My mental health story is such, that I could make several stories out of it. Each chapter… it is as if each is from a separate life. I’ve lived many lives, so to speak, each more terrible than the last. But now, I’m through. I have achieved recovery, and I am finally satisfied with the quality of my life. I proudly can say that I have a doctorate-level education in… I – N – S – A – N – I – T – Y – !!
I have a loving mother. My father was terribly abusive to both of us. Home felt like prison, and I soon learned about paranoia. If we laughed at the wrong time, or if we breathed incorrectly, we became victims. School was cruel as well. My parents did not dress me stylishly, and so I was the butt of many jokes. I looked like a boy. I had hair like Ronald McDonald. I also felt targeted, because I studied the violin. I took to classical music quite fondly, to the point that I, beginning at age six, felt that all non-classical music was absolutely evil, and to be shunned.
I had but one best friend. In seventh grade, she moved to Alabama, gone forever. Also, my father left the home, but the damage to my mind was already done. Without my best friend, life was without meaning. I felt like my DNA spelled “loser.” I wanted to die. And I wanted to stop playing classical music.
My mom fortunately took me out of public school and put me in a private school for eighth grade. Despite the change, I was hospitalized for the first time in ninth grade, and then put on psychiatric meds. I also decided to stop playing (now) the viola. The meds worked well enough though, and by tenth grade, I resumed my music studies. By the time I finished high school, I was slated to attend a prestigious conservatory for a college music degree. I survived high school.
College was pleasant enough, but with each year, I became more and more tired. In the practice room, I was increasingly unable to focus my attention. My mother had suggested to me, for several years, to try meditation in order to quiet my mind. I eventually found a meditation group at my college, which I joined. The group was linked to a guru in India, and so I earnestly applied myself to the practice, meditating daily in the morning and evening. This culminated into a trip to India, where I meditated in the presence of the guru himself. Quite exciting.
I fancied myself “healed” of my illness, and convinced my psychiatrist to titrate me off of my medications.
Within weeks, I began to have intrusive, obsessive thoughts. All of a spiritual nature. It appeared to me as if I was receiving divine revelations. I felt holy and purified. I felt enlightened. I felt as if I were connected to the wisdom of the universe. But it became more and more unreal. I began walking into stores, smelling the merchandise to see if each item was heterosexual or homosexual. I looked at paintings, amazed at the three-dimensional reality of each image, real enough to step inside and feel the wind of a landscape against my face. And my perspective of music… warped. Practicing viola became a kind of yoga where I would harness my chi. For the first time in years, I loved music. But my teacher said I was getting worse. I was baffled.
Eventually, such happened that I walked into a restaurant, and started crying, fearful. Cops picked me up and drove me to the hospital. A new diagnosis now: schizoaffective disorder. After being discharged, on new medications, I finished out the year of college in a daze, and left for good. I had a bachelors and half a masters.
I returned home to my mother in New York, and spent a full year and a half recovering. This included using the internet to find sexual flings, finding photographers to model for, and also finding pen pals from Germany to write to. I had learned German in high school, and decided to revive it. I also rejected classical music fully, and spent that year and a half listening to Queen, and only Queen.
Eventually, I started teaching violin lessons at a local store, which inspired me to go back to school to become a classroom music teacher. I went back to school to get a New York State K-12 music teacher certification. The first year went well, and during the second year, I took a job at a private school as a music teacher. I desired to be productive and prolific, and in my heart, I wanted to be a high achiever. But then… the illness reared its ugly head. Psychic revelations returned, this time telling me I was the reincarnation of Beethoven. Midway through the year, I was hospitalized again, and then forced to leave my job and school both.
I should say that, by this time, I was in shambles. I had gained 90 lbs. in the last two and a half year, due to medication. And I realized… that I would not be able to work. My mind always collapsed. That was all I ever knew. My colleagues from college had moved on to graduate school and jobs, whereas I was on the floor, in pieces. I gave up. I filed for disability and was awarded such. To pass the time, I wrote songs with a guitar and played at open mics in the city. I made friends with many people, and began to feel like I belonged, at least in some corner of New York.
By this time, my grandmother began to fall ill with dementia. Living in the same house was incredibly stressful and emotionally triggering. Due to chance, I suddenly became a born-again Christian and soon after joined a very conservative church in my area. The church encouraged me to care for my grandmother and minister to her, so that she could become saved. I took it upon myself to care for her full time until her passing. I fully immersed myself in church, attending three times a week. I also attended a bible conference.
I prayed earnestly, when suddenly God told me I was gay. I was confused, and confided in the pastors of the church. They were kind and supportive, and gave me scripture to read in order to fight the temptation. But God, or whatever it was, was overpowering. I left the church and returned to the open mics… and then had another breakdown. Hospital. The whole she-bang. I told my mother I could not return home to my grandmother.
After being discharged, I had a temporary living arrangement where I could escape my grandmother. But after a month, I was forced to leave. I decided to try and be independent, and so I signed myself into a homeless shelter in the south Bronx. After staying for only two weeks, I decided to leave, basically because I had been sitting outside when someone shot the window above where I was sitting. By this time, I had befriended a girl at the shelter, and so when I left the shelter, I took her with me. She encouraged me to go off my medications, and so I did. Cold turkey.
Surprisingly, I didn’t crash right away. I figured then, that I was healed. My mother quickly rented an apartment for me to live in by myself, so that I could be away from my grandmother. I also had a rift with the girl I brought from the shelter, and so she left. For the next few months, I dieted in an attempt to lose weight. After about six months, I lost a good fifty pounds.
I started a kickboxing class at a place where my friend worked. I took to the classes well, and began to develop a crush on one of the instructors. About eight weeks later, I was convinced that I was the reincarnation of Beethoven, and that my instructor was Beethoven’s soul mate, also reincarnated. Soon after, I was forced to go to the hospital again. In the emergency room, I began to experience messages which then gave me commands to retrieve my belongings from the security guard. At this point, I blacked out, after which I then remember myself writhing on the floor, struggling against about ten people, all trying to hold me down. I screamed like a banshee. I was so frightened. My body was moving against my will. My voice was babbling, and yet I wanted it to stop. I was then injected with a sedative and restrained. As they tied me down, I said over and over again: “Thank you. Thank you! I love you… I love you.” I thought that I was the victim of a conspiracy, and that I needed to die. I needed to die, because I was an axis of evil that would destroy the world. So I was very happy to be tied down.
I remained in the hospital for about three and a half weeks. The night after I was discharged, I descended into mental chaos again, this time becoming convinced that I was the Antichrist. I was again hospitalized, this time for over two months. It was frightening. For several weeks, I had not improved enough to leave. The psychiatrists told me that they were applying me for state hospitalization. I advocated for myself and got put on a medication, which worked well, allowing me to leave the hospital.
For the next year, I went to outpatient psychiatric rehab programs, during which I learned about becoming a mental health peer specialist. A school in Manhattan, called “Howie the Harp Peer Advocacy Center,” offered a free-of-charge training program for peer specialists. I applied and was accepted. The following term, I attended the classes, learning about the ins and outs of peer work. I learned that there is action going on, where people want there to be a mental health rights movement. I learned that I don’t need to be ashamed of my illness. I learned that my story is valuable, and that by telling it, I can give others hope, empowering them to feel strong.
After the coursework at Howie the Harp, I completed an internship at an agency in Queens, NY, after which I was hired for a full-time position. I have now been there for over six months, and I am showing no signs of relapse. If anything, I am achieving more now than I ever have before. The prolific career that I always wanted… is now what I have. Regarding my spirituality, I no longer fear it. I no longer fear that I will be attacked by my subconscious.
And now… I work at a place where I am appreciated. I don’t have to hide my mental illness in the closet. And why should I? My strength and my source of wisdom… it came from my pain and suffering due to mental illness. By hiding it, I hide who I am. I hide my humanity. And I don’t want to hide anymore.
Mental illness is cruel. For years, it prevented me from knowing myself. It told me I was gay when I actually am not. It told me that I was evil when I am anything but. It told me that rock music was evil, and that everyone hated me for not liking it. It told me that I was a loser. It told me that I was worthless, ugly, and deserving of nothing but death. Even as a small child, I was in its grasp.
For the first time… EVER… I know now that life is beautiful. I see its beauty every day. Tragically, I never could see it before, even as a small child. Doctors often diagnose depression by determining that a person no longer enjoys what s/he once did. S/he experiences a lack of zest for life as once before. But… what if you never have enjoyed such? What then?
I’m glad I’m better now. I attribute it, first and foremost, to the medications I take. I finally realize that I must take them, and I’m not ashamed anymore. The combination I take now is miraculous. Sadly, it took about thirteen years to get to this point. Additionally, I also utilize techniques from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT.
And… friends! For the first time, I realize how many friends I have. Over the past two years, I have been open with my mental illness to friends on Facebook. And many people have come out of the woodwork, supporting me. Telling me I can do it! These people sincerely care. And I realize that I am not alone. Sure, my experiences are different from others’, but simply having empathetic friends is enough. I don’t have to be understood to feel good. I just need to have friends who care, and who are willing to listen.
Seeing my friends also influences my work as a peer. I have big dreams, to reach high and far. And I know in my heart, that I will do such for the rest of my life.
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Neesa Sunar works as a peer specialist in Queens, NY. She was born and raised there as well, and has a bachelors degree in viola performance. She enjoys singing and songwriting as well. These days, she now fully dedicates herself to blogging, in the effort to create more awareness about mental illness. She truly lives to fight stigma.
Neesa can be found on her Blog, Facebook and Twitter
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