The biggest problem with mental illness is not whether we label it a physical, spiritual, or mental problem. The biggest problem is that it is a very hard thing to convince someone that the way their mind works–the only mind they’ve ever known–is faulty. I think it’s much easier to believe that any other part of my body needs help: my eyes? Fine, give me a pair of glasses. My endocrine system? Fine, teach me how to monitor my glucose and give myself shots of insulin. My immune system? Give me radiation and chemo. But, these bodily failures are not who I am, anymore than the alternator failing redefines the definition of my SUV. I am not near-sightedness or diabetes or cancer. But when the illness changes my thought patterns and behavior, how do I disentangle myself without annihilating ME in the process?
When my loved ones began calling my sanity into question, I felt attacked. Me? Crazy? We forget that this organic illness grew so covertly that it was impossible to recognize at first. My illness wooed me, made me feel important and special, emboldened and entitled, long before it scared the living daylights out of me. The world of the mentally ill is not only haunted but also cushioned by a web of delusions. Some of these are great, even if from the outside I may have looked like I was falling apart. When I was sick, it didn’t matter what I weighed; I was more sexy than any sane woman could ever feel, with unending appeal and more entitlement. Money never ran out; there was a credit card or a windfall coming around every corner. There was no end to what I was capable of, even when I failed.
When I became aware that these self-delusions were, in fact, delusions, I mourned them like deceased loved ones. I ached for the confidence I possessed, for the euphoria of a shopping binge, for the confidence that I was always the most alluring woman in the room. I ached for a mind that did not register maxxed out credit cards as a reason to stop spending, or a good buzz a reason to stop drinking. I ached for the limitless, the superwoman I had been, all the while coming to terms with the fact that I had never been a super woman at all. I longed for a life without limits and consequences: a life that is only possible if I am sick.
Why would I endure such a tragic reality? Why not jump off this desperately sad life raft of lithium and doctors into the waters of insanity for the rest of my life? What could possibly be worth never feeling smart again, never being skinny again, never being productive again? There was only one reason for me: love. Once I had seen the looks on my family members’ faces the first time they visited me in the mental health unit, I knew I had to stay alive for them. I didn’t want my family to endure one more minute of not knowing where I was, or having to live with the unfinished grief of my suicide. I knew I may never be the Taylor they remembered, may never succeed at anything else in my life but staying alive and staying sane. My love for them drove me to swallow my sanity cocktail every morning and every night.
For every patient, there is a different formula for sanity. No one gets healthy unless they own their problem, just like an addict must own their addiction. No amount of loving someone who is mentally ill, staying with them, enabling them will help them to see their illness separate from themselves. Just as an alcoholic has to hit rock bottom, so do we who suffer within our own minds. We, too, are addicted–maybe not to a substance–but to the unreal worlds our minds fashion for us. Reality must break our false worlds apart until we can no longer justify our insanity.
Whatever that rock bottom is, I am so grateful mine came. Without my loved ones asking me to leave their homes, and in some cases their lives, I would never have ended up trying to kill myself. Consequently, I may never have received the help I needed. My loved ones may have enabled my behavior a month or a year longer, long enough to keep me off the streets, and maybe long enough for my illness to progress enough for me to no longer care about them at all (Bipolar 1 Disorder is progressive).
So, if you are trying to enable someone with a severe mental illness, please stop. Know that it is their power alone to receive help, and that they must come to that on their own. The only hope they have is to exhaust their resources and hit rock bottom. Eventually, credit, luck, and even people will run out. Eventually, there comes a moment of truth. But not if you’re standing in the way.