A Mental Health Autobiography
I’m never certain how much of my own experiences are unique to me, and how much of my experiences are universal, shared by everyone: a part of the human condition. Sometimes I think that our feelings are all more or less the same. Sometimes I think it’s just me. Sometimes I tell myself not to be such an egomaniac, because after all I’m not that different from anyone else. But then sometimes I open my mouth, and people give me this look that suggests perhaps my experiences are not entirely universal after all.
When I was very young, no more than six years old, my father told me a sort of a fable. I think he had heard it from his own father; but for all I know, it was something that actually happened to him when he was a child. The story went like this: A young boy is standing on a high place, on top of a piece of furniture or something. The boy’s father says, “Go ahead and jump off, I’ll catch you.” The boy says, “It’s too high, Daddy, I’m scared.” The father says, “It’s all right, I’m right here.” So the boy jumps, and the father steps aside, allowing the boy to plummet to the ground, where he lands with an agonizing face-plant. And while the boy is lying on the ground, crying in miserable pain and betrayal, his father leans over him and says, “Remember this, son. Never trust anyone.”
We live in a society that continuously repeats the obvious lie, that anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps if only they work hard enough.
My first job was at McDonald’s. One of my co-workers was a Mexican immigrant. This man worked full time at a chicken farm, and he had a 35-hour-a-week second job flipping burgers on the line with me. I will never meet anybody who worked harder than that man, and I promise you, he never managed to pull himself up by his bootstraps.
The “bootstraps” lie is just an excuse for intolerance. And part of the intolerance fostered by the “bootstraps” lie, is the intolerance for people who have had bad things happen to them. Uncaring society says, “Get over it.” Uncaring society says, “That’s your problem, not mine.” Uncaring society uses the “bootstraps” lie as an excuse, to make up a reason why the bad thing was, in fact, the victim’s own fault in the first place. When a person finds themselves in an impossible situation, uncaring society blames that person for being unable to magically transcend the impossible.
I no longer think the people who say these things even believe themselves. They know they’re lying, and they just don’t care. The point is to use their power to harm others for their own gain. I’m speaking now of politics, but the principle applies broadly to our society as a whole.
On the outside, I came from a good middle-class family, and had every middle-class advantage. But I had a dark place in my head that I just couldn’t get past. My father told me (in writing!) that it was the way I was born; but I think it’s more likely, it was related to the things my father said and did over the years. When I was in eighth grade, I was suicidally depressed. After that, I saw a counselor for a while. That was a complete waste of time and money. All I learned from those sessions, was how to lie to a counselor. Later, I saw a second counselor. After months of visits, I finally opened up to him with the dark truth about my family life. He didn’t believe me. He thought I was making it all up as a sympathy ploy. The one person whose actual job it was to make a real difference in my life, blew it off as a fantasy, and essentially told me to get over myself. I will never respect counselors again.
A few years later, I went to an excellent college; but I partied too much and refused to take anything seriously. I graduated with a decent degree but no job prospects, and found myself still working the same kind of pointless minimum wage jobs I’d been working in high school. Then my father died, suddenly and unexpectedly, and his death threw the family into turmoil. Shortly afterwards, I lost my paltry life savings on an auto accident (my insurance company said it wasn’t covered, because I was on a bicycle when I collided with the car). This is just an example of how bad experiences tend to snowball and build on each other.
My struggles with depression led to a series of bad choices. I pushed away my long-term girlfriend, the one I should have married. I probably would have managed to get myself fired from a decent job, but I avoided that when an unexpected opportunity came up, and with less than three weeks’ notice, I left the country to go teach in Egypt for a year, along with my younger sister and several of our friends from college. It was an amazing opportunity, but it was also very stressful. I was unprepared for the experience. For one thing, my sister was the constant recipient of really awful sexual harassment from all the men around us, and I was powerless to do anything about it. For another thing, it was very difficult for me to adapt to the local culture and the work environment. One day my impatience got the better of me, and rather than wait for the bus, I decided to walk home to my apartment after work. I got lost, and wandered miles out of my way. After dark, I found myself in a lonely and deserted place, where some local hoodlums attacked me and beat me over the head. I still have the scars. I managed to get away, but I sprained my ankle on a rock as I ran away in the dark. The hoodlums chased me all the way back to a populated district, where the local residents called the police. The police let the hoodlums go, and detained me all night instead, peppering me with questions and refusing to believe my answers. This is the world we live in. It is a world that lets the hoodlums go, and blames the victim, seeking against reason for any explanation why the incident must have been the victim’s fault.
I returned from Egypt just in time for 9-11. Despite some of my experiences there, I had grown fond of my Muslim host country, and I took the terrorist attacks and their hateful aftermath personally.
I think it’s safe to say that, between my childhood, the car accident, the attack from the hoodlums, and of course 9-11 itself, I was suffering from some degree of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I was often angry and impatient. I often began the day with rum in my coffee, or sometimes just rum straight out of the bottle.
Meanwhile, I lived in a barn. It was a nice barn, in a remote location. For years I had dreamed of an opportunity like this, to devote myself to solitary pursuits, writing and playing music. I accomplished a lot during that time, but I turned out to feel incredibly lonely as well, and ended up driving ridiculous distances to meet with girlfriends. Also, there was no work to be had in that remote location; and even living in a barn, I needed some income. So I would drive two hours to work in Portland, where I often slept in my car, or crashed on my friend’s couch, rather than drive back. Technically, a person who either sleeps in their car on on their friend’s couch, for weeks at a time, is considered homeless. I was homeless. This is a story of how a promising boy from what looked like a good middle-class family turned into an angry homeless alcoholic.
Society regards a story like this as an “excuse.” Society tells us that we should just “get over” whatever bad things have happened to us. Society regards our difficulties in “getting over” those bad experiences as a kind of moral failing.
Well, after this, I watched all my hopes and dreams crumble. I put all my energy into starting a rock band: but it was nearly impossible to land paying gigs; the band never attracted a following; and eventually it all fell apart. I had always wanted to be a writer, and had majored in English for that purpose: but I was unable to figure out how to get published; and I lost money on my multiple attempts at self-publication.
Despite myself, I got married; and due to economic considerations, I ended up being the primary childcare provider for our children. That arrangement was meant to be temporary; but then the recession came; and it turns out it’s difficult for a stay-at-home parent to reenter the workforce at even the best of times, and it’s essentially impossible during or in the immediate aftermath of an economic downturn.
But life goes on, and I did my best to put on a brave face and power through.
I have never repeated my father’s story to my own children. It ends here.
A few years ago, I spoke with my physician, and he prescribed me medication. The medication is not a complete fix; but since going on it, I have had fewer mood swings; and when my mood takes a downturn, it doesn’t go as deep, or last as long. I drink less, and I rarely touch hard liquor any more.
I still struggle, as people who have seen my somewhat random Twitter posts may be aware. Some days are better than others; and this must be true for most people. But since I got on medication, my world has brightened, my outlook has generally improved, and I have learned to have hope for the future. I have even returned to believing it’s possible I will someday soon become not just a self-published author, but an actual published author. That’s a kind of optimism I haven’t felt for a long time. I just hope it holds.
So, to all of you out there, feeling stress, and anxiety, and mood swings, and depression: you are not alone. The world sucks! There is medication that can help to a certain extent, and if you need it, I recommend taking it. No prescription will ever fix your life completely, and sometimes we just have to put on a brave face and power through. But if anyone ever tells you to “get over it” or to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” you hereby have my permission to punch them in the face.
Jesse S. Smith is a self-published author living in Oregon. Smith is a former musician and world traveler turned husband and Dad.
Find him on Twitter.