I suppose I have been dealing with mental illness in some form for the entirety of my life. I have been climbing the cliff for a long time. The path set before me has been challenging, to say the least. As a child, I was shy and quiet. I rarely smiled in public. Memories change and twist as years press on, but looking back I wonder if I had the energy to smile. Possibly I hid my battle deep inside, away from the eyes of those looking on. I had a happy childhood, no complaints and no regrets. I had no reason to frown, yet my face was frozen. Leading up to my first bout with depression, I cried myself to sleep every night. I didn’t recognize what I was up against.
I was usually a happy kid, though I was often sad and angry. My little sister, Jessica, had a bedroom next to mine. We fought a lot. After an evening fight, we would wake up the next day and forget the reason for our discord. The point was moot. We share a deep connection, and love each other unconditionally. She would come to my door at night, hearing me weep. She was concerned for me, as always. I turned her away, even though she only meant to help. I wanted to be alone in my grief over intangible issues. Years flew by like butterflies drifting in the wind, fighting for their lives. What happened? Who was I? Who am I now?
I am curious about how different my life may have been if only I were not born this way. When I ponder this topic, I realize that I was born this way for a reason. Without my experience, I could not help others. If there were a cure, I would not entertain the idea. My mental illness is not who I am, but it is certainly part of my identity.
I think about that shy and quiet little girl. She was sad. She was anxious. She was young. She was brave. I am no longer shy or quiet. I over-share. I ramble. I repeat myself more than often. That little girl travels within my heart and I will always protect her. I hope she would be proud of me now. I opened my mouth and let out her story. Now, I smile.
This is a day for pondering. What defines a human? The dictionary gives us no clues, and we are left with our own presumptions. Who is a person? What are we made of? Some would say we are made of 75% water. It cannot be purely physical. Is it the mask we wear in public that defines us; or is our foundation built around the person we become behind the scenes? Are we solely at the mercy of our parents’ example? Do we choose water over blood, or are we so strongly bonded to family that we are connected like roots to the people we were born to live, love, and tolerate?
Are we defined by our minds, our bodies, our spirits? Our actions and our reputations? Do we read nonfiction in order to learn, or are we entertaining ourselves in a form of denial called “fiction.” Do we learn what others force us to know, or do we learn because we are curious? Is it human nature to be curious? There are people who want to drown the world out in order to close the blinds on reality. No matter how dark our curtains can be, there are slivers of light reaching through to gather us and bring us to the sun, guiding us toward truth. What are we hiding from? Are we sexist? Are we racist? Are we judged by the color of our hair or the shade of our skin? I believe that life is better when you face it and stop burying yourself in the ideas of past and future. Some of us lead long healthy lives, while others strive to succeed and fail. All we have is now. This moment is real. This moment will pass. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We are not invincible, as we hold fast to this idea. We will not live forever. We only have now.
What defines a human? Love? Acts? Flaws? In truth, I do not know. I speculate that the answer is simple, though some people try too hard to understand. I believe that humans have the capacity to love and to forgive. We can learn to break away from hate. We can become whole by helping those less fortunate. Humans have the chance to do what is right, as well as what is wrong. That is our free will. Our words and actions speak volumes about us. We do not all follow the path of light. I believe this makes us human, and it is never too late to change, grow, and prosper.
My dad used to tell me to “Run like the wind!” He shouted that phrase during cross country races and during soccer games. He has always believed in me. So, I ran like the wind. Everywhere I went. Driving? Walking? No. Shoes or bare feet? Not even questionable. I hate wearing shoes. When I was younger, I climbed trees and ran through the woods pretending to be Pocahontas. A wild child, with a strong spirit and an active imagination.
Losing my capability to run was tragic, but it opened up doors I didn’t know existed. My creative mind took control. I acquired a few trophies for various events throughout my life. I kept only two. The first and last. While I am proud of landing my first-place trophy in a road race (my last race), I hold my very first trophy closer to my heart. When I was in the first grade, I won the first-place Young Georgia Authors Award. This trophy serves as a reminder of my beginning as a writer and illustrator. It expresses that every voice, especially the little ones carry weight.
The holidays are happy times for many people. However; they are also a terrible pain for others. Falling on hard times financially. Sickness. Loss of loved ones. It is one of the seasons that takes the most lives. Here is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, in case you or someone you love is even thinking about this idea. NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) has more information and aid. There is plenty of help when/if you need it.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – Call 800-273-TALK (8255) If you or someone you know is in crisis—whether they are considering suicide or not—please call the toll-free Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) to speak with a trained crisis counselor 24/7
The NAMI HelpLine can be reached Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. – 10 p.m., ET. 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) or email@example.com
In public, at events we are not able to make excuses well enough to skip (and spend much of the time in the bathroom in order to escape the crowd), we are often asked, “What do you do?” Are we defined by our careers or lack thereof? I know from experience how awkward it can be to end up on the downside of this floundering question. When I was unemployed for nightmarish reasons the public couldn’t dream of, I was embarrassed by this inquiry. I found it hard to hide, and even harder to come up with an answer on the spot. I did not realize at the time that I had nothing to be ashamed of. Once upon a time, I asked my dad how I could handle this question. He suggested telling others that I was a “Respirator.” Who would question that response even if they knew what it meant? Dad meant to employ me with a career as a “Breather.”
Breathing is a job in itself. Many people inhale and exhale on autopilot. It doesn’t come so easily for us all. When I forget to breathe during an episode of high stress, a panic attack ensues. Panic attacks are quite frequent in my life. It helps to be a “Respirator.”
I believe that everyone experiences some sort of pain in their lives. Some people suffer physical trauma, while others struggle on the inside. Often, this pain follows us for the rest of our lives. Sometimes we cannot escape. While I was in the many hospitals I inhabited in 2013, I refused to take my medication. This further encouraged my illness to take over my mind. When I refused the meds, I received painful shots in sensitive areas. Pain memories are a reality in my life. I can feel pain in those sensitive injection sites even today, eight years later. My body remembers, even when my mind is cloudy. Pain is not something easily forgotten. I am still healing from the abuse I dealt with as well. Not only do I experience this physical pain; I also remember the violation of being held down until I couldn’t breathe. Overweight, gleeful men pinned me down and forced me to receive these shots. I don’t feel all of this pain in the forefront of my mind at all times, but I cannot forget. Last night, I had this sensation. The physical pain brings forth the painful memories, so distanced from the present. Eight years may seem like many years to some people, but I can close my eyes and be there. When I walk through a hospital, I am triggered by the smell I am all too familiar with now. I cannot eat huge bowls of oatmeal with butter and brown sugar without remembering how close I came to starving to death. I can no longer drink apple juice without recalling the memories of my first depression. All of this is the pain of trauma I will never escape. But I move on, and the past grows smaller every day, as I let the light in.
The stigma attached to psychiatric disorders reminds me of other assumptions we make in our daily lives because we do not know or understand the truth. We believe the speculations passed down to us for generations. We are told that “Cops love coffee and donuts.” Who doesn’t? But what about the diabetic cops? Or the cops trying to avoid sugar for other reasons? The cops who direly need to stay away from caffeine for health concerns? There are always exceptions. The same goes for mental illness. Everyone struggles with the donuts they are dealt. Many people experience trauma that sticks with them throughout their whole lives. Some experience stomach aches full of dread for indiscernible reasons.
Mental illness comes in different forms, as various as donut flavors. My flavor is Schizoaffective Disorder. It is a combination of Schizophrenia and Bipolar I Disorder, a chocolate covered donut with cream filling. I would not change that part of my being, much like I would not change my donut preference. There is nothing wrong with that flavor or any other, just a difference in taste. Figuratively, this donut burden is something I carry with me every day.
I have accepted my truth, with the hope that others will no longer be afraid to step out of the shadows with their donuts. I find it more aesthetically pleasing to speak about mental illness in a soft, positive and metaphorical way. I often personify my mental illness and have named him “Berman.” Today, he represents donuts of every flavor. I no longer see my “differences” as a curse, but as a blessing. I strive to distance others from their “curse,” and to see the upside. Many people have mental illness. Many people have a favorite donut flavor, which describes their situation. What’s your flavor?
When I was little, my dream job was to be an author and illustrator. I wrote short stories as a kid, and published a few poems in high school. Now, I am a published author and illustrator and have accomplished my childhood aspirations. As an adolescent I was shy, sensitive, quiet, and mostly private with my emotions. Behind closed doors I was often irritable, angry and depressed, until it was time to sleep and the tears rolled down my face. I rarely smiled in public, but my family saw me for who I truly was and I am so grateful for each member. I lived and laughed and adventured. I didn’t know why I was crying, or where the stomach aches and dread came from. I was more often a happy kid with amazing parents and wonderful sisters who always had my back. So where did these tears originate?
I suppose that because I speak freely; I jump from one thought train to the next; and I never run out of words; I am able to write down the details that form instantly with the tap of my fingers on the keys. I used to write it all down on college ruled paper, not the typed words readily produced by a computer and printer. There was not a computer at my disposal. Write it down. That is what I used to do. Then there was the typewriter. The unpublished children’s books I wrote and illustrated as a child were pieced together and illustrated with my sister’s help. I would write it all down, page by page as the ideas flowed effortlessly from my mind onto the paper. My little sister, Kimberly, would sit with me in my room and we would read the stories I wrote. She has always been thoughtful, generous and kind. She has one of the most active, vivid imaginations I have seen in my life. She helped with creative suggestions for the illustrations. Kimberly became a reader, writer, artist, and high school English teacher when she grew up. I was not surprised. I suspect she is correcting my grammar and punctuation right now.
Writing and illustrating have always been so important to me. Art is my world. It is easier to understand a puzzle or stumbling block when I create. Most of the time I don’t know what I am feeling until I read it in my own handwriting. Whatever I have going on inside sprouts up and grows on a page in prose. It is therapeutic. Writing those stories helped strengthen the bond between me and my sister, and ultimately became a huge part of who I am today.
Thank you, Kimberly. I am forever grateful for the part you have played in my life.
I hope that reading my words is helpful to others. Writing it all down is the best advice I can offer. I have changed so much since that day in elementary school when I dressed up as an author and illustrator for “Career Day.” I am no longer the shy, quiet wallflower of my past. Now I speak every thought as it appears in my mind. Writing it all down helps me focus on what I really want to say. I no longer use my typewriter and have upgraded to a laptop, but my message is the same. Love your sisters unconditionally; don’t take anyone or anything for granted; never forget who you were, are, and will be. Write it down, and remember.
When I was a small child, I had a vivid imagination and the tools to play alone. I have an excellent long-term memory, though my short-term is struggling. I loved to play outside, camp, hike and participate in other family activities, but even as a kid I needed my space. Whenever I felt overwhelmed, stressed, or wanted to be alone, I built a space for myself to feel comfortable and safe. The roots of an old tree were a perfect place to settle in and rest or play by myself. Behind the couch in the living room. Inside a tent or make-shift fort. I slept in a bunkbed with my sister, and I was on the top bunk. I shrouded the space with sheets hanging from the ceiling. Now, my nest is a room in our house where I can go to be alone or to spend time with material possessions that bring me joy, and remind me of childhood happiness. This is my retreat. Sometimes, I lie on the bed in that room and fill the space with silent thoughts for hours. I think about my past, present, and future.
There are forces at work inside me, which I have difficulty identifying sometimes.
I understand Mania and can sense a manic episode headed in my direction. There are symptoms. When I was younger, these symptoms were more easily detected by my mom, and that frustrated me. I wanted to figure it out and beat her to the punch. I read about Bipolar I Disorder, researched, and learned about physical responses to triggers. I discovered what triggered me and stayed away from those before they became catastrophic. I learned–with help–how to manage my brain and keep the mania at bay. When I felt mania encroaching, I contacted my doctor. I tried to sleep, forced myself to eat, and stayed away from books, movies and songs that stirred up my insides. I began to know my body. I can now catch mania before my mom does and it feels like a tremendous success.
I understand Depression. I felt dread and anxiety in the pit of my stomach for the first time when I was thirteen. There were no psychiatrists in the area where I grew up. My pediatrician had no idea how to handle it or even recognize it. It was a feeling much like procrastination–the feeling of dread most kids experience on Sunday evenings, knowing the weekend is over and they are going back to school on Monday morning. That is what I came to believe was true for me. I was lazy and lethargic, irritable, angry, and sad for indiscernible reasons. Later in life, I was told that those feelings were contributed to my illness. My therapist said that my “self-focus” came from discovering how my brain works and did not mean I was selfish or lazy. I truly was not “in the mood.” Seriously? That’s a reality? Yes. Quite a comforting truth.
I recognize Bipolar I Disorder, which makes up the mood portion of my illness. The mood part is a combination of mania and depression. The “schizo” part is much harder to deal with. I sometimes hear voices in my head, experience paranoia, anxiety, panic attacks, delusions, irrational thinking, the loss of my memory, and many more symptoms attributed to Schizoaffective Disorder. When a few of these symptoms arise together, this may lead to psychosis. It is harder for me to identify because I have not been dealing with that part of my illness for the duration of my condition. It’s new, or only just discovered. It is important to acknowledge that psychosis does not mean “crazy” or to mistake “psychosis” with “Psycho.” That is another myth tied to the stigma. This is the part of my illness I have the most trouble dealing with and I would hate for anyone to misunderstand. With medication, family, psychiatry, and psychologist support, I live a happy, stable life. I do not experience psychosis frequently, yet knowing that psychosis is a real possibility scares me because it takes over my life and confuses reality. Understanding my mind and body has been no small task. It has taken a lifetime to recognize what goes on inside my head, while much of it still baffles me. The journey continues, and I am ever closer to unraveling the mystery and uncovering the invisible answers, while pondering in my nest.
I know I have told you several times about my love for running and having to quit because of injured knees. I loved to run like I love to breathe. I learned to run before I learned to walk. In elementary school, I ran the fastest mile. During recess, no one would race me, because they knew I would win. I won most of the running related events at “Field Day.” I ran the 800 and the hurdles on the track team in middle school, and I was captain of my high school Cross Country team. I trained with the boys, and won lots of races. I ran road races, one in which I achieved my personal record and took home the first-place trophy now sitting on my desk at home. I went to running camps, and I ran on my own time. My dad used to say, “Run like the wind!” Running was a huge part of who I am, and a significant loss. Now I am left only with stories.
My family filmed most of my childhood, and my mom transferred all of the tapes to flash drives for each family member. I take good care of everything. I am organized. Sitting here right now, I know where that flash drive is without having to search. I have watched many of the videos. One of the segments was funny at first and heartbreaking toward the end. Mom focused the camera on a three-year-old Samantha, my teddy bear, and my friend, Cameron. The movie “ET” had just aired. Mom asked, “Samantha, what are you doing today?” I answered, “My name is not Samantha! My name is Elliott!” “Oh, I’m so sorry, Elliott! What are you going to do today?” Elliott answered, “I am going to run, and run, and run, and never stop.”