I Have A Fabulous Life… And A Mental Illness
I remember eating lunch in a bathroom stall in high school. That sucked. I think the bathroom might be the worst place ever to each lunch. It’s lonely and… it smells like poop. My heart breaks for that girl in the bathroom, quickly eating her ham sandwich and hiding herself and her chaotic mind from the world. She was so ashamed. I was voted “Miss Congeniality” in the yearbook. I was also voted “Class Actress.” Makes sense.
Now though, I’m not an actress. I’m genuinely happy. I’m not ashamed. It took me a very long time to get here, but I’m now one of the most stable people I know. I have a crazy, successful, beautiful life… mental illness and all.
The mental illness stigma makes me angry and sad. It’s so messed up. It’s one of the reasons I decided to be public about my mental illness. I was so tired of misconceptions, fear, and ignorance. I’m not a monster with a chainsaw. I’m a sweetheart who can’t even kill bugs. I’m so sweet I would try convince a monster with a chainsaw to put down the saw and give me a big ol’ hug. Yes, I would talk down a chain-saw monster.
It’s also one of the reasons I’ve written a whole musical about mental illness, “We Have Apples” that is currently being developed for production. I wanted to see characters with mental illness portrayed as the brilliant, successful, compassionate, unique people we can be. There is tragedy in my show but also happy endings. The musical is set in a psych ward and follows several different patients’ stories. I wanted to show that mental illness can look like a lot of different things. We all have a unique story. Along with mental illness stigma, the show also highlights the inadequacies in mental health care. (Yes, there is a patient on the phone with a heartless insurance company scene)
I remember being rushed to the hospital when I was seven. That was scary. I had read the book, “Madeline,” in school that day, where the character has appendicitis. I was sure I had one, too. The doctor tickled me and said I was fine. I didn’t believe him. My mind was powerful. My stomach hurt and my appendix was going to EXPLODE! I was dramatic. Now you see another reason why I won “Class Actress.”
I still have that same powerful imagination. I can travel on endless terrain in my mind, but what is different now is: I have maps. I believe why I’ve been successful in the music biz is because of that imagination. I also believe I wouldn’t have this artistic talent and creative energy without the mental illness. So, (and it’s taken me SO long to be able to say this) I wouldn’t get rid of my mental illness if there were some “deactivate the mental illness button.” I worry I’d lose too much good stuff that can’t be separated from the illness.
I’ve made peace with mental illness. I think we all need to recognize that we are worthy, lovable, whole people, and we can have fabulous lives. They may be more challenging, but they also may be… more fabulous!
My “maps” are taking my medication daily (which I fought for years and tried everything under the sun instead in the past- You name it, I’ve tried it- juices, acupuncture, yoga, aerobic exercise, CBT, hypnotherapy, herbal methods, amino acids, fish oil and MORE) mindfulness helps and not taking my inner dialog seriously (I believe about 5% of what I think now) meaningful work (volunteering, helping people makes me HAPPY) and all my creative projects.
Some super cool stuff has happened to me. I have won national/international songwriting awards. I played a show before Lady Gaga (then she was Stephanie) at the Bitter End and hung out with her before the show. I live in New York City, where I work with amazing people and see incredible Broadway shows and concerts. I’m engaged to the love of my life, my BEST friend. I wrote the book, music and lyrics to a musical that I’m so proud of. I wrote a song for an internal Macy’s commercial that premiered at the Lincoln Center. I’m getting a masters degree at New York University. I have over a million views on YouTube. And most rewarding and coolest of all, I’ve volunteered in hospice, volunteered with awesome kids, and I’m now I’m raising awareness about mental illness.
A huge turning point for me was finding an amazing psychiatrist who convinced me I was strong for getting treatment, not weak. She helped me see that anxiety, depression and OCD are not character flaws that, if I had a stronger will, I could overcome. She used the diabetes insulin case, which I think is really helpful.
I remember the exhaustion of chronic emotional pain. I remember the frustration of finding the right medicine. I remember being so frightened of my own mind. I remember being so frightened, in general, all the time. I remember the really long, annoying OCD routine. I remember being so scared things wouldn’t get better. I remember begging God to “fix me.” I remember hating myself. If you are in the midst of a mental illness, my heart is with you. I remember. Know that it gets so much better. Keep going.
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Rachel Griffin is a singer/songwriter and grad student at NYU. She likes muppets, musicals, coffee, and cats. Her new musical “We Have Apples” is set in a psych ward and addresses mental illness stigma.
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