At a point, you end up having to choose, between excepting that your mental illness is part of your life, or vehemently reject it.

Either way, you will spend your whole life fighting bipolar. The moment you are diagnosed and confirmed with it, you don’t get to run away. If you decide to confront it, you go on forever, telling yourself you are fine, or touting your success story. But mental illness is not a ‘phase’. It’s caused by a chemical defect in the brain. It is a medical science. You will live your whole life telling yourself you are fine, that you have won. But the fact that the victory is so predominant, and that the lifestyle that you’d have to adopt to live again means you’ll never truly be free.

Of course, if you choose to accept it, then it becomes a daily routine. You’ll ask why and how you’ll live with it, and proceed to either do so, or succumb to the illness. You understand that it exist, and you refuse to let it change or control you, so you never really stop living as yourself. You simply take precaution, such as buckling seat belts when you get on a car, or actually reading the escape manual on an airplane flight.

The one thing most people say to people with bipolar or any form of depressive mental illness is “Snap out of it!”. And here’s the honest truth. You can snap out of it. Most of the time, people do, but at a cost. When you are sad, your brain changes its chemical make-up to create the feeling of sadness and, on a more extreme scale, depression. But on normal days, your brain is in default mode without any negativity. When you are clinically depressed however, that sadness is your default state.

A good visual metaphor is to liken this state to cars, one on a slope and another on flat ground. Normal people get the flat ground, and to move forward (happiness) or backwards (sadness) requires an amount of force to be put in. But when you’re tired, you can simply stop at neutral rest. Chronic depression, or dysthymia, is being on the slope. You’re always rolling back, and to maintain normalcy, you have to constantly put on the brakes and expand that amount of kinetic energy. To move forward, you need gas, and can only travel at a slower speed while requiring more energy than being on a flat plain, as you are also fighting gravity. The problem with putting on brakes is that it will eventually wear out, and when that happens, you’re plummeting down uncontrollably to your death, or puts in all the gas you can to stay afloat until your tank runs dry. Either way, you are always expanding an energy or a resource to maintain the delicate balance you have with life and death.

Personally, the worst part of suicidal tendencies? It’s not like cancer. At least with cancer, you get an estimated time of death. With suicide, you get a percentage. A chance of death at every stage that doesn’t give any clear picture. Only a X% chance of committing suicide at X age. Only X in X number of people succeed at this stage. There are no real studies in certain parts of the world that determines your likelihood of suicide. The biggest issue is that the people who succeeded likely did so in foolproof ways. Which meant they killed themselves in a way where there was little to no chance of failure. And if you ever get to the point of seriously taking your life, chances are, nothing will stop you. Those who live with the daily, monthly, yearly pain of chronic mental illness will tell you, it hurts everyday, and the world will only expect you to live with it.

(If you or your family and friends are experiencing suicidal ideation, tendencies, or trauma associated with mental illnesses, please contact your local helpline. For further resources, please check my link and resources page. If you do not know how to contact you local helpline, you are free to contact me on my contact page, and I will do my best to locate a helpline for you.)

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