Sometimes I sit down to write and the words I use just aren’t right. I find myself talking about my life and I always find the words “mental illness” emerging to describe a period of my life when I felt and appeared lost. I was lost to the regular world and went to a place where there are really very few words that make sense. I emerged from that place after a long time of quiet and heaviness. I walked slowly and I went places I didn’t want to go.
But it is my path. And it brought me here. To you. I talk to you about my coming through mental illness because I know you know what those words mean. At least you have some idea. You’ve been there too. Or you know someone who has. It can mean different things for different people. But there are commonalities. I tell you about that part of my life as my foray into mental illness but I really do that not for myself but just so you understand what I mean. Those words are inadequate and also misleading.
I don’t really own those words for myself when I think about my path and how it has led me here. I know I was hospitalized. I know I had all the signs: “mania,” “psychosis,” “hearing voices,”“grandiose and delusional thinking.” I was there through all of that. I remember it clearly. But the words mental illness don’t help me. They keep me small and sick. They are there to remind me that something is terribly wrong with me and that it is something that will never get better.
If I had to define that time in my life in a way that I could understand I would say I had a spiritual overhaul that changed the course of my life forever. I would say that I had many transformative experiences that just don’t make sense in the culture I live in. I would say I saw both light and dark and that I was wrapped in the blanket of the world of dreams but I was awake. I was awake and aware but I couldn’t understand and neither could the people around me. I was cloaked in the mystery. I went so far away I was almost totally gone. But somehow I managed to come back.
When my children grow older they will read what I have written and say that they have a mother that has been mentally ill. This is the pain that bothers me most of all. I want to protect them, even though they lived through it with me and it affected their lives, too. I want to shield my children, but I am okay with you knowing that I walked that line between what is considered normal and what is considered ill. I crossed over that line more than once. I know you understand and I am just like you and that’s okay with me. I hope it’s okay with you that you are just like me.
I welcome people into my life that are called “mentally ill.” I want to know you and hear your story. I want to laugh about the funny parts and remember the parts that were painful and I want to help heal that pain. I just wish, for both of us, that we could call ourselves something else. I wish we could be seen for our gifts and not what the world thinks is wrong with us. There is a gift here. In you and in me. I know it. It gets covered up because the world doesn’t understand how to see it. It gets overlooked and sometimes buried.
I am in the place where I am uncovering my gift. It took a long time but I got here. It might take the rest of my time here to finish it. But I know that gift is here inside of me. And I know it is not separate from when I was “mentally ill.” I know that was just the beginning. And that it was trying to show me something. Something beautiful. It was crazy, mixed up, topsy turvy. It was sad and glorious at the same time. It was light and it was dark. But it was mine. And it still is.
I hope you can find your own gift. Don’t let the worst experience of your life define who you are every day in a negative way. Don’t let yourself be trapped in the idea of illness so that you disown the part of you that is strong and clear and beautiful. Find your own path. Find that precious jewel in your center and do what you need to do to let it shine for the world. Maybe you are or have been “mentally ill” like I have. Is that really the whole story? Is that where it stops? You have a sensitivity that not everyone has. Remember that and allow yourself to live whole and healthy no matter where you’ve been before. Sure, at times we have been the “ill” ones. But who’s to say that’s who we are really meant to stay? I believe in you. Now it’s time for you to believe in yourself.