As far as conventional standards go, I am a fairly accomplished human being.
I have a full time job in the heart of downtown Toronto. I work in the field I studied at school, which is a claim not many people can make these days. Speaking of school, I have a college diploma and a university degree with a double major. I go to church on Sundays and share an apartment with a friend. I blog, play several instruments, and go to concerts. I’m working steadily towards improving myself, and am pursuing well defined goals.
I am a spouse and 2.3 children away from being somebody’s stereotypical idealization of a perfectly normal 29 year old woman.
I struggle with mental illness. I’ve mentioned it before in passing, and I’m still unsure as to the amount of detail I intend to go into here. However, something happened this past Thursday which I felt compelled to document, so here I go.
Despite medication, I am in the midst of a depressive episode. On a daily basis I go though life in a cloud of hopelessness. Things which “healthy” people might consider mild irritants strike me as soul-crushing. What they might handle with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s I handle with a utility knife.
I’d like to take a moment here for a sidebar. Mental illness is not well understood by a lot of people. They seem to think of “mood disorders” as emotional states. The thing is, yes, they are, but emotional states are not devoid of physical attributes. The fact that mood disorders can be treated with drugs — physical stimuli — should be the first clue.
When something makes a person happy, it’s because an outside event has triggered the release of certain chemicals or hormones which are experienced as happiness. When a person is depressed, they don’t get that rush of chemicals, or don’t experience it properly. Biochemically speaking, depression renders a person incapable of happiness. Fleeting glee, sure. One can still laugh at a joke or smile at a memory, but being able to sit in a state of contentment is illusive, and, in a way, physically impossible. Telling a depressed person to cheer up is like telling a cripple to walk it off. Biochemistry forbids it, and kind words are like sending flowers to a quadriplegic: a lovely sentiment, but functionally useless.
Depression is but one aspect of my mental health. I have also struggled with various eating disorders, and a few things for which I do not yet have names. This blog, however, is about dissociation.
Thursday night I went to therapy. We were discussing my coping mechanisms, and one of them is my tendency to fantasize. In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with a healthy fantasy life. One problem is when it begins to replace a person’s real life; when one gives up social opportunities in favour of imagined ones. Another is when a person loses track of what is real, and what is not. I flirt with both of these issues more often than I’d like.
While addressing these tendencies, my therapist walked me through an exercise which was, frankly, terrifying. I can’t recall the specifics of how it came about, but I was essentially confronting the dissociative side of my personality.
I wish I could say I came out the winner.
For several agonizing minutes, I lost my grasp on reality. I began to doubt that I was a person. In fact, I became quite certain that I wasn’t; that I was an adjunct personality of my roommate. She was real, and I was just a voice in the back of her head. The office around me was a figment of my imagined imagination, and my therapist, a coping mechanism. I was terrified by the thought of looking at her, gripped by the certainty that, having realized nothing was real, she wouldn’t have a face. My eyes darted around the room seeking an anchor. I looked at clocks, hoping to see a discrepancy which might indicate that I was merely dreaming. Tears poured down my face as my therapist tried to talk me back into my head.
Eventually I came back to myself… sort of. We were able to finish the session and book another, but as I walked down the hallways of the almost deserted hospital and stood at the streetcar stop, I was still gripped by paranoia. I kept mentally testing my environment for signs that it was a dream. I stared at people, searching for inconsistencies. I unsuccessfully willed myself to fly.
Everyone seemed to be looking at me (rationally, they may have been. My eyes were red and swollen, my shirt was damp, and I was visibly tense, flinching at every noise and sudden movement). I was sure they were actors, or else mental projections of the mind which had produced me. The world looked and sounded artificial. It took me perhaps three hours to regain trust in my environment, and even now, 24 hours later, I still feel somewhat disconnected.
Thursday evening was a living nightmare. I felt as if I’d tumbled into a Neil Gaiman novel (though, now that I think about it, if it turned out I was a figment of an imagined universe, that’s a pretty badass imagination from which to be spawned).
My point — and yes, I do have one — is that, working in downtown Toronto, I pass ‘Crazies’ everyday. There are people on the sidewalks in the same unwashed clothes, asking for money when they’re lucid or talking to themselves when they aren’t. Sometimes they multitask, talking to themselves with a hand or battered Timmie’s cup extended. There are people out there who wonder how, with all the support networks and healthcare opportunities Canada has to offer, a person can slip so far into the cracks. Some people react with pity. Others, disdain.
I don’t wonder, because I know how close I am to being one of them. I’ve seen the edge of reality and have dangled a foot over it. It would be very easy for me to lose myself, and, having lost that, my job and home as well. If I didn’t take the time to call my mother an inform her of my decision to vacate sanity, she might never find me among the vagrants of Canada’s largest city. Perhaps I wouldn’t survive long enough to be found.
I am 29. I am educated. I am employed. I vote and pay my taxes. I am everything my family, friends, and nation expect me to be.
And I am a hair’s breadth away from being unmade.
***The title is a reference to a song by I Fight Dragons from their album Kaboom!
***This was poorly timed.