“It’s Not Me, It’s My Brain” — Sarah Comerford
Recently I wrote the introduction to the fourth Stigma Fighters anthology. It was a proud moment for me. I’ve been with this organization since its inception, and I am thrilled how far we’ve come. I mention this in the introduction, but I also mention how far we have to go. All of the social stigmas that exist related to mental health and illness are deeply entrenched in our culture. Every time we lose someone to suicide, I wonder how it could have been prevented. What were the needs of this individual that went unmet? How long did they silently spiral before arriving at their decision to die? Were they really silent, or were they simply unheard?
I have my own problems with mental illness. My mood swings can be pretty epic, something that my best friends understand as a case of “It’s not you, it’s your brain.” A sort of trade off for the better qualities I bring to the relationship, like charm and sarcasm. I’m certainly less volatile than I used to be. There was a time when I was so chronically embittered, I was oddly satisfied to spread it around, to make everyone in my vicinity feel as dark and twisty as I did. It was not a pleasant time in my life, nor was it pleasant for my friends and loved ones. For some of them, it was ultimately intolerable.
There are times when I go dark. I can’t always see it coming, and regardless of whether or not I do, once it comes, I’m helpless to stop it. Once upon a time, this would have been the moment when I started to lash out at others. I would fight tooth and nail to stay afloat, with no consideration for the people who were treading water beside me. I’d sink them if it would sustain my broken mind for a little while longer. That was a shitty way to be, so I got myself into treatment, and I learned how better to cope. If my mind goes under, I can hold my breath for some time. I can wait until it passes. I can float.
Floating is an important coping skill for anyone with chronic illnesses. You have to develop a mantra, something to keep you calm as you wait out the storm: “Go inward, it’s safe.” Thing is, floating isn’t the most comfortable alternative for those around you. Imagine treading water in a swimming pool with 20 or more people (on average, a working adult will interact with at least that many people a day). All of you are trying like hell to keep your heads above water, with varying levels of success. Some swimmers don’t seem to struggle at all, their fortitude so great that they can easily keep head and shoulders above water. Others, like me, aren’t strong swimmers. We’re not just treading water, we’re fighting for our lives. The consequences of a lack of stamina are life and death for us — if we falter, even for just a moment, we would likely sink. So, we learn to float. We kick our legs out in front of us, lean back, and surrender ourselves to the sky. For a moment, it’s all we can do. We float and we breathe, and we hope no rogue waves roll in to drown us.
The problem with floating, though, is that you take up so much more space. More space than your fellow swimmers are willing to give, in many cases, because they’re also just doing their best to survive. Plus, there is a natural aversion to getting too close to the drowning man. He might just pull you under, too.
Sometimes I’m the drowning man. I am actively, desperately fighting to keep up: keep up with the conversation, the social politics, the navigation of this moment. This is true particularly if it’s a bunch of people I don’t know. I’m very sensitive to my friends’ emotional climates, but new people often read as an unknown quantity, a puzzle. As I feel out the vibes in the room, I am deliberately adjusting my actions to become a working cog in the machinery of the conversation. I am always acutely aware of my performance, but still sometimes find myself out-of-step. I just can’t figure out where I fit. I get tired being so on all the time, and so I float. Even if floating makes everyone else in the room uncomfortable because my feelings take up so much space.
It’s probably the most selfish thing I’ve ever done, really, but I feel like it isn’t fair, getting dragged for being, well, a drag. I used to be very hurt when a friend walked away, but I understand myself and their perspective better now. At the time I didn’t recognize how I had mishandled my emotions (meaning, purposefully making people feel like shit). With treatment, my perspective widened and my behavior changed considerably. I stopped going out of my way to make other people feel bad when I was feeling my worst, and I started to communicate my feelings with others. Still, I sometimes find myself set up to be an emotional black hole.
Not even light can escape my gravitational pull. I alter the reality before me. It’s a force of nature, as well as a major source of shame. I don’t want to be that person who is barely tolerated for her intensity. I know I could remove myself from socializing until my energy changes, but isolation isn’t healthy or helpful. And if I’m being honest, I really don’t want to be left the dark. I have terrible FOMO, plus years of insecurities, abandonment issues, and social awkwardness converging to exacerbate that fear. I want a seat at the table, if not a role in the conversation.
It’s a pipe dream. I know of very few social interactions constructed with the capacity to allow quietness. Still, I think about people who live everyday with sadness, who could, if given a place to be themselves, find themselves somewhat healed. Self-actualization is a cornerstone of happiness, and to have your whole identity acknowledged and respected by your community is an important part of that process. Imagine how many beautiful, creative, compassionate minds would finally be permitted onto the world stage. No longer placed outside the group, and no longer fearful of judgement from the group. We could all just be.
Which leads me to a very troubling question. A very crass sort of question, but a real one: those people who died after going under, were they ever really permitted to be who they be?
In all the years I’ve lived with a mood disorder, the times I most wanted to die were those times when I felt like I had to lie about who I was and what I was feeling. I knew I was sick long before I sought treatment. I kept it a secret from close friends for years after. Though it sounds dreadfully cliched to say it: living and writing my truth set me free.
This has consequences, however. If I’m living out loud all of my truths, then there will be times I make other people uncomfortable. It’s not their fault, and it isn’t mine either. We’ve all been conditioned to dislike authenticity. We’ve also been conditioned to doubt women, fear sadness, and to detest vulnerability. It’s that “stigma” thing — after hearing that word a few thousand times it seems to cease any meaning, but then it all becomes very clear: our notions and taboos surrounding mental illness are killing people. All because they weren’t permitted to be, to float. They weren’t given any room to breathe.
In the wake of every death, social media buzzes with the mentions of suicide prevention hotlines and national efforts to educate and advocate for mental health. I think many of us who have lost a loved one to suicide think mournfully about what we might have done differently. I have wondered if I wasn’t tolerant enough of someone who seemed to be an emotional vampire, and I’ve felt guilty for keeping them at arm’s length. I’ve been the one in need, too. Neither side is more worthy of accomodations than the other. All life is suffering, and no one’s suffering is any more worthwhile of mercy than another’s. No one is obligated to deconstruct their own boundaries to allow for someone else’s emotions to colonize the room. According to the Four Noble Truths, suffering is the result of selfishness, but we’re not all godly. Not all of us are on the path to absolute selflessness in this lifetime. Some of us are here to give, and some of us are hardwired to take. I believe that balance is possible, if you’re in a tribe of givers and receivers who are perfectly, or even mostly, complementary to one another. It’s possible that everyone could find the right tribe to fit into, finally a part of something complete. I have great hope that we’ll all arrive to that state of balance someday.
If we’re going to dismantle the stigma surrounding mental health we have to start letting the people around us drop their facades a little and allow them to exist as they are. If your friend is depressed in your presence, sit with them, and try not to feel like you’re obligated to fix them or draw them out of the darkness. I would love it if all my friends were able to meet me where I’m at. I want them to know that they can love me without taking my depression on themselves. I’ve been in treatment for a long time and I know how to take take of myself when I’m down. I don’t want to physically isolate myself, so why not let me be a piece of furniture in the background? Why not allow me to be quiet and simply let me be with you? Among you. I beg you tolerate my presence and not resent me for how much space I take up in the room. Endure my blackhole-ness, please, and love me anyway.
We have to start telling each other it’s okay to not be okay. We all deserve grace, and the ability to rest assured that we are all right to be in the world around us. Knowing that this part of your life experience, this part of your identity, isn’t a character flaw results in a soul-deep calm. Everyone feels sadness. It is a primal part of the human experience. Many people, at least a few times in their life, will be faced with some kind of immovable emotional mountain. They’ll scale that mountain, either with tools they already possess or with tools they collect on the way. They’ll learn, adapt, and grow stronger until they find their next plateau. For others, they will top that first peak, then look out over an infinite horizon, a vast range of cliffs and valleys that stretches out before them in every direction, desolate and cold. You will know these climbers when you meet them by their fatigue and by the crushing weight they carry on their backs. Validate them, comfort them, and then, if you are able, consider how you might facilitate some healing. Do this with everyone you meet, no matter their burden, no matter if it appears that they have none. Begin aggressively asserting yourself to the Golden Rule, and indulge in a few random acts of kindness. We can take care of each other. We can make ourselves alright.
Sarah Comerford is the Assistant Vice President of Franchise Operations at Stigma Fighters and Editor-in-Chief for Eliezer Tristan Publishing. She is a professional ASL interpreter, a wife, mother, counselor, advocate, and a survivor. She is also a hedgewitch & intuitive reader. Read more from Sarah on her blog and find her Twitter.