Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Mental Illness

image by Chris Koehler

What is obvious is the flaw. The awful, gaping void in the fabric of wholeness we want so badly to claim, to keep, to show. Then, the flaw made worse: denial. Frantic attempts at mirage, magician-ship, transformation, and then cluelessness turned into it's own void- pretending no knowledge of the truth, turning the pretender into a vapid phantom person, a Harry Potter shape shifter who becomes so lost in the change, they can never return to the original body.

I don't want to disappear. A typically female manuever historically, and most definitely in my family history, a long, long chain of women pretending they do not see and cannot name what is in front of them, vanishing from our family photos and collective memories because their denial made necessary an inhuman emotional repression that leads to deadness in all facets. The mind remembers to forget, but forgets what it is supposed to be blanking, and so in default: Delete All Slowly the spark skuttles to the clean kitchen floor, emotional intimacy restrained and gagged, sexuality feared, creativity stifled and guided toward safe hobby. Then standing in the clean, organized home, harried and angry faced, seen primarily as humorless, angry and strangely irritable, she realizes she has saved nothing, and all she has hidden has let a smell so strange and sour no guest can enter her home without wrinkling their face and wondering at the shy shirking they feel in their gut.

Mental illness runs rampant in my family. Is running. Rampant. All sides. Including in myself.

I had not thought of mental illness as a stigma because I had been thrust into the subculture of Alcoholics Anonymous at 17. Engulfed in the flames of my childhood, still burning strong, my mother forced me into AA as a last ditch effort to save me. She forced me to the meetings, both driving me and picking me up, waiting outside to ensure I actually went, I actually sat, I had to hear. I hated her for it, I said, and I lied. I loved her for it. I knew it meant she loved me and I was secretly ( not to anyone who could see adolescents clearly ) desperate for salvation of some kind. So I went, and I got sober, and remained so until the age of 30, when I quit smoking and started drinking. * This is 14 years of AA, 14 years of the stories of drunks and druggies twice my age, three times my age, stories so raw, so honest, so absolutely in the dregs of despair and soul mutilation that my family history and life became something as easy for me to talk about, to share about, as what kind of coffee we liked in the mornings.

Enter adulthood minus AA:

ME ' Hi Svetlana, it's cool to see you again, how are ya? '

S ' Okay, Okay, you know work is suck right now, but cool. My boyfriend and I went to Long Beach
over the weekend and we met the bassist from Journey! Isn't that cool? What's up with you? '

ME ' Well my Grandpa- I think I mentioned him, you know the paranoid schizophrenic, he totally
lost it at the ice cream shop and was like, freaking screaming at the ice cream lady because she couldn't understand what he was asking for when he was saying 'cokecola' and he was all, YOU KNOW WHAT THE HELL COCOLA IS LADY YOU ARE JUST HIRED BY THE GOVERNMENT' and she's all ' No I was hired by the Friedman's' and I was like, Oh my God! And then my Dad who I don't talk to anymore because he was really abusive to me, he called and left me this message and I'm trying to figure out how he got my number.... '

S ' ...... '

ME ' Uh .... so how was Long Beach? '

This is actually how I talked to people. I . know.

So I slowly learned not to assault and terrify everyone I met by instantly being honest about every question or remark and relearning - OK learning- social mores. While learning how to Win Friends and Impress People, I also became electrically aware of my reality: I had a family packed with mental illness, and, people are terrified and ashamed of mental illness. They don't want you talk about it. At all. Ever. Not even when they love you. Not even when it's you who are sick. Not even- MORESO when- it's them who are sick. And not even when it's them who have mental illness in their family, oh especially not then. Isn't, you can feel them pleading in the subtext, anything else at all we can talk about right now? Underwater basket weaving? Chris Brown's bowtie? Lady Ga-Ga: Hot or Not? The religous right? How do they get those ships in those bottles anyway?

And so I am quiet. And it's killing me. I need someone to talk to. So raise your hand, bloggers, if you feel me. Talk to me so I can talk to you. Help me out here. Email me if you like:

You want a subject list? I'll give you a rundown of my close and personal contact with mental illness:

Bipolar 1, Bipolar 11, Major clinical depression, schizophrenia on both sides of my family, Anxiety disorder and OCD are just a few of the pretties that color out of the lines of my family history. These things have affected me since I was born and continue to affect me and my daily life. ( I personally have anxiety disorder now, and in my late teens and early twenties had clinical depression )Not only that, but as all of you know with family history and children comes the great worry.

And so it goes.

* AA does not believe you are EVER 'safe' from alcoholism rearing it's head. They don't endorse going to
meetings for any length of time and then stopping. They view it as a life long commitment. I viewed it, to be brief, like this: I got sober very, very young, and my short bout with heavy drinking was the result of an abusive childhood, which I dealt with over years and years of therapy, medication, AA and lifestyle changes, so I felt I could move on.

Mwa said...

This is the reason I got into blogging, and yet I don't yet quite know how to go there on my own blog. Reading your post heals me a little, though.

I will talk to you about it. I wish we lived closer so we could talk up close. I know about the conversations about nothing, but the only people who ever end up true friends are the ones who are not too scared to talk about mental illness.

Myself? Anxiety, OCD, depression, struggles with alcohol. Family? All of the above, abuse, eating disorders, raging alcoholism resulting in death, destruction of families, you name it. Probably a whole other list of stuff, it just never gets talked about.

jb said...

Maggie I have something for you on my blog. Have a wonderful day and take good care.


Beth said...

Timely and helpful post – for me. We are currently (recently) dealing with both the issues of possible alcoholism and some sort of mental illness (diagnosis?) in my extended family. Amazing and frightening how quickly the effects and the anguish spread to so many lives.

Anonymous said...

You are a lovely person maggie. I'll email you. All of those "disorders" are related, different manifestations of the same issues. Sometimes anxiety and depression are residual from abuse and "second generation" factors, ie- you watch it and don't know any other way. Perfect description of the process.

Ms. Moon said...

Maggie. You are the goddess of the church of the batshit crazy. Come sit by me. I saved you a seat. Here's the hymn we'll be singing- Thunder Road. Here's the sermon topic- My mind, my mind, why hast thou forsaken me? Here's the prayer- Let me keep going. Let me seek the clear sky where all prayers rise up.
You sure look pretty. Is that a new hat?
Here- hold my hand. We will both feel stronger for that.

Anonymous said...

That's quite a touchy, but interesting post. I have contact with mental illness on a daily basis, so I don't really see it as anything out of the norm at all, just a part of daily life!

Both of my parents have Bipolar, and my stepfather also has Schizophrenia and is an alcoholic. I myself have an anxiety disorder and my boyfriend and his mother have OCD. So to me mental illness is a part of life, and it doesn't phase me one bit.

Petit fleur said...

I'm sorry you are having a hard time. (I know that is probably an understatement)

I have recently learned that Post traumatic stress is also a result of growing up with trauma and abuse. The idea that certain situations "trigger" anxiety and over the top feelings/behaviors has really helped me. Because I would have such strong reactions to certain mundane types of things and not know why. As in sometimes they'd ruin my whole day!

If you haven't already, do some reading about PTSD, because it may be an underlying issue. I will email you.
Big hugs,

Katrine K said...

You really moved me here, thanks for sharing all this, yes I feel you.

adrienne said...

'Then standing in the clean, organized home, harried and angry faced, seen primarily as humorless, angry and strangely irritable, she realizes she has saved nothing, and all she has hidden has let a smell so strange and sour no guest can enter her home without wrinkling their face and wondering at the shy shirking they feel in their gut.'

yes, maggie. this is me, this is my home.

i adore your honesty, your cloudy clarity.

thank you.

Lora said...

I feel you. I had a giant long email drafted to you over the weekend, thanking you for being open about this stuff on your blog. In your life. With yourself.

then I didn't send it because I felt weird. Why, I don't know. I should have just hit send.

I'm horrible at talking about what is really plaguing me. You seem to be doing a lot of it for me, and it feels good to not feel alone.

So thank you.

Evangeline said...

*raises hand* I need to talk, and I need to hear...that's why I am here. Where to start? On my side of the family depression, OCD, anxiety, raging alcoholism, suicide, abuse etc. On my husband's bipolar, alcoholism, OCD etc.

My own sweet boys have a long list of letters tacked to their files already (at 9 years old)...AS, GAD, OCD, ADHD. I struggle with anxiety, among other things...have been struggling this summer, just blogged about it actually, because I too need to draw poison by sharing.

Take care Maggie, and thank you for helps and it heals. The more people who stand up and claim truth, the better for us all.

jennifer said...

the realization that my brother and I were raised by a mother with NPD (narcissistic personality disorder) has enlightened my adulthood and helped tremendously in raising my own children. The information has shone a light on all the dark scary little corners and allowed us to heal with compassion. To anyone dealing with a person with NPD, you ARE good enough!

Sarcastic Bastard said...

I have OCD, am clinically depressed, have a long string of alcoholics in my family, and have also had anxiety issues and insomnia.

I mostly feel fortunate though, because it could have been so much worse.

E-mail me anytime. I don't beat around the bush either, as I'm sure you discovered when you so kindly visited my blog.

Sending love,


Trish said...

Gawd you leave me speechless but I feel you. Your raw, urgent, honesty blows me away. Maybe??... mental illness is a good thing in that it allows your brilliant brilliant brilliance to come spilling out.

julochka said...

i love your brutal honesty. posting this feels to me like a huge step in confronting and admitting and well, living with it all. but the thing is, we've all got mental cases in our families (most undiagnosed, i realize) and everyone avoids talking about it. so it's so refreshing to read this and relate, even no one dragged me to AA (maybe they should have at one point) rock, maggie may. you really do.

Up Mama's Wall said...

I love this post--you are so funny and honest. And, oh, the world, it is so crazy and terrifying. are there really people who have no contact with mental illness? Really?

Elizabeth said...

I have a younger sister who has suffered from serious depression, was hospitalized three times and went through electroshock therapy that basically erased her short-term memory for a couple of years and didn't help the depression. She is doing better, now, but I just want to offer myself as someone to talk to who knows, in a small way, what all that's like. And maybe because I don't suffer from depression -- anyway, you can call me anytime. I think we might live in the same part of the country and could perhaps meet somewhere! Email me at, if you want.
Love to you, love, love, love.

SJ said...

I'd be glad to talk to you, anytime girl. I've got the anxiety stuff, the depression stuff, the stuff I can't really figure out. One of my families has, um, melancholic tendencies to say the least and they are one sad bunch. My stepfamily is just good old fashioned crazy. Anyway...not much phases me.

Maggie May said...

If I wasn't so hard core I'd be tearing up right now. So I'm totally tearing up. I really really needed to get responses to this, to be heard and understood. I'm going through a very hard time in my family life right now and being able to share here and get this kind of supportive response means the world to me. Thank you thank you. It is twilight here, I'm drinking a glass of white wine, trying to move toward working in the yard a bit and I feel my chest is lighter because I was able to read all this. I look forward to talking with you all.

Lola said...

Well, we've got our raging alcoholics, manic depressives, drug addicts and a couple bipolars all through our bloodlines. I'm not sure anyone who is really honest can't find such issues in their family.

Me? A shot of OCD, with an anxiety chaser can get the better of me sometimes if I'm not paying attention. Hell, I probably was an alcoholic and a drug addict for many years of my life, but that was before I really had much to lose. Then, I got addicted to working out and obsessed about everything I ate or drank.

These days, in my forties, a little red wine, a little weed and a lot of exercise keep me on the rails most of the time.

Hang in there, girl!

Petunia Face said...

Generalized anxiety, hypochondria (not a joke), panic--me.

Anxiety, panic attacks, slight agoraphobia--mother.

Depression, alcoholism--father.

Everyone on my mother's side--a thousand degrees of anxiety.

Everyone on my father's side--alcoholics, sometimes drug addicts, depressives.

Yay genes!
Hugs to you, partly because I could use the hug myself. :)

Laoch of Chicago said...

My mother was mentally ill (and a psychologist ironically) and I saw the pain it brought her and everyone around her. Reaching out is an intelligent course of action I think. Good wishes to you.

Tiffany said...

When life with mental illness screams so loudly in my ears that I have no choice but to crouch in some god awful lonely corner somewhere, I try to remember that the most beautiful and brilliant people in the world were also mentally ill and that I am in good company, as bent or broken as it might be. Somehow it helps to calm me...
Thanks for , as

Zip n Tizzy said...

I hear you, and think you are amazingly eloquent in the way you express it.

I know all too well what a heavy burden silence is to carry, but it can be really hard to find ones voice.

anna said...

Have you heard of the song Stone Cold Sober by Paloma Faith? It reminds me of people like you(and me)who face all the crap head on and allow ourselves to feel the pain. There is such strength in your vulnerability and your raw honesty and I admire you for reaching out. Building communties both virtual and physical is crucial for our individual and collective healing. I will email you as well. stand strong in the knowledge there are many hands supporting you maggie

Woman in a Window said...

Maggie, my hand is up. Speak it.

I feel you like a sister shadow over my shoulder. I have to say I've never had depression nor have I had any identifiable medical issue related to mental issues, but still, when you breathe I feel you on the soft of my ear, just that far away from me, rather close.

You are brave and wild and beautiful. The world should thank you for that.

Robin said...

hi maggie... i recently started going to therapy because i was upset by a few things about myself. after several visits i just in passing mentioned to my therapist something about a time where my father had abused me and she slapped her notes on the floor and said 'what?' i never talk about it... to anyone. not even till the fourth or so visit to my therapist did i even mention it to her. that's how far separated i have tried to force myself from it all. she is making me relive everything in telling my story and i literally didn't know if i would survive my first week alive with my secrets being out there. so i guess i am quite the opposite of you in that regard... we all need to find our happy medium, but most importantly.... just find the happy. i posted a small blurb about it on my blog (tiny) and it caused me so much anxiety to have it out there.... (as it does to even leave this comment for you) but i forced myself to leave it up and feel exposed. i guess it's all about baby steps. we all survive in our own way. and you seem to be surviving beautifully. i am in no position to help anyone, i just wanted you to know you are not alone and you are dearly admired.

mel carroll said...

We're all a little crazy aren't we? I always figured if I was sane enough to worry about going crazy then I was still OK, and when I no longer care, I must be there. Catch 22 of sorts.
Life is hard for the deep thinkers and feelers, especially when childhood is filled with craziness, with or without labels. We have them in my family, alcoholism, drug abuse, OCD, ADD, dementia, agoraphobia, depression, anger management issues and manic swings, even pure, benign madness -none diagnosed as we are a stubborn and resilient clan. Hang in there, keep fighting the good fight, keep writing! Annie Dillard wrote a piece called Write Till You Drop, and my favorite sentence is You were made and set here to give voice to your own astonishment. Yes, indeed.

hayley said...

maggie, i'm on the other side of the spectrum - nothing exactly diagnosed, no addictions to speak of. but having been in therapy for 12 years -i not only have plenty of my own stuff, but i've become a pretty damn good listener. would love to listen if you need an ear. xo hk

Madge said...

I hate when I'm feeling good and confident because I'm pretty sure I'm on the verge of losing it. Not diagnosed with anything other than situational depression (or something like tha) and anxiety. I'm back in the anxiety right now. Throat and chest tight. All the time. Hiding it from my family because they don't get it. Ever. Stopped telling my husband about depression and anxiety about two years into the marriage (we are on year 17) cuz he doesn't get it.

yeah, i hear you. loud and clear. all i got is that there are a lot of us out here and we'll listen....

Phoenix said...

consider my hand raised in a blog land of people who use their blogs as gossip, fodder, criticism and a chance to give and get Stuff.

Your honesty is beautiful. Keep doing what you do, and I'll keep reading, I promise.

I too abbreviate what's going on in my life, coming from a background similar to yours... when people ask what's new with me, they don't REALLY want to know...except my best buds, and those peeps get EVERYTHING.

Find someone to talk to. Counselor, friend, normal family member, whatever.

Don't keep it all inside.

Steph said...

"harried and angry faced, seen primarily as humorless, angry and strangely irritable..."

You just wrote me a mirror.

Elizabeth said...

I'm so sorry you are in pain, and so glad that you are strong enough to see your way through it. I remember my sister (alcohol, drugs, very early) telling my mom that all she wanted was for more rules to be more enforced. Sounds like your mom was a pain in the rear and also a bit of a hero in your adolescence.

krista said...

maggie maggie maggie.
i'm standing here, hands raised, forward in supplication. oh, man.
i can't claim specific mental illness. i know i have anxiety and that, at time, it is crippling. it usually manifests in overeating and not leaving the house. i mean, literally, being unable to go outside without feeling like i'm going to die.
i remember when i moved to maui after college. i had two weeks to myself before my friend joined me and i spent the majority in my apartment. ON AN ISLAND SURROUNDED BY THE MOST HEALING WATER IN THE WORLD. i sat in my apartment and forced myself one afternoon to go to the drugstore and buy toilet paper just to prove that i wasn't too scared to do it. i practically had a panic attack in the store and rushed back home into the safety of my apartment and didn't leave again for three more days.
you can always always talk to me. just so ya know.

Captain Dumbass said...

I've had this open since yesterday, just sitting at the bottom of my screen waiting for me to write something.

And now I've been sitting here for five minutes trying to come up with the right words...

Kirie said...

Maggie, you explained perfectly the tension between the surface talk and all the crap that roils beneath it. How I struggle to hold the dividing line taut myself sometimes...

So much that could be said isn't. Some days, I have a hard time figuring out which me is the real one--the faker with the easy small talk, or the one sublimating all the other anxious feelings.

I would love to talk someday.

just making my way said...

Do I know what you are feeling? Not exactly. I don't have the things in my life that you have dealt with, that is true. But I also know there are dark places in me that come out sometimes.

I have admired your strength and honesty so much over the time reading your blog - I wish there was a way to help in more than just words. I can only hope the words help in some small way.

Annie K said...

Dear Maggie,

I can't say that it will get better. I only know that it got better for me, once I started to deal with my childhood abuse, and I know you've done that work, and you continue to do that work, and I believe and know you are a survivor, and you can survive this, too.

I'm the lucky one in my family. Of five siblings, I am the only one who has never struggled with alcohol, and my husband and I have chosen not to drink at all, because we've seen what alcohol has done to our childhood families. I can't take credit for that- it's simply my biology.

I believe you will get to a better place. I'm sure you feel windows of peace already. About mental illness, I am not an expert, but I've read somewhere and it makes sense to me, that the hopelessly mentally ill aren't able to identify there is a problem. I believe you are going to be okay, and you are right, the worst thing to do is to "sweep things under the rug."

Keep doing everything you can to be kind to yourself, and forgive yourself any mistakes. My husband once got some words of advice that he passed on to me: What is it you can do right now, to make yourself feel better? Often, it's the little things, like sitting outside and feeling a breeze, or drinking a cup of tea.

You are real, Maggie. You are an anchor for yourself and your family. And you are one of the most talented and authentic writers I have ever read. You are too strong and brave to disappear. And yes, it's good to talk about your problems and your feelings and never to ignore what must be addressed, and sometimes it's just as healing to take a rest, and renew.

Hugs and love...

Darcy said...

my dad and stepmom are both recovering alcoholics, 20 years deep. starting in my teen years, i got to sit in on those rooms. aahmazing heart-breaking stories and my fathers voice 'watch out for your own alcoholism' my whole life. what an interesting world to have lived in...and come out of...richer for sure.

Shana said...

You are so self-aware and process things so beautifully. I hope you can see that about yourself.

I can't give you a laundry list of my family's *issues* because the first and foremost rule of my childhood/adulthood/reality was PRETEND NOTHING IS WRONG.

Something Happened Somewhere Turning said...

I hope this finds you well.
Reading this post the other day had me thinking of many things that have happened in my life. I know a little about alcoholism, having had a an alcoholic father. I know little about depression, having suffered from it for many years. I know about child abuse and rape, having been a victim. I can be a control freak, I have OCD and I have been self-destructive. I still wake up in the middle of the night from time to time, remembering some of the things that have happened to me. Waking to horrible memories after 35 years can be painful, but I've managed to survive.
I think you are a survivor, Maggie. I would be happy to share and/or listen. Maybe for now your best medicine is your pen?

Be well...

Cat said...

After reading this post, I let out a breath I wasn't aware I was holding in, my shoulders relaxed, and I smiled, truly smiled, for the first time in as long as I can remember.

Not to be completely morbid in a 'misery loves company' sort of way, but it really is a relief to know that I'm not alone, and that people do understand what it's like in my shoes.

My family history is dotted with signs of mental illness, some more apparent than others, but without the ability to talk openly and honestly with anyone in my family, I'm still essentially in the dark as to where my own illness has come from and how I can cope with it. My partner's family has no recent history of mental illness, and as such I find myself completely unable to express to him what I'm going through.

It's lonely, but I take solace in knowing that I'm not alone.

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