What Mental Illness Looks Like to Me: One of These Things…

One of These Things 2.jpg

You know the little Sesame Street diddy:
“One of these things is not like the other
One of these things just doesn’t belong
Can you tell me which things is not like the other
By the time I’m finished my song?”

Life is both blurry and vivid. Sometimes it’s too vivid: colours scream at you, feel too hot or cold, and sometimes break apart and form into new weird colours you believe you’ve never seen before. And yet it’s all quite surreal. What happened? Where did your life go? How did it all come crashing down? Something interrupted? But what?

Everything was standing up well — if not a little precariously — and yes, the colour was beautiful. But suddenly something happened, something different, something unexpected, perhaps tragic, and the next thing you know life has crashed down to the floor. Who did that? Who put that there? Who pushed you over? Did you do it to yourself?

My crayons have been following me around in this little photo challenge: “What Does Mental Illness Look Like to Me?”. They aren’t professional props, but they sure do make for some childlike fun.

For me, I rely on steady patterns and routine to cope in life. The funny thing is, if I have my basic structure in place I’ll find strange wells of whimsy and daring inside and fly off to Romania or the Philippines or England or Vancouver’s DTES. I’ll jump into a grad degree and power through insane work and school schedules. I’ll punish myself in a post-grad writing course, shovelling out 10 pages/week for 30 weeks all to create a first-draft manuscript.

But those adventures rely on me being able to see what’s coming, or… what I think I see what’s coming. Often I don’t know what questions to ask (or to ask any questions at all) and I’ll find myself in over my head sinking instead of swimming, sometimes in a foreign country. But looking back, those times have been some of the most fabulous learning seasons in my life.

So when I talk about something invasive standing in place of routine and suddenly seeing myself fall over, I’m not really talking about my penchant for adventure. I’m talking about: death, separation, boredom, displacement, neglect. These are some of life’s unplanned-but-certain things that happen to all of us in one way or another. We’ll all respond to them differently. But people with various forms of chronic mental illness (or those who suddenly experience an acute episode of anxiety or depression brought on by these Uncomfortable Companions) know that walking with these Companions will mean a severe interruption of sleep, bouts of eating non-stop or eating nothing at all, panic attacks, or hours on lying on the couch without any sense of time or care. Sometimes the days are sunny and we have a bit of energy, but suddenly we’re crying again in the middle of the work day and nothing immediate seems to have triggered the episode.

There are other Uncomfortable Companions, too. The scary thing is I can’t name them because they are more like shadows than colours. The crying starts or the long hours of lethargy or insomnia begin; the racing thoughts are present without any discernible cause; snippets of songs play over and over and over and over and OVER in our heads and refuse to stop; we go about our routines day in and day out thinking things are swell, but something’s… not like the other.

Our days aren’t matching what they were 2 weeks ago or 2 months ago. Something has invaded, but we can’t see or realize that we’re being shoved over. Sometimes it even takes a crazy amount of time (pardon the term) before we even realize that we’re face-flat on the floor. It’s the world that’s out of whack, not us. Not me, surely!

Oh surely.

The narrative from the photograph now is: “What happens next in the sequence?”

  • Does the fallen crayon get back up?
  • Does a new colour begin a whole new row of colours? An entire palette of colours?
  • Does the crayon stay down?
  • Does the green crayon go away?
  • Does the red crayon pull the green crayon down?
  • Does the red crayon try and get up and gets broken in the process?
  • Do the red crayons overpower the green crayon and start a rumble?
  • Do metaphors of red and crayons haunt your dreams? (Hehe…)

Mental illness could bring about any one of those outcomes, or all of them smashed together. I can’t tell you the ending. Even for me, I can’t tell myself the ending. It’s often a mystery. We might be able to detect patterns in our depressions or anxieties as they run their courses, but let’s face it: we’re not prognosticators. There are too many other factors that contribute to that green crayon’s presence and the one poor red crayon down on the floor to say: “And now A, B, and C will happen.”

My reaction is to try and remove the invading body. But I can’t change the past. And while I might have some power over the present, I have no power over certain forms of presence. If a loved one dies, I cannot un-change it. Death is imminent and coldly close. If my brain’s neurotransmitters go wonky, I can’t go inside and fill the tanks to perfect balance again. As badly as I want to undo what’s been done, even if I can’t see what really’s causing the darkness or inviting the Uncomfortable Companions, I cannot. I am powerless.

Here’s what Facebook memes won’t tell you: it’s a powerful thing to fall down, even if you’ve fallen down a million times before. You may have fallen because you finally decided to not “be strong” anymore (how I hate that term in this context!), or you may have been shoved head over heels to the ground, but you’re down.

And that’s as a good a place as any, even as it’s exhausting, lonely, cold and terrifying.

No flattery about how being down is okay as long as you get back up again… no sugar about how it’s a sign about you being strong for too long (it might be the case, but not necessarily)… no butterflies, rainbows or sunsets.

There is beauty in the brokenness and the down-ness. Truly. There is. Full stop. The end.

There’s even an unjust beauty in the things that push us down. Our anger, frustration, pain and suffering directed towards our Uncomfortable Companions prevent us from seeing the beauty, and rightly so. But understand, too, that there’s a beauty in being so thoroughly beaten and wounded.

I don’t believe we’re created to suffer as we do just for the beauty of it. That would be sadistic. But I do believe we’re given off-kilter messages of false optimism when we’re down. These messages keep us from seeing what’s all around us in the moment — the good, the bad and the ugly.

The end of the story is unknown to us. The pain is present and real; the presence of an Uncomfortable Companion is evident (the green crayon). For now, that’s all we need to know. And that’s all others need to know.

Do you know the thing that’s invaded your world? Even if that lineup was made up of all different colours, a crayon could still easily fall down unable to finish the story.

Are you perhaps unaware of what’s brought you down?

That’s okay.

In this moment, in this scene, it’s okay.

And it’s okay to know that the outcome – the denouement as it were – is not a pre-written script. You’re down. I’m down. We’re down. Recognizing the reality of the picture and affirming how we perceive it is better therapy than trying to stand up again when we’re not yet ready.

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