The faces of mental illness put forward by the world never match mine. They’re nearly always white rather than brown, as I am; they’re generally wild eyed or in the context of violence or out of control. That’s not how the people in my life describe me, and even those closest to me often miss or mistake the signs. My bouts of depression and anxiety arrive as surliness, a brooding quiet that creates distance—which is appropriate since distance is the primary effect of my illness.
In remember myself from an early age cut off from others. I see a boy in a hospital bed inside a plastic-walled oxygen tent during a bout with asthma. Sound muffled. Doctors, nurses, parents visible as they came and went. But touchable only through the zippers and plastic of the tent as I lay propped up in bed. I could read their concerned and sympathetic smiles, but they couldn’t feel my visceral fear as I struggled to breathe and survive in a body beyond my control.
Growing up, my clumsy efforts at closeness resulted in pain: reaching for a soldier father now here then gone, now sober then drunk, and when he was at home arguing with and sometimes striking my mother. Reaching for a mother trapped in her marriage, in her dark, foreign skin, estranged from and judged by her Latin American Catholicism. Reaching for siblings caught like me in the no man’s land between the warring parties who’d created us, siblings who survived by punishing one another’s vulnerabilities; and the brown boy me yearning for someone to “tell me I’m okay” was endlessly vulnerable.
Only after I escaped to college did the fog of inaction descend. Huddled in my apartment listening to music or reading aimlessly, skipping classes for days and weeks at a time. Outwardly I seemed normal, made friends, dated, partied, and performed well enough academically. And I wrote and wrote and wrote, which was all, I think, that saved my life.
One Sunday the student newspaper called (I was a journalism major and on staff) asking me to turn in a story that I had thought wouldn’t be due for several more days. I got in my car intending to drive to campus; instead I headed east. Away from my apartment, across the city, out of town. I reached a two-lane highway, saw a sign reading “Tonganoxie 18,” and drove. I imagined reaching Tonganoxie and going further. I would drive east as far as I could. To New York. Sell the car, live on the streets if I had to. All I wanted was space, distance from everyone and every place I knew. Eventually uncertainty ended my bid for escape. I made a U-turn and drove back to town, to college, to the newspaper office. I dragged myself through the reporting and writing for the story, my life and the emptiness inside me heavy as a leaden cloak.
And intimacy eluded me. I entered into relationships, initially perfect and then suddenly, inexplicably, all emotion inside me freezing. Disappearing. Empty. I could never name to the other person what had happened within me; I didn’t understand it myself. And I couldn’t talk past the fog swirling in my own head.
Over the years, I wished sometimes for an end to the confusion, an end to life. For long periods of time I’ve felt healthy enough to function, to love and work and marry and raise children. But I’ve also done damage to my loved ones while in the grip of that fog. I’ve spent time on medications that saved me; I’ve spent time in therapy that improved my understanding.
But I choose not to think of my mental illness as a “battle.” The chemical balances and imbalances that swirl in my brain, whatever their cause, are part of me. What compassion I have toward others—especially those in pain or deprivation—I owe largely to my brain chemistry. My respect for sadness and grief come from it. My appreciation for the necessary duality of life, my resistance to simplistic ideas of “good” or “bad,” these I also owe to mental illness. They are the seat of my politics, my spirituality, and my definition of myself as a writer.
Still, I don’t call my mental illness a “gift.” I am no Zen master, only a person who’s caused pain and love, happiness and grief, and who’s received the same. If my illness has taught me anything, it’s that life is uncertain and defies easy definition. So do I; so does my mental health.
My depression and anxiety are the circumstances of my existence, like my height, my near-sightedness, and my brown skin. They offer disadvantages and perspectives that others lack, depending on the situation. So I don’t fight the fog and I don’t love the fog. It’s there. Inside and outside of me, passing through me, emanating from me. When I remember to take care of myself, to be kind to myself, we get along.
My real enemies are society’s and my own limited attitudes: stigma. And baseless assumptions. And ignorance. And fear and oppression flowing from ignorance. They’re my greatest burdens as a mentally ill person because they block my dealing with my illness successfully. They limit and/or misdirect society’s support for people like me. They cut us off from one another and from wider participation in the life.
I think about the day I drove towards Tonganoxie, and about how the day might have gone if I had been able to say, “I’m having some real problems with depression. I need some help with this story.” I wonder about the difference if I had been able to name and talk about it rather than feel weak, broken, and ashamed.
In a way, I’m still on the road to Tonganoxie, never quite arriving. But I’ve gotten more okay with that in my 50 plus years, gotten more okay with being in the fog. With being there, still.
M.C. Malette is currently a stay-at-home father and freelance writer living in the upper Midwest. He worked for nearly 20 years as college writing instructor and administrator. He’s also worked as a journalist and copyeditor. A former Army brat, he was born in Germany and lived throughout the United States.