Oh, this is very common. That is anxiety. This is depression. Take that pill. Call this therapist. He will help you to build up some coping skills. A few more milligrams of this chemical in your brain, a few more tools in your emotional tool belt, and you’ll feel just fine: Coping.
What is it exactly that you’re helping me cope with?
Well… whatever it is that’s bothering you. Feeling sad for no reason. Feeling afraid for no reason.
[pause] There are reasons.
I’m growing more and more skeptical as to whether talk therapy, SSRIs, and other prescribed mental health solutions can actually save me. It’s a seven year journey (at least) I’ve been on now, of trying to achieve balance, of desperately seeking a way to make my brain a more hospitable environment.
Since I’ve started talking more openly about mental health struggles in the past years, I’ve gotten a lot of “me-too’s” in response. I struggle with depression. Me too. I wrestle with anxiety. Me too. I am a survivor of trauma, I have encountered thoughts of suicide, I use substances to cope, etc, etc. Yeah. Me too. This is a relief to me, and it is also a tragedy.
When it comes to any type of stigmatized behavior, characteristic, identity, normalization is good. And receiving unconditional love and acceptance from the people around you is even better. Shame maintains its power over us through silence. Shame uses silence to justify the lie that we are unlovable, unworthy, unacceptable as we are. My only successful weapon against shame has been to take the risk of speaking, of sharing, of being honest and vulnerable. There is such relief in proclaiming through the mess of snot and tears, “I am not okay. I am not doing well. I’m just not.” And to hear someone say in response, “I hear you. I believe you. And by the way, I know what it is like to not be okay. It is so hard, and so scary, and I’m sorry.” It can mean everything to hear that. It has meant everything to me to hear that.
Because I know how much it has meant, I want to try to share this truth about me when I am ill and when I am well; this truth being that I live with a “mental interesting-ness,” as my new friend Taylor describes it. Because when I am ill and not okay and not doing well, and I look around at all the other people who seem to be doing just fine, who seem to be getting by, the opposite of normalization happens. Then I can only conclude that it’s something wrong with me, something unique to me. So I want to live honestly, in the hope that it may mean everything to someone to else to hear me say: I am okay today. I was not so okay yesterday. I may or may not be okay tomorrow. I will take it as it comes.
Following the “me-too,” there often comes an anecdote of what helped them from “then” to “now.” Not in a way that tramples my feeling or experience, but in an honest “I am inviting you into my life and story” type of way. The challenge with this is that every person and every life and every story is different.
I know people who say that prescription medication saved them. I know people who say that smoking weed regularly is the most adaptive way to manage their anxiety. I know people who have decided to embrace their big feelings on an unrestrained scale, and to accept that they are a person who loves and weeps, rejoices and grieves, rages and fears, fully, loudly. I know people who feel that talk therapy and behavioral strategies are the best way to go. I know people who have leaned into their faith, leaned into their life’s purpose, as a way to regain some sense of self-esteem and self-actualization. I know people who have fled from religion and ambition without ever turning back.
There are no guarantees. No one lives inside your brain except you. No one lives inside my brain except me. And so it seems to me that these struggles with “mental-interestingness” are both universal, and painfully unique to each individual. For me? I do the talk therapy. I fill the prescriptions. Sometimes it seems to help, and I sleep better, have a normal appetite, wash the dishes without crying. And other times it is solely an act of faith. It is me saying to myself and the world, “I am doing my part. I am not powerless. I am not trapped in this reality, and I will leverage every tool available to me in order to get better.”
But more and more, I just don’t think it’s me that needs fixing. I don’t think it’s my brain chemistry that needs adjusting, or my perspective that needs changing, my coping that needs to be better developed. There is nothing wrong with me.
As I said, I’ve been getting a lot of “me-too’s.” And I’ve especially been getting them from people of color, and especially especially from queer people of color. And it is breaking my heart, and lighting a fire in my belly.
I watched the Netflix documentary “What happened, Miss Simone?” I found myself resisting the narrative of the tortured artist and her tragic brilliance. The interviews with her living family members painted her as volatile, not in control of her anger, sexually demanding, unrelenting and aggressive in her desire for racial equality. But when I see her performances and hear the words written in her journals, I see a woman born into a world and a time that could not accommodate her brilliance and passion and fervor. She had the audacity to speak her truth, and the truth of her people, and she had the conviction to know it was the only art worth making. There was nothing wrong with her.
Sandra Bland was pulled over in Texas for changing lanes without signaling. The white police officer asked her to put out her cigarette, and when she refused with an unapologetic tone, he pulled her from her car, pushed her to the ground, and placed her under arrest.. for resisting arrest. Days later, she was found dead in her jail cell. Initial reports say she committed suicide by hanging herself. Family members, activists, people of color reject this idea, saying that is just not something she would do. But whether or not she did. Whether there was foul play and someone else was responsible for her death by action or coercion. Whether she took her own life as an act of resistance, an act of desperation, an act of rage against a world that allowed her to be dehumanized on such slim pretenses. Whatever the case. There was nothing wrong with her.
People of color are pathologized for our reactions to a hostile world that seeks to annihilate us at every turn. We are called self-destructive for the ways in which we cope, the way we reenact patterns of trauma on ourselves, on our loved ones and on our communities. Is it any surprise? It is any wonder that we smoke, drink, fuck, binge ourselves on food or sensation or ambition, flirt with death, teetering on the edge of oblivion and ecstasy? This world was not built for us, nor has it welcomed us. How could we be okay? How could we feel at peace or at home, how could we not feel maladjusted to the fuckery that surrounds us? Nothing about these power arrangements is okay. Something is wrong, but it is not us.
There is nothing wrong with me or with you. There is nothing wrong with us. Everything is wrong around us. So many of us are working hard to fix things, to create new things, to build a new world that will welcome us and lift us up. And often it seems that it is those who do this work that are the most vulnerable. I don’t know what to do about that. But I do know that there is nothing wrong with us.