Five years ago, when I was 18, I was checked into a hospital near my hometown. I had tremors, odd thoughts and acted erratically. I was eventually diagnosed with bipolar type I, a serious mental illness. Out of treatment six months later, I was eased off medication to the point of lucidity, at which point I thought, My God, I’m a crazy person now.
Living with a mental disorder has become my new normal, but it’s a difficult thing to discuss with other people, especially those who don’t suffer themselves. Often, I conceal it. Yet I’m endlessly fascinated with whatever it is I’ve got. I want to know more. As I see increasing attention paid to mental issues in our society, I know that I’d like to be a part of the discussion.
I’ve had success in classes, jobs, friendships and relationships — in spite of or because of my condition. I consider myself lucky because although I am someone several degrees closer to addiction, suicide and violence, I don’t personally deal with these issues. I also don’t relish the association. I don’t want to be seen as crazy. Yet, by not talking about it, I am left with family and friends who don’t understand or even know what I deal with. Mum is not the word here.
I’ve got a story to share about mental health. My perception of mental health, however, is tied up in what psychologist Carl Jung calls the collective unconscious. Discussing my own story and also addressing its place in that zeitgeist would be like planting a tree in a barren wilderness (or something like that). I have to discuss myself, and the collective unconsciousness also. It may seem a bit vague, until you look at the places where cultural biases surface — places like news, cinema, medicine. Let me give some examples.
First, mental disorders are in the news a lot these days. Whether it’s analyzing a homicide or celebrity breakdown, or trying to set up mental aid for the families of Ebola victims. Psychiatry and psychology are considered “softer” sciences, so essentially any issue can be construed as a mental health debate. The stressed-out student, disenfranchised homeless person and other stereotyped people have been political talking points in the news for decades. There is also a continuing debate over effects and methods of psychoanalysis, psychiatry, genealogy and spirituality (from religious exorcisms to zen).
Furthermore, mental health is in cinema all the time, and not just as clichés. Matt Damon in The Informant! (2009) or Bradley Cooper in The Silver Linings Playbook (2012). Something must be sexy about mental illness for such actors to portray it (Clooney is more the norm in Michael Clayton, playing opposite the bipolar role). I don’t see myself when I look at these portrayals, but that’s beside the point. Whether or not you relate to Richard Gere in Mr. Jones (2013) or Claire Danes in “Homeland,” both reduce stigmas and allow for more openness in our culture.
Moreover, in 1999, the Surgeon General released its first report on mental health. One of its findings was that “About one in five Americans experiences a mental disorder in the course of a year. Approximately 15 percent…of [those] adults…experience a co-occurring substance…use disorder, which complicates treatment.” Drugs and disorders blur the trail of cause and effect. When I got a 5150 (police code for constraint for being a mental threat), I wondered how much of my behavior was due to the pot and mushrooms I was currently on, and how much was truly due to my bipolar disorder.
Lastly, drugs seem to play a role in the etiology (or cause) of a mental disease. For me, hallucinogens enhanced my a priori thought patterns, bringing my mania to the surface much sooner in my adulthood. I am thankful I didn’t become addicted to those drugs, knowing others who weren’t so lucky. From cravings to smoking or taking oxycontin or just sharing a drink with friends, those addicted to drugs that trigger (and perhaps cause) their conditions have it tough. I drink occasionally – never been a trigger for me – but wonder whether it’s worth it.
Media, cinema, science, narcotics. These and many more things are bound up with our perception of the mind. In the coming columns I’d like to go into these subjects in depth, using my own personal experience as lense through which to view them. I’d like to share that experience as well, in so much as it can help.
PAUL BEREZOVSKY can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org