The news reports are carrying more and more stories of tragedies that find their root cause in mental illness. After trying to process the horror of each situation, people involved comment that the person was suffering from mental illness, then everyone shakes their head, and that seems to explain it.
Those mentally ill people are out of control. We fear them and what they may or may not do. Perhaps they need to be separated from the rest of society for everyone’s sake.
In some cases, that could be true.
There are certainly days that I need to be away from others and left to just use my energy to get through the screaming inside without turning the rage on anyone who happens to get in my way. It doesn’t really take something specific to set me off; anything seems to fit the bill in the right moment. For example, once a family member simply walked by the room I was in and it triggered overwhelming anger and frustration in me. My mind immediately flooded with the need to grab her and shove her through the wall. It seemed so logical; the only thing to do in that moment – nothing else mattered.
But I didn’t act on it. I listened to the other voice in my head, the one I trust. I shut the door and hid in the corner and waited for it to pass.
You would think that would bring relief. Nothing bad happened and that is a win, right?
But instead of relief, all that comes is overwhelming guilt. In this case, as I worked to listen to the other voice in my head, the person I refer to as the “real Greg”, I focused as it fought its way through to tell me that she had done nothing at all to me, in fact she wasn’t even thinking about me, and what on earth was wrong with me that I would have these horrible, cruel, sadistic messages that consumed me?
Normal people don’t think this way.
That is usually when I start to hit my head. Flat hands, fists, the wall, the refrigerator. Doors are always good because you can swing them toward you at the same time as you thrust your head toward it. Double impact.
In my mind I call this madness. Probably not clinically correct, but it is the closest descriptor that explains how it feels. When this happens I’m not sure what is real around me, not sure of my self-control, not sure what I am supposed to be doing. Often I walk in circles muttering, trying to figure out what the “normal” thing to do is. It’s like I can almost figure it out – almost, but not quite. It is just beyond my fingertips. And the screaming inside goes from background noise to full orchestration.
Times like these are, in fact, good for me to be alone and away from others. That can be lonely, but they are very necessary.
But I’m not always like this.
There are times that I am crystal clear and sharp and can understand everything that is happening in the room and around me, much faster than everyone else. I get frustrated that they don’t see what I see and I wonder what is wrong with them. I feel like I am capable of anything; if I just look at whatever it is that is in front of me carefully, then I will figure it out and it will work, and work well.
I like when I feel like this.
I felt this way for years and I thought it worked well for me in my job and my life. I could get A LOT done.
Yet I’m starting to see that this isn’t really normal either. This is difficult for others to work with and manage. What seems so clear to me really isn’t to everyone else. What I feel are more than adequate explanations to others actually come across as scattered and incomplete. I’m learning to just keep my mouth shut at times like this because I have no warning about what may come out. It is better to be quiet; yet my brain is anything but. At times like this I can still be in a room with others, but it’s best if I remain detached and distanced.
However, this is better than the other, at least. I can be in a room with people – just not very interactive.
So, here is the big question: Are there times when I can not only be around people, but also interact and work with them? Or to be safe do I need to just stay in my little box, in my own little world?
I wonder if many in the public who have been horrified (rightly so) at what some of the mentally ill have done would prefer it that way? I have to agree that it would certainly be safer.
However, I’m still a person, and a pretty smart one at that (if I do say so myself!). I do feel that I have things to share, contributions to make.
More importantly, I think contributing is part of the helping and healing process through mental illness: To be a part of something that is moving forward and making the world a better place is actually pretty medicinal and powerful.
But it’s pretty hard to get up each day knowing that you have to focus very deliberately on NOT being a problem to others or causing any pain. After a while, you realize that it would just be easier and better for everyone involved if you just didn’t wake up. Just close your eyes, and it’s over.
Because you know, I am so incredibly tired. Bone weary and brain heavy tired.
Is it really worth it?
I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and shout out a resounding “YES!”
Because there is a paradox at work here.
It is in fact the very people I am so afraid of hurting who bring me the strength and resolve to keep opening my eyes, keep exerting self-control, and keep trying to make their lives better in some small way.
I don’t want to just not hurt them; I want to help lift them and make their life better. I want to be a positive force as they move forward in life.
The truth is my wife Ann has saved my life. Again and again and again. I would not be who I am today without her. In fact, I would not have made it.
But it isn’t easy for her. I worry so deeply about the strain and toll this puts on her year after year.
And our children. Who wants to be a teenager trying to figure out life while not knowing who your dad will be from one day to the next? Other families take trips and go skiing and do spontaneous fun things. But not ours. Never ours. Who knows what form of Dad will appear at any given time? Pretty hard to make plans that way.
Now all of this might be a lot of foundation to lay to ask our question about the role of love in mental illness, but maybe this is where we start the conversation.
What is something that can really make a difference in our “mental illness problem?”
Certainly medication and therapy are critical. Healthy diet, good exercise, and enough sleep at night make all the difference in the world. I think everyone would agree here.
But what more? What can make the difference for the individual who is doing all he/she can to just make it through, to survive?
What is one thing that has the power to supersede and help to overcome the encompassing effects of someone with mental illness?
Sounds pretty simplistic. It probably is. But it is certainly NOT easy.
I think our family has discovered some things that have helped bring freedom and happiness, to all of us, while working through the mental illness.
For years I fought the notions and diagnoses that I had something seriously wrong in my head. But then, the day came when I couldn’t pretend anymore.
While helping Ann move a bookcase, I grabbed her and came very close to pushing her through the wall. I could see it in my head; I could see how to do it. Nothing else mattered but the rage and anger that sprang up from nowhere. I had no warning. I went from Dr. Jekyl to Mr. Hyde in a nanosecond. Then I had her by the arm and I could feel my muscles tensing and preparing.
I dropped her arm and backed away, not understanding the monster between us – because I wasn’t there but back a little and to the right, watching the whole scene.
In that moment I looked for and listened to the voice that is the “Real Greg”. I knew that something had to be done, and done quickly. It was not an option for me to ever hurt her.
It was time to try medication. I had fought this with all I had, because I was worried about the side effects and being numb to the wonderful feelings of being so alive that I enjoyed. But suddenly that didn’t matter anymore. If I needed to spend my life in a semi-comatose state from medication, then I would. The risk otherwise of hurting those I loved most was just too high.
The first medication was okay and helped with the homicidal tendencies, but I was kind of just that, in a comatose state. I could sleep all the time without really accomplishing anything. But I found a way to make it work with getting things done between naps. I reasoned that if this was the way it was to be, then I could and would do this for the next 40 years.
Ann and my psychiatrist had hope that we could do better. The next medication brought a constant trip through madness and the screaming inside became all I could hear. I couldn’t stay still and walked around while I ate.
Each day, several times, I would go out and pace back and forth on the sidewalk in front of our house with music in my ears and the sun on my face to try to combat what was going on inside. However, that even got out of control. Once when things got bad and I knew that I was not supposed to hit my head, I substituted smacking my knuckles together with every step. I ended up scaring our poor but very kind neighbor when she found me, hands bloody, tears falling to the ground, and me not sure who she was or where I was.
I knew that I could not make this medication work long term. It wasn’t good for anyone.
The next medication was certainly an improvement from the one before. In fact, I began making plans to go back to work and move forward. I started to imagine our life as it should have been all along. But after a month or so I got knocked back on the ground with the return of the quiet screaming, the confusion, and the desire to just close my eyes forever.
Okay, maybe I got ahead of myself with seeing a life of shooting back up the corporate ladder. The hope of just being “normal” is a pretty tempting carrot.
But, it was time to go back to the beginning and work on figuring out what I can and can’t do. That has been the hardest through all of this, trying to find a balance between what I want to accomplish and reality.
Accepting that there are some things I can’t do anymore is pretty difficult, but that acceptance brings with it a peace that had been missing before.
I really had to look deep within and find a way to make this work with what I could do.
I think the difference for us was, with all of these medications, my focus wasn’t on how I liked the side effects, or what I thought of how it was working for me, or really how it made me feel. My focus was what kind of a life would this make for Ann and our family? Could they bear it? Did it make things easier for them?
From my point of view, it is all about them.
And they, in turn, do their very best to look at things from my vantage point, through my eyes. They listen when I try to explain it. They understand as best as someone who doesn’t have a monster inside them can.
Ann will tell me that she can’t understand what it is like to feel as I do, but she understands that it is very real for me and she understands that I am fighting as hard as I can. She knows that I am doing my best, and I know that she knows. That is huge. She is grateful for what I do contribute to our family.
But most importantly, she is very honest with me about when I am getting out of control or when I need to change my behavior or when I need to just be quiet. I trust her when I’m not sure I can trust myself. Not just her, but our children too. They are now 19 and 21, so it is a natural transition into adulthood for all of us.
They understand that sometimes I need to be alone and it doesn’t mean I am mad at them. It doesn’t have anything to do with them.
They understand that sometimes I just need to be in the room with them but not really interact. This is when I am under control if I just stay quiet and still. This has actually been wonderful for me. I don’t have to perform as I think I should, or do anything other than just keep things under control inside.
I can just be.
Because at that moment that is the best I can do. But I am not off in a separate room. I am with them, we are together; I am NOT alone. I get to listen to and smile inside at their laughing and joking and I hear the conversations and I am still a part of things, in my own way.
And they are okay with that. They understand and they are okay with that.
That takes a lot of understanding on their part. And love. They love me for who I am and for who I am not. And knowing all that they still want me around.
I am needed even though I’m kind of broken. (Truthfully, I think everyone could apply that statement to themselves and it would fit).
Of course, there are the wonderful, wonderful times when I am pretty normal and we have a great time together, laughing, talking, working, playing. We get to be like other families even though we aren’t.
We have found our “normal” and we choose to make it work for us. It is what it is; let’s not spend time mourning what can’t be and instead find the joy in what is.
I honestly wonder if after all we’ve been through, would we really want to be like other families? We’ve become closer in ways that I don’t see happening in any other way. We communicate clearly with each other and we just genuinely love and like each other. We choose to be together.
And that, added to the medication, therapy, exercise, diet, and rest, makes this something that we have hope of overcoming, or perhaps more realistically, learning to live with and just keep moving forward together.
Knowing this is our life, the only one we have, we take each other by the hand, look first in each other’s eyes and commit our love forever and always, no matter what, and then turn together and face the future head on.
So, why share all of this with you? It’s not at all about giving you a peek into our life and the things that are difficult.
It’s all about giving you a peek into how good it really is.
What difference can love make with the “mental illness problem”?
I’m realistic enough to know that there isn’t a cure-all for everyone, but if what we have found to work for us could help save other families, then it is worth talking about.
What if each person who is struck with this mental illness bucket of crud, had someone for whom their love was greater than the weight of the illness? Someone they were willing to give everything for and work daily on the incredibly difficult, Herculean self-control required?
What if they, in turn, had someone who loved them no matter what? Someone who was not afraid to be truthful and honest with them? Someone who cared enough to say no when no is needed, and yes when yes is lifesaving?
What if the mentally ill person was, in fact, not alone in their lonely world of mental illness, and they knew it, really knew it deep down inside?
Could this be an important step in moving forward together in beating back the monster that is mental illness?
It’s a choice worth considering.