I couldn’t tell you why, but a recurring image throughout all my dealings with mental illness has been that of a coat hanger. A plain white wire coat hanger. Seemingly thin and frail, yet strong. Which about sums up my whole fight with mental illness. I’ve had moments where I wanted to break, and still have those moments, but unbelievably I’ve stayed strong.
I don’t know how, but I have.
I was born breeched, meaning feet first. Maybe there was some sort of lack of oxygen or some other slight trauma involved. I’ll never know. But whatever it was was enough to trigger the onset of mental illness that’s plagued me my whole life. And it has been my whole life. It’s only in hindsight that I realized it.
If, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, then take a gander at this one:….
Grumpy gus indeed. I was three or four when this picture was taken, and I cannot remember why I was so upset. Then again, I don’t need to. It indicates to me I was troubled long before I knew what sort of trouble I was in.
One of my most favorite poems ever is Jane Kenyon’s “Having It Out With Melancholy.” She put the proverbial finger on it when she described how as a child everything, even the baubles on her crib, made her sad. That’s how it was for me, too. Everything and anything made me sad, in some inexplicable way. In retrospect, I was a highly sensitive child.
In keeping with the highly sensitive thing, I was incredibly emotional, throwing temper tantrums, having crying jags, shrieking happily, or giving silent treatments for no reason at all. Sometimes I could be incredibly hyper and always on the go. Sometimes I could be incredibly subdued and immobile, and not want to do anything at all. And that sometimes all changed in the blink of an eye.
But that wasn’t all.
I was always a little accident-prone….okay, a lot accident-prone. I fell down the stairs at least once a week; I might be exaggerating but then so are my parents. I fell off playground equipment. I ran eye-first into doorframes at home. I would constantly trip and skin my knees and elbows, so much so that I’m surprised I don’t have permanent scarring. I even fell out of the top bunk bed. Twice. My parents never once hit me – I did it all myself. (For the record, my parents never hit any of us kids.) In later years, during a temper tantrum, I fell and cracked my head open. Later still, I put my hand through a window (on ‘accident’) and cut my wrist.
Even as a four year old, I knew there was something off about me. Deep down, I’ve always felt as though I wasn’t truly worth it. Deep down, I knew I’d never really fit in. Deep down, I knew it wasn’t normal to hurt oneself so much, or to wish to be dead. My suicidal ideation at five years old was to throw myself down the stairs, graceful (or ungraceful) as Scarlett. Sounds unbelievable, seems extreme, but it’s the absolute truth.
The ups and downs continued, compounded by several relocations, the nominally normal dysfunctional family unit, and the typical schoolyard bullying that was anything but typical.
Can I just digress here for a moment, to say something about labels? Because you can’t possibly wrap anything up all nice and pretty with a label. Labels do not become a person’s troubles or illness. You cannot possibly label something, because once you do, everyone assumes it’s the same for everyone who experiences it. It’s not the same. It’s different for everyone who experiences it. Depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, OCD, alcoholism, et cetera – all labels, all different experiences for those who experience it.
Okay. Digression over. Make of that what you will.
One day in sixth grade, when the bullying was in its heyday, we learned all about depression as a part of the school’s ‘Just Say No’ drug prevention week. Mrs. Van Nelson, the guidance counselor, was talking to the class about depression, and was stumbling over her words, trying to find the right way to describe it to a bunch of 12-year-olds.
I recognized all the symptoms she had listed off, and was staring at the ground, lost in an epiphany.
Mrs. Van Nelson continued to bumble. “It’s like….it’s like….”
I piped up, right out loud, in a flat voice: “It’s like a deep dark hole.” ‘That you cannot get out of’ went unspoken, and I did think that.
“Yes, that’s it, exactly!” she replied, happy. Oblivious.
All the popular kids turned and stared at me. I saw them out of my peripheral vision, but I did not look at them, nor did I look up at all.
At twelve years old, I knew what my problem was: I had depression. All those worthless thoughts and feelings and wishes to die – it was depression.
It took five years before the rest of the world caught on.
The October of my junior year of high school was one of the worst months of my life, compounded by three tremendous losses in my life. (All stories for another time.) That set me off on a downward spiral that lasted until mid-January.
On January 15th, ten days after I turned seventeen, I attempted to end my life.
Like I posted previously, at the time, I knew I was more out of it than I’d ever been – I’d made a note of such just two days prior in my journal. It scared me, immensely. And it wasn’t that I didn’t have enough of anything – at the time, it was because I had too much. I was coming off a probable manic episode which was brought about due to an ‘A’ I received on my creative writing final. I had never felt more possible, more hope, more on top of the world. As the saying goes, too much of something is never a good thing. The very next morning, I woke up and knew that I had to kill myself. Simple as that.
That was my lowest point ever. And I honestly don’t remember the moment I did it. One minute, I was upstairs in the bathroom, taking two pills for my headache, and then suddenly I was staring at an empty bottle which had been half-full a moment ago. I went to school as if nothing was wrong, but I got really sick at school, and only then did I confess my sin to the school nurse.
I went through a rigmarole of counseling and therapy for several years, ending up being professionally diagnosed with depression at seventeen, then bipolar disorder at nineteen, and recently with anxiety issues and social phobia. I went through several medication combinations before being prescribed the combination of the plain and the able. All at once, it was a relief and a burden. It was a relief, because I did and am finally getting the help I needed; it was a burden, because I still don’t quite know what to do with myself. I will probably always be such a child at heart in many respects, no matter how old I live to be. Most likely, I will be on medication for the rest of my life as well.
It took a long time to get to where I am today, but I’m at a point where life is entirely tolerable, and I have a lot to be thankful for and happy to live for.
I would say it was as if a weight had been lifted from my shoulders, but that’s so cliched, even if it is true.
No, the way I see it is, it was more like I’d been heavily soaking wet, and then I was wrung out completely, and then left on a coat hanger to dry.
I’m still drying.