Warning: This is a post about my experience of mental illness. There will be references to self-harm and suicide. This is my experience, and should not be taken as a comment on or explanation of anyone else’s.
With every high comes a low.
For a few precious days, I felt almost normal. It came to me in flashes: realizing that I’d made a phone call. Finding myself in public. Keeping promises I’d made and making new ones. Yes, I’ll be there. I’d love to come. There was even an instant, riding in the passenger seat of the car, my forehead leaned against the window, that I saw the headlights of cars on a perpendicular road and thought, where are they going?
I never have thoughts like that anymore. I don’t wonder. Productive wonder is a kind of optimism that my brain chemistry has killed. On a bad day, I would wonder if those cars were racing to the hospital, driving home from a breakup, speeding toward the life-changing moment of finding a loved one hanging in the garage. But in those precious few seconds, I remembered what it was like when I could daydream without some morose “What if?” lurking in my mind.
I tried to hold onto it. I hadn’t felt that way since I was a teenager, riding in the backseat of my mom’s car, listening to R.E.M. on my headphones and letting my mind wander. That was before my brain betrayed me, before a still-changing body took a wrong turn somewhere and made too much of one thing and not enough of others. I’m not sure how brain chemistry works. That’s my only understanding of it.
I was normal, and then I was not.
Now, twenty or so years on, I’m still lying to myself. Every time the poisonous tendrils of mental illness recede, I stupidly let myself think, this is it. You’re free for good this time. And that makes the crash harder.
It came in the middle of the day. A late dose, a change in routine, that’s all it took. What’s wrong with me? Other people can handle a badly timed phone call. Other people can do two simple tasks at once. Other people are better. Worth more.
Normal people, better people, don’t crumple over an outing they hadn’t planned for. Normal people don’t plunge from happily drinking their coffee and mindlessly enjoying TV to hiding in bed, comforter pulled over their head, imagining all the ways children are abused every day and sobbing because there’s no way to stop it. Normal people don’t see a constant filmstrip of horrible what-ifs that they can’t turn off even when it leaves them incapable of focusing on anything else. What if I get cancer? What if my children see me die? What if I do die, and years from now they don’t remember my face? All of these on an endless loop, as though they’re fated to happen, they’re happening, they’ve already happened.
I want to be normal.
Instead, I stand in front of the stove, cooking dinner, telling myself I should put my hand in the boiling water. At the time, it will seem perfectly rational. Later, I think about that impulse, how it almost overwhelmed me, and I’m horrified. Ashamed. A normal person wouldn’t try to convince herself to severely scald her own hand. What if I had done it? Why did I let myself think it? Why now?
I woke up that morning normal.
I went to bed crazy.
Even though I know that none of this is my fault, I blame myself because the sickness in my brain tells me to. That sickness shadows me every day, seizes my mind with evil and obsessive thoughts I can’t turn off. It hurts my body, sending false alarms of danger until my chest hurts and I can’t breathe. When I remember that there are times that it’s not like this, I crumble. But I would never give up those “normal” moments, even the fleeting ones. Because they keep me from believing that this is normal. They set boundaries that remind me of the villain that lurks in all the wrinkles of my diseased brain. Sometimes they feel mean, like teasing glimpses of a life I could have if I weren’t so fragile. Other times, like now, they are triumphant. Every time I remember that I’m mentally ill and not a failure, not a freak, I win a small battle over the villain in my mind. I remember that underneath, I can be normal. But I still have to be here, I have to be present, to be normal.
I will stay, until the next normal, and the one after that.