Where is the line drawn when things have gotten bad enough to need help, and how do you define that? When I look at other’s experience with mental health challenges, when they describe their symptoms and how it made them know something was wrong, I always try to relate it my my experience. The easiest way to assimilate something is to make it relatable to you.
So when I hear about things like a constant separation of mind from body, uncontrollable racing thoughts and rumination, paranoia, extreme moodiness, uncontrollable emotional reactions and episodes, dissociation, insomnia and oversleeping, panic, hysteria, a feeling of heaviness, body aches and pains, fatigue, feeling angry, sad, edgy, burdened, hopeless, worthless, powerless, afraid, and waking up daily to life generally being a drag, it always hits me with such familiarity because all of that was always so normal for me. As well as all of those factors infiltrating my actions, words, my whole life.
Imagine all of that being your daily norm. My problem was that I didn’t know any better, yet somehow I was still able to eek some satisfaction and happiness out of certain aspects of my life. Otherwise it was perpetually existing in fight or flight mode feeling all those symptoms and feelings. Because this was my norm I didn’t understand how to act on things, I could only ever react. But I’d still managed to protect myself enough to keep it together on the outside by keeping my mind closed, heart closed, and often times eyes closed. Looking at old photos of myself I could see in my face and in my posture the weight of the world I had no idea I was carrying.
I clearly never had a benchmark for my wellness. I never knew where the line was drawn where I could say “something’s wrong with me, I need help”. As long as I felt what I perceived as functional, I didn’t know I needed help. And even if I did, I don’t know that I would have asked for it. It just was never really an option for me. Before I was on my own as an adult I knew that my wellness was my parent’s responsibility so I’d incorrectly assumed that if they weren’t actively taking any steps to help readjust the norm I was experiencing, no matter how much of it they bore witness to or not, then I must not need help. So I pressed on thinking this is the way things are supposed to be.
When I began to fully unravel around the age of 22, all I could really glean from it was that I was losing my mind, spinning out of control, and at this point the only one any longer responsible for my own well being. No more mind over matter, my mind is my matter. I had no idea what was happening to me but trying to get help all of a sudden seemed like the only answer.
Now, over a decade later and in recovery, I read or listen to others’ accounts of their mental health struggles and how or when they knew something was wrong. I find it incredibly fascinating to hear about people’s personal yardstick of wellness and sanity. When someone says something like “I had an entire week where I didn’t want to get out of bed. I felt really heavy, distracted and emotionally off-balance”, or “My thoughts would race, I was feeling apathetic and joyless toward life”, or “I stopped eating regularly and began substituting food with alcohol”, my reaction is generally to the effect of “Wait, that’s what made you realize something was wrong and you needed help? I lived that almost every day of my life. I had to lose my goddamn mind to have that revelation!”
I had to look up the examples I used of where the line is drawn to write this post because even still I sometimes have trouble delineating my reactions and behaviors as either triggers or genuine responses. That’s not to say I can never tell the difference, I’m better accustomed to that discipline by now as I’ve worked to build my personal protocol for working through whatever is challenging me. But it can still be a gray area for me to know where the line is drawn between acting and reacting, especially when in the moment.
“When I learned the other way people thought” was another good account that hit home, too. It used to be that I didn’t realize it wasn’t a shitty storm cloud inside everyone else’s head most of the time as it was in mine. It’s also difficult to see outside of your mental illness box when you’re that deep in it, so you can’t really use that as a tool for comparison. It’s tough to look around you and wonder why everyone else seems lighter and happier than you when you’re too tunnel-visioned by your own little personal, yet normal to you, hell to be able to see it.
It takes examples like this to really shake me, “The first moment was when I was 12 and I seriously considered killing myself rather than have to change in front of other boys in gym class. I thought it was normal to be constantly thinking about suicide when I was younger”, or “When I found myself sitting on a bridge with pocket beers after a 2 day binge. I had spent my entire paycheck on alcohol and went MIA all weekend. Lost my job, was kicked out of the house. I spent several years self medicating on any substance I could get a hold of. It wasn’t until being pronounced dead twice after ODing on heroin until I realized maybe this shit isn’t working”.
Despite getting a reaction out of me, it’s still easy for me to see how these types of behavior can easily become someone’s norm when they never really knew any different. So when someone recounts their experience with something like “I knew when colors weren’t as bright and music no longer made me want to dance”, I don’t by any means intend to minimize their feelings, but relative to the way I used to feel I have no idea what they’re talking about.
I’ll never forget when I was tested for ADHD in my mid-twenties, I told the psychiatrist my story and she called me “a survivor”. It blew me away. Me a survivor? No way, survivors are people who have lived through cancer, or rape, or wars, or car wrecks. I wasn’t a survivor, just a product of my environment looking to shed the layers that were unraveling and be on my way to feeling mostly in one piece. At that time I had no idea exactly what a survivor I was, I just thought I was carrying on. Turns out I’d spent my whole life surviving and had no concept because survival mode was always my norm. I’m happy to say things are exponentially different these days and much of that gray area has become more black and white.
Peace, love, and wellness.