The one thing that no novel or film about people dealing with mental illness ever captures: the tedium.
From “The Three Faces of Eve” to “Sybil” to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” to “A Beautiful Mind” to “As Good as It Gets,” the lives of those with mental disorders may be funny, tragic, depressing, uplifting. But they’re never dull.
Because if you live in that world, if you’ve lived every day of your life in that world, you know the story’s different. You know that struggling to see the world clearly is both boring and exhausting.
Boring because you know that the same things you struggled with yesterday will be waiting for you tomorrow as soon as you wake up, and tiring for the very same reason.
You can look back ten years, fifteen years, twenty years—as far back as you can remember—and recognize that your presence in the world has always been, well, off.
If you’re lucky, you see the dim glimmer of a time before. A time when you felt normal, felt the way everyone else seems to feel as they go about their lives. But probably you don’t have that. Maybe because the circumstances you grew up in had their own chaos (that may or may not have contributed to your own internal dis-equilibrium). Maybe because you found out early that you experienced the world differently from those around you. So it may be that even your earliest memories, going back decades, are tainted with turmoil.
When things go well, you can forget that for a while. But when they don’t, the familiar sense of the solitude of your oddness returns. The cold distance of it encircles you again.
And the solitude can be the hardest part. Because, really, no one wants to talk about any of this.
Not family because, well, they’ve lived with this as long as you have. They may be working as hard to hide from it as you are.
Friends and loved ones may try, but even with the best of intentions, it can sound to them like the same old same old: You’re feeling down; you’re feeling anxious; you feel numb; you feel tired; you feel sad. You run out of mundane adjectives, and those close to you run out of stamina. You can see the eyes glaze over, not because they don’t care but because just dealing with you over time can tax their emotional resources.
Maybe you have a therapist; maybe you even have a good one (if you’re lucky enough to have good insurance or financially secure enough to afford to pay yourself). But you can never put out of your mind that even they only listen to you because they’re paid. Not that you begrudge them what they earn. If you don’t want to listen to what goes inside your head, why should anyone else do it for free?
Maybe you attend a 12-step group, one of the few places where get to talk about what goes on inside your head and hear about others in the same boat. But that can also feel too much like the family you came from: the emotional turmoil, the power struggles, the clash of values and styles. So even that can carry you back to square one.
Even in groups that function well, you always have pieces that don’t seem to fit in the space. They get the mental illness piece, but not the race piece, or the race piece but not the class piece, or the class piece but not the gender piece, or the gender piece but not the domestic violence piece. Maybe one out of four. Maybe two out of five. But never a place for you to feel whole.
All in all, your unlikely to have more than one or two good friends who really do ask and really do listen and really do tell you, as often as they get the opportunity, that you are loved and valued.
And then, of course—you being you—guilt rises inside you, and you wonder about being a drain on their lives and their time and their limited emotional resources. You think about calling or texting or emailing, and you worry about dragging them down too, or exhausting your good will with them.
You think of all the people who’ve had to deal with you in the course of your life, and you wish you could give them some kind of emotional refund for the time they spend on you. You wish you could call them and say, “Here are the x hundreds or x thousands of hours you invested in me.” Or “I can’t give you back the whole 2,000 hours, but you can trade them in for, say, 500 hours with the Dalai Lama or Fred Rogers or Malala Yousafzai or Toni Morrison.”
You see the people walking around in the world—people on the sidewalks, people you work with, neighbors and acquaintances, the parents of your kids’ friends or classmates—and they seem so regular.
You wonder, with awe and envy, what it must be like to be that normal. Or you wonder, also with awe and envy, what it must be like to hide your turmoil that well.
And, I don’t know, maybe that’s what art is for. Maybe that’s why some people dance or sing or play music of write poems or act. Maybe one of those things, or something like it, will help you feel less alone. For a while.
I do know this, though: You aren’t alone. We’re out here, trudging through these hours the same as you. And that’s something.