Posts Tagged mental-health

The Stigma of Connecting Mental Illness and Violence

I’ve been quiet since Friday.  The Connecticut tragedy incited a PTSD reactive response, and to keep myself safe, I pretty much shut down my online presence.  Everything I read, whether it was pleas for better gun control or essays on the prevalence of mental illness in the psyche of your typical mass murderer, sent me spiraling into a place I find difficult to describe.

Even worse, I’m having a manic episode, or I was having it right up until yesterday.  I don’t like talking about my own mental illness.  I’m ashamed of it.  But I try to have courage and talk about it because I hope that by speaking out, I can educate others and help other people who are mentally ill.

This country needs to be willing to look at mental health issues even when there isn’t a tragedy.  We need to attend to it when the small defeats and victories of friends and neighbors take place around us day in and day out.  And for the love of all things good, we need to be really, really careful when something tragic occurs.  Before we blame mental illness or gun control laws or try to assign blame to anyone or any single condition, we’d better take our time to research all the issues and get the answers right.

I’ve read a lot of articles, or to be honest, skimmed the ones that were too painful, that blamed the shooting on mental illness.  Every time I read something like that, I cringe.  The mentally ill are not more likely to commit acts of violence; in fact, they are much more likely to be the victims of violence.  As painful and scary as it is for me to seek help when I’m feeling ill, it’s tenfold times more painful and scary to get the help I need in a charged atmosphere of blame-storming for a heinous mass murder.

As S.E. Smith wrote:

As always in cases of rampage violence, mental illness has been dragged into the mix, and I’ve been watching the Internet for the last three days with a growing sense of both deja vu and horror. None of the things being said are new — all of them are in fact very bone-achingly familiar — and all of them are extremely unhelpful, dangerous and counterproductive.

The American Psychiatric Association states that the vast majority of people who commit violent crimes do not suffer from mental illness.

Substance abuse is a much bigger risk factor for violent behavior; in people with untreated mental illness (a shockingly large number due to the difficulty involved in accessing services), drug abuse is a confounding factor in acts of violence in many cases, not the underlying mental illness. Socioeconomic status, age, gender and history of violence are also more significant indicators of the risk of violence.

You’re more likely to be hit by lightning than to be injured by someone who suffers from schizophrenia.

And yet if you believe the stories and anecdotes widely published this weekend, you will do what people typically do: you will stay the hell away from mentally ill people.  Each time a tragic event like the one in Connecticut occurs and mental illness is raised as a proximate cause, people pull away even more from the mentally ill.  In other words, the very stigma associated with mental illness intensifies, and those of us who most need love, compassion and support receive even less.mentalillnessstigma

I’m one of the lucky ones.  I get the treatment and the care and the compassion that so many of my ill brethren do not receive.  Most people don’t even know that I’m ill.  You see, I know the warning signs.  In the case of manic episodes, my mind starts racing.  Creative thoughts pile onto creative thoughts, and then it gets faster and faster and I can’t stop working won’t stop working don’t want to stop working and it’s amazing the things I can get done . . . but I feel an overload, an imbalance, a systems shutdown approaching.  But like a jet plane hurtling through the air on cruise control, I cannot switch directions, not even when I know exactly how it’s going to end: nose down in the mountainside.

Crashing hurts, and it makes no sense to an outsider, but with time and medication and therapy, I’ve gotten much better at engineering less destructive crash landings.  The most important thing I do is to radio ahead to the tower, or tell a few friends that I’m losing altitude too fast, and that I am, frankly, feeling ill.  In other words, despite the stigma that attaches to my illness, I reach out for the help I need.

I was on the phone this morning with one of my best friends, and she just sort of sat with me.  She told me that she loved me no matter what, and that she wasn’t going anywhere, and that my illness didn’t make her not want to be my friend.  In fact, a few of my friends called me.  They won’t let me fall through the cracks, and when I crash land, they’re there to pick up the pieces.

That’s what grieves me about so many of the articles I tried so hard not to read this weekend.  For every one that begged for compassion, three more confused mental illness with violent propensities.  And you know what this does?  It rains down shame, ugly, dark sickly-familiar shame on those of us who suffer from mental illness.  As gut-wrenchingly difficult as it is to seek treatment, this sort of fear-mongering makes it that much harder for people like me to seek help.

It takes courage to seek help, and it takes courage to admit you’re ill.  Fallacious arguments that connect mental illness to violent propensities make it even harder.  Please have compassion and use discernment when you address issues of mental illness.  After all, you never know who could be affected by the words you use.

 

 

 

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A Hail Mary Pass Thrown into Swirling Gust of Wind: Medicating AD/HD

I paced back and forth in front of my son’s first grade classroom, waiting for his teacher to finish talking to another child’s parents.  My husband tries to come to as many parent-teacher conferences as work permits, but I’d scheduled this one for 10 A.M. on Election Day, so I was going into the breach solo.  And while I didn’t want to feel scared and worried and a little sick to my stomach, I did.

Too often, these conferences hadn’t gone well in the past.  At the very first one, when Ben was still in preschool, his teacher glared at me with this serious, disapproving look.  “You know, you’d better get a handle on this sooner than later, when there’s still time.  Otherwise, he’s going to end up in jail.”

I glanced at my husband in shock.  “Jail?”  I gasped.

“Jail,” she repeated.  “At this rate, with this much oppositional behavior, this much anger, jail.”

In case you’re wondering, we switched preschools after that.

Things got worse before they got better.  When Ben was in kindergarten, I would jump when the phone rang.  If it wasn’t the school calling, I breathed a sigh of relief.  When I visited Ben at school for lunch, his classmates told me that my dear son was “bad.”  As I have written here, this hurt like hell.  I felt powerless and not a little clueless.  The last thing I wanted to turn to was the medicine cabinet.

But we did it anyway, both for our son’s sake, and for our own.  The payoff was not immediate because we had him on too low of a dose: 10 mg of Metadate, which is a generic form of Ritalin.  But once we got the dosage right (20 mg), the turnaround was immediate.

And yet, as I stood in front of Mrs. X, I wasn’t sure.  It had been about three weeks since we’d increased Ben’s dose, and we hadn’t heard from her except for one phone call, which I received the day after we increased Ben’s dose.  It had been a really weird call.  Mrs. X called for the sole reason of telling me that Ben had behaved well all day.  Was this an anomaly, or a new beginning for our troubled six-year old?

Before I even sat down in front of Mrs. X, I knew the answer was the latter: Ben had gotten a fresh start.  A redo, a do-over.  “You know, I’ve been looking forward to this meeting,” beamed Mrs. X.  “It’s been like night and day, like a sun rising, ever since you made the brave step of getting him the help he needed.”

“Really?”  I couldn’t breathe so I tried to sit down without smashing my knees into the tiny table in front of me.  I’m clumsy like that.

“Yes.  Really.  The transformation has been the biggest one I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a lot of AD/HD kids.  Sometimes the meds help a little.  Sometimes a lot.  In his case, he’s gone from . . .”  Mrs. X paused to find a tactful way to say it.  “Well, from struggling, to being helpful, and attentive, and funny and . . . oh so kind.  I mean, he was always sweet and affectionate, but my gosh.  Now he gives me flowers, tells me how much he loves me—“

—“He’s always been so affectionate and sweet,” I murmured, my heart hurting.

She nodded.  “The great thing is that you made this change for him early in the year.  So his classmates won’t always remember him getting in trouble.  I mean, they all struggled to figure out the rules in the beginning, so he didn’t stick out as much in their minds.  And now he’s getting along with his classmates.  He’s funny and well-liked and . . .”  Her voice trailed off and she smiled at me.

Some decisions, when viewed from hindsight, seem obvious.  Other ones seem divinely inspired, like small miracles.  But the decision to medicate our son was more like a Hail-Mary pass thrown into a swirling gust of wind: a combination of savvy quarterbacking, divine guidance and a tad of blind luck all in one.

 

 

 

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Is There One Way to Write?

When I started this blog, I promised to be honest.  Of course, being honest doesn’t mean saying whatever the hell is on my mind, either.  If I’m not getting along with someone I love, I’m not going to go public with it.  My relationships mean more than my audience reach or edification.  But I can talk about me, if I’m losing my mind, or losing my shit, as I prefer to say (or did prefer until a few people challenged me for having my characters cuss too much) then I might as well talk about it with you.

I used to write this mind-bendingly honest stuff when I started my Facebook Page.  8,000 fans later, I wonder if maybe I’ve lost myself in the never-ending search for greater popularity.  This need to find an ever-greater number of LIKES on my page speaks of hubris and dependence on others to define my own self-worth, so I resist it, oh man, how I resist it.  Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate being liked.  In fact, I love it . . . right up until I find that I’m forgetting what makes me—me.

And that’s where I am now.  It’s not just my Facebook Page, or even my blog here, which is much smaller.  It’s my book.

I’m almost done with draft three, which consists of fixing inconsistency in POV (point of view). Mostly this is an easy fix.  I have three main characters and each scene either needs to be written from the perspective of one of the three characters or it can be written from third-party omniscient POV.  The thing that is confusing me to the point where I want to send the entire manuscript to the trash is if I’m in third party omniscient, how much can I show of each character’s thoughts and feelings?

I’ll figure it out, no doubt.  But I don’t want to lose my mental stability in the process.  I’m trying so hard to hold onto the essence of what makes these scenes true and real and (I hope) beautiful . . . and now I hold this Exacto-knife to each scene, cutting the excess.  But I’m scared, so scared, I’m cutting the essence, the muscle, the dimples that make a face special—OUT along with the fat.

I’ve studied both the science and the art of writing and I’m an artist, not a scientist, when it comes down to it.  I write according to feel and I try to hear my characters in each word I fashion.  I think great writing is almost a mystical process, one that unites mind and heart and soul with a seamless tap of fingers on keyboard.  There are some right and some wrong ways to go about writing, but if I had to define what makes a book great, I’d have to respond that it sounds or reads or even feels right.

Some people speak of magic formulas and objective guidelines to writing novels.  And for sure, there are rules and guidelines, but so often, these rules and guidelines exist to be flouted.  For me, citing and obeying too many rules and techniques can reduce the magic of writing to a mathematical formula, or what my friend The Monster in Your Closet calls “The Dread Writamatician.”  And when I try to apply these formulas to my manuscript, I skate into a place of angst and frustration that feels all too close to mental instability.

That’s why I quit writing so many years ago.  I could not reconcile objective standards with my inner definition of beauty, and I fucking lost it.  Really—lost it.  I made it through all of that, but only after I chose surviving over living my dream, and if I have to make the same choice, I think I’d choose a balanced, sane life over art again.  But it’s not an easy choice.  I love my art that much.

So where am I?  This third draft is pretty much making me crazy.  I’m scared and frustrated and for some reason, angry, and I don’t know why I’m angry.  I think I’m angry with myself, to be honest.

But that said–I’m fine.  Well, no, I‘m not at all fine, but I will be fine after I get over this funk.  I know I’m putting too much pressure on myself and I’m closer than I’ve ever been to sending Ripple to the trash bin.  I won’t.  Instead, I’ll go for a run and I won’t stop until this pain of creating makes me feel too much like destroying.

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How to Talk to a Friend in Need

A dear friend contacted me this morning with a question.  A problem really.  He read my blog on rendering assistance to strangers or friends who are suicidal on social media and he got confused and made a mess of things with someone he loves dearly.  And he needed me to explain how to fix it.  In short, his wife got upset during an argument and she confessed that when they fought, it made her want to hurt herself.

            A word about my friend.  Let’s call him Gary.  I’ve known him since my undergraduate days and he is a good guy.  He is a scientist and if you are familiar with the Myers-Briggs test, he possesses the classic scientist’s personality: INTJ.  Which is to say that Gary reminds me of Spock.  He is logical.  And he is a good man.  Smart, funny and loyal.  But Gary is not sensitive and he is not subtle.

            Gary heard his wife, “Joan” utter the words, “I want to hurt myself” and he immediately thought of what I wrote about suicidal threats.  He assumed she was suicidal.  So he asked her, “Does that mean I need to call the police?”  Needless to say (and I am chuckling now because Gary and Joan hugged it out tonight), this wasn’t the best response.

What do you say to someone like Joan in this sort of situation?  Most of all, you listen to what Joan has to say.  Sit down beside her.  Ask if she needs a hug.  Remain calm and try not to overreact.  Joan may just need to vent.  She trusts you enough to tell you she is in pain.  Whatever you do, do not abuse this trust by blaming her for feeling depressed.  Give her the gift of time and be patient with her.  Be honest with her but remember that she cannot process too much right now, so keep it simple.

After she tells you what is wrong, thank her for talking with you.  That may sound odd, but it took a lot for her to reveal her vulnerabilities to you, and she won’t feel as guilty or scared if she isn’t worried about how you will react.  A simple “thank you” will help ground her and let her know that you do not resent her or think that she is weak.

Tell her you love her and you are concerned about her.  If you can, sit with her for a while.  I know you must be busy (we all are busy) but time is one of the greatest gifts you can give someone you love.  Ask her if she is okay.  If she asks you if she is going to be okay, promise her that you will always be there for her, and if you believe she will be okay, tell her.  Never lie, but I for one appreciate reassuring words.

Finally, remember that you must take care of yourself as well.  Give as much as you can to Joan, but realize when you are over matched.  If she avers that she is feeling suicidal, ask her to call her therapist or her psychologist.  If Joan is suicidal, please do not leave her alone.  None of us are an island right?  There is a time when you must act as a bridge.  If you cannot help Joan, please do not hesitate to help her call a professional, a suicide hotline or offer to drive her to the hospital.  You are doing God’s work.  Know this.

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