When you have issues with mental and emotional stability, time becomes a very curious phenomenon. Depressions will lag endlessly, each second an excruciating blight upon your existence. When you are manic, you will find yourself missing days or weeks at a time. And when you actually find respite in the in-between periods of relative calm, you’ll find that years, or even decades, of your life have passed without your knowing.
I imagine this is similar to what waiting for war to end feels like: long periods of hopelessness and sorrow followed by maniacal bursts of desperation and life, followed by tenuous, anxiety-ridden ceasefires full of mourning and tentative optimism. The person who is mentally sound is like the citizen of a country at peace, prosperous, and stable; the person who is mentally unstable is more like the citizen in a country at war, plunged into economic depression, with no way of knowing what will happen tomorrow.
Each day is a battle when your brain is actively working to destroy you. Getting out of bed in the morning, remembering to shower, forcing yourself to eat, and paying attention to important due dates is no small task when you have no desire to be alive. (I mean, think about it… who cares about what’s happening to their body when they’d rather be dead?) If you’re blessed enough to live on both sides of the poles, brief moments of powerful mania will threaten to destroy your entire life as you know it. Will it be impulsive, disastrous spending? Uncontrollable physical rage? Hypersexuality and risky behavior? One in five bipolar persons will commit suicide. 90% of marriages involving a bipolar person fail.
Many of us also live with the presence of voices in our heads: voices other than our own, voices that are sometimes abusive and violent toward us. They whisper seditious judgments all day long. They constantly undermine our sense of self worth. They demand our suffering, and laugh at our desperate attempts to resist their urges to self-destruct. It’s like living with an abuser that you literally can’t get away from.
When you succeed, these voices provide constant backdrop of scorn and judgement and criticism, and sometimes genuine physical and psychological torture. When you finally accomplish a goal, you worry it’s not good enough and refuse to take any pride in it, because you feel like a fraud and a liar and worry your joy will be taken from you. “I did a thing,” you say to yourself mentally, and you give it a little nod and feel some subdued satisfaction and then move on to the next goal that may take you days or weeks to complete. Medication may or may not silence these : often, it’s a matter of at least turning them down whilst turning the other voices up.
Just like in a country at war, mental illness can also drastically change who you are as a person in a disgustingly short time frame. Some people process it by withdrawing; by hardening themselves to injustice and systemic abuses. Some people rebel against it to the point of their own destruction. Most people, however, become softer and kinder after they have lived through war: the widows, the orphans, the properly-cared for vets. This is borne out of the understanding of suffering, as well as the recognition of humanity’s ability to adapt and survive, even in the most horrific circumstances. It’s a quality developed in people who understand what’s it’s like to be teetering on the edge- the edge of sanity, the edge of survival. It’s the unconditional understanding that everyone is doing the best they can, with whatever tools they’ve managed to procure up to this point. It’s a recognition that darkness is an immutable aspect of the human soul, one that’s more prominent in individuals and societies facing chronic pain, poverty, and instability. And it’s the ultimate ability for forgiveness: the prescience to recognize human behavior as undesirable, without condemning the human as a whole.
It is not hard to see how this constant trauma and instability would have a direct effect on the overall health and well-being of an individual, which feeds into an endless loop of poor mental health causing poor physical health and poor physical health exacerbating poor mental health. These factors then play interplay with other factors, like access to resources, childhood experiences, class or ethnic upbringing, severity of dysfunction, etc. To my benefit, I was raised in a higher-education household to white parents in the wealthiest nation on Earth. I attended private school as a child and was blessed with a natural intellect. To my detriment, I was born female and emotionally unstable in a grossly misogynistic and exploitative society. Add to that an absent male role model and early adolescence, in which my child’s body was hypersexualized long before I had developed a coherent sense of identity, and I ended up being a textbook example of how childhood risk factors can sabotage an adult life.
Some people don’t understand the need for this Intersectionality: but the world full of holes if you don’t take it into consideration. The process of identifying these pieces of myself has led me to seek the pieces in others. I no longer see the world in black and white terms. I understand that nothing is as simple as it seems. The thief is trying to survive. The obnixious refugee experienced brutal torture in their homeland. The rude woman in the grocery line just got fired and can’t pay her rent. The person who “selfishly” committed suicide was suffering. The mother who murdered her children last week was psychotic and not in control of her own brain. People can do terrible things, but that does not make them evil incarnate.
This deeper understanding of human frailty shapes thoughts and behaviors and fundamentally alters how one approaches the world. It has the potential to make the world a kinder, gentler place- but only if we are serious about lifting people up. Only if we’re willing to accept that everybody is different, and some people need extra support to be successful in life. Only if we’re willing to abandon our cultural obsession with perfection and independence.
We must expand mental healthcare services. We have to find a way to make sure every American has access to quality services; that they have the opportunity to build a relationship with doctors and therapists without the chronic turnover that currently makes progress so unpredictable. We must invest in and expand education, including teaching our children about disease and illness, and how to help. We must retrain our police forces to properly interact with the mentally unwell. We must ensure that food assistance is readily available, because it’s almost impossible to get well when you have poor nutrition.
And most importantly, we need to take a step back and think long and hard about how we define value in our society. This applies not only to those with mental disorders, but people with physical handicaps, as well as women, minorities, the poor, and our prisoners. For a nation based on individualism, the push for conformity and normalcy in our culture is unreal. We also need to move away from the notion that material success is proof of Divine favor. We need to stop worshipping money as our source of life and self-worth.
It is time to listen to the moral and spiritual wisdom of experience, of adversity, of suffering. It is time to stop being afraid of different ideologies, cultures, and gods. It is time to realize that the way we treat the lowest among us is a better indicator of our moral value than how many zeros appear on our paycheck.
It is time to start living as if we truly were the greatest nation on Earth.