*Berman is the personification of my psychiatric disorder.
Since I was a toddler, I have created a safe space for myself in every setting. In my early days, you could find me high in the branches of a tree, pondering life and watching it unfold beneath me. You might have discovered me in the roots of a tree, taking a nap or playing by myself; the tree wrapping her arms around me. Everywhere, I built nests. When I was blessed with a little sister, I occupied the top bunk and she slept below. I created a makeshift canopy made of an old bed sheet attached to the ceiling with push pins, concealing my space. I inherited a fourposter bed from my mom when I acquired my own room, and I covered it in the same manner.
Through the years, I have discovered other forms of hiding. My room was my sanctuary. I have always loved having pockets, not only providing cover for my hands, but occupying them. It’s always difficult to figure out what to do with my hands in a social setting. Hence, pockets! In the sixth grade, I hid my body every day with a jacket three sizes too large. At the age of twelve, I felt a storm brewing under that jacket. Rain leaked from my eyes, leaving wet trails down my face each night. My little sister was outside my bedroom door, begging to help me. I turned her away, considering this a private struggle. I was confused, sad and angry. I was full of dread with no apparent reason. I hid from this illness under jackets, beneath ancient familiar blankets, and sweatshirts with hoods. I tried to block it all out, and unfortunately that included my sister.
I build nests when I feel uncomfortable. In the psychiatric hospital, I disappeared into the recesses of a special hooded sweatshirt. Even now, I sometimes do the same. I bury my face in the folds of an old family quilt, and curl up in my dad’s old sleeping bag. I require much space. When I am overwhelmed and anxious, I spend the night under a weighted blanket. Hiding in my nests comforts me. This is a key ingredient in my stability formula. We all cope differently with the tools we are provided. Building nests has been my specialty. I recognize that Berman will always find me, despite an excellent hiding spot; however, I enjoy a few moments of peaceful solitude.
My family moved to Savannah, Georgia when I was halfway through eighth grade. My parents wanted to give me a high school education at one school, so that I would have the same friends for four years. I hoped to be acquainted with those kids in middle school. This plan failed miserably. I was remarkably behind in my studies when I reached the second half of my middle school experience. Many of the students in my classes were in the sixth grade. The friends I was supposed to meet had advanced classes together and had known each other for several years. There was no place for me. I was an outlander.
When I reached public high school, the lessons were difficult. I was still attempting to catch up. I attended Geometry and Algebra ll simultaneously while my middle school alum had finished Geometry in the eighth grade. I am terrible at math. I had three private tutors and remember nothing. I believe that was the result of “cramming.” Why did we fall subject to the torture of Algebra? It was certainly a waste of my time. Why was I forced to agonize over math homework while my sisters enjoyed a video in the next room over?
Aside from schoolwork and friends I was supposed to make, life became increasingly more challenging. I was manic for the entire first year of high school. I was hyper sexual, filled with energy and productivity, artistically inspired, and daring the Sandman to catch me. I made colossal mistakes, promises I couldn’t keep, and lost weight when I had little to lose. My handwriting was atrocious, but my grades were high. I was hyper focused. I behaved strangely in class, faking injuries and stretching on the floor. The guys I wanted relationships with had no interest in getting caught up in my mess, but others took advantage of my vulnerability. My illness began to expand, and turned in all the wrong directions. I carried a lunch box full of small toys, and handed out Mardis Gras beads to those in need of a smile; in that case, a laugh. I was known as “Bead Girl.”
There were other red flags, but encompassing all of this chaos, I was starved for creative control. The high school I was attending had one art class, and that would not quench my thirst. I was so embarrassed once I “came to,” even though it wasn’t my fault. I switched schools. The high school dream of making friends, staying in one school, and being happy there for four years was shattered. I transferred to a performing arts high school, where I studied and created visual art. I was happier, but not “manic happy.” The Bead Girl moved on.
I am referring to people with mental illness as Conquerors, because that is what we do every day. We fight valiantly against mental illness.
Signs of Mania:
*Losing sleep/believing it is a waste of time
*High energy and extreme productivity (cannot sit still to read or watch television)
*Unintentional weight loss
*Slurred/Mumbled speech (racing thoughts, not enough time to catch)
*Out of character messy handwriting
*Promises/Obligations not followed through (too much on plate)
Recognizing and Handling Situation:
*Keep close watch for symptoms
*Monitor behavior over time
*As a loved one, seek advice personally to gain knowledge from a professional (not me) before confronting a conqueror.
*I recommend not forcing help upon the conqueror. The conqueror may need that eventually, but give time for individual to ask for help. No one likes to be bossed around, and that can backfire.
*Sometimes, a conqueror will recognize signs and will need space to do so, instead of dealing with suggestions or hinting that you are noticing symptoms. That is frustrating when conqueror is attempting to learn on own.
Please contact me if you have questions! I am not a professional but I have an extensive amount of experience. I am available by email and here to help!
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.
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?