The homeless guy who sits outside of the grocery store and talks to himself in gibberish and begs for your spare change.
The kid at school who wears black every day and looks like they don’t wash their hair and draws weird pictures in the back of the classroom.
The disheveled person you are afraid to make eye contact with at the coffee shop or public library whom you pity as they sit and read newspapers and disturb the silence with loud chuckling or mumbling to themselves in between trying to start conversations with put-off and disinterested patrons.
The person who smells like booze and cigarettes standing at the pharmacy counter yelling about their pills and causing a scene.
These have become the faces of mental illness in America. These are the stereotypes that have polluted the way our society regards and treats those with whom we brand as “wacko,” “looney,” and “a dangerous kind of crazy.”
For a long time I thought this way, too. I did not understand what it meant to be a mentally ill person and could only draw from what I had gleaned from the news media and TV and movies about what it looked like.
That all changed for me at the beginning of last Summer. I had a therapy appointment to attend with my psychologist whom I will refer to in my writing as Dr. Finley. It was my fourth month in treatment with her. I was running late to this particular appointment on a Tuesday night in June.
"I’m sorry I’m late. Today was super busy," I explained as I sat down on the couch that I had come to know so closely over the past few months. Dr. Finley fished around her desk for a pen and said there was no need for an apology. Per usual, I was dressed in stretchy black yoga pants and a Florida Gators hoodie with my hair up in a ponytail and a pair of comfy brown flip flop sandals. There was a box of tissues to my left and a pretty coral pink pillow to my right that I liked to hold in my lap during our sessions, occasionally squeezing and gripping with my fingers when the conversation got hard.
Our past few meetings had been purposed for working through isolated memories from my childhood that had had a severely traumatic effect on me. Most of these events were experiences I had never spoken about to anyone. And if I had, never at great length or with much detail. The goal of this was to get me to a place where I could talk about these memories and recollect them in a way that no longer gave them power over me or conjured feelings of debilitating fear, shame or humiliation. The memory I had been working with Dr. Finley on at this particular time last June involved my stepfather and a 911 call gone wrong.
But before I go further here, it’s important that you know some back-story.
I grew up without a father. My dad died from a heroin overdose when I was five. He was an addict and a dealer who spent time in and out of jail for most of his life. He died on a Saturday in the shower, where my brother found him while my mom was flipping burgers on the grill outside. After his death my mother remarried and the man she chose had a series of affairs and became abusive. She left him. Two years later she married again when I was around nine or ten. He turned out to be an alcoholic. At the time they married, my mother worked an overnight shift at the local hospital. She would leave at 7 p.m. and return at 7 a.m. the next morning, leaving me and my two big brothers home alone with my step dad for twelve hours. Thirty minutes after she’d leave, he’d be two or three beers into a case of Bud Light, which made him say funny things and act more kind and loving than usual. After six or seven beers, however, his mood would change. Instead of saying nice things and buying us ice cream or promising trips to Disneyworld, he would yell and call us names, lock us out of the house, and do and say things that should never be done to a child. For instance, on one occasion he gave me a one-hundred-dollar bill just for wiping down the kitchen counters. I was too young to understand that he was tipsy. The day after that he got drunk and accused me of stealing the money from him and as a punishment, smashed my bedside lamp, cut the wire that connected my TV to the outlet in the wall with a pair of scissors, kicked down my bedroom door, and poured apple juice all over my mattress.
This is the man my mother married with the hopes of giving me and my brothers a dad. And also the same man who gave me the small scar I have on my right arm from where he burned me with a cigarette on the 4th of July. I think I was in sixth grade.
Now let’s go back to that Tuesday night appointment with Dr. Finley and the 911 call.
I was 12. My mom was at work overnight at the local hospital. It was pouring rain outside and my step dad was drunk. My brothers weren’t home. It was just me and my step dad. He found something to get mad at me about and started in on me — yelling and calling me names. After he destroyed my bedroom and refused me dinner, I was afraid. So I jumped out my bedroom window and ran across the street to my grandmother’s house. Hysterical and shaking in fear, I picked up the phone and called the cops. I told them I was afraid of my step dad. They dispatched an officer to the house immediately. I watched from my grandmother’s living room as the cop talked to my step dad on our front porch. The next thing I knew, I was in the backseat of the patrol car being taken to a psychiatric hospital. Long story short, my step dad had managed to convince the police that I was nuts and it was all in my head and that I was a threat to myself. And they believed him. I was taken in for a 72-hour hold and shared a room with a girl named “Star.” She was asleep when I was admitted at 4:30 a.m. To ensure I did not have any weapons on me, I was ordered to take off all of my clothes in front of a nurse. My mother came for me the next day and I was released early.
There are a lot of details I have left out but that’s the main gist of the story.
Talking through this with Dr. Finley was excruciating. I could hardly make it past five or ten minutes of talking before my heart would start to race and I’d feel my chest tighten and would have to ask to change the subject. I never understood why I had this reaction. But on that particular Tuesday night in June with Dr. Finley’s coral pink pillow in my lap, my hands clenched tightly to it, I finally did.
That was the night I was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. I didn’t believe it at first. I thought Dr. Finley was wrong.
"I don’t know what to think about that. Honestly, I don’t even know if I believe it…doesn’t seem logical," I said after she’d talked with me about the diagnosis.
"Why doesn’t it seen logical?"
"Because it’s not like I went to war or survived a bad car wreck or was raped or…I dunno, anything like that," I retorted.
"Do you think you can not have PTSD unless you have experienced those things?" Dr. Finley replied.
I stared at her and said nothing. I simply shook my head. And then the tears came.
That night changed it all for me. Everything and nothing made sense. I felt relieved, curious, unsure, angry, and ashamed.
I have a mental illness, I thought to myself. How will I tell my husband? Will he still love me? What about my friends? Would they even believe me?
Shame set in. I would never be considered normal again. I was damaged. Broken.
To tell you that accepting my illness was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do would be an understatement. It nearly knocked the life out of me. I lost hope. I was pissed off and so angry at God that I would literally yell and beat my steering wheel on the freeway and demand an answer from Him as to why He would do this to me if He loved me.
It took two or three months for me to stop being mad about it. Then I began the process of acceptance. After that, I educated myself. And then, by some miracle, I found hope again. This hope was the light I needed to begin healing.
I don’t want you to feel sorry for me. That’s not the point. What I do want is for this to be the place where my story begins. And while the details are ugly and sad, it is a beautiful story. Because it is essentially the story of how I overcame, survived, and came out on the other side with one of the greatest gifts God has ever given me. That is, my illness.
How is PTSD a gift? Well for starters, it has lead me here, finally able to talk about something that for so long I couldn’t. There is freedom in that - freedom from shame and fear and most importantly freedom to start the work of stealing my life back. A life that is neither damaged nor hopeless, but being transformed into something magnificent with the hope of being a part of changing the face of mental illness in America and smashing through the stereotypes that silence and stigmatize so many. From the homeless guy talking to himself outside the grocery store and the kid in the back of the classroom dressed in all black who draws weird pictures, to the 12 year old girl who jumped out of her bedroom window to try and save herself from an alcoholic so many years ago — the girl that I once was but no longer have to be. A girl who’s life was changed with the diagnosis of a mental illness that would turn out to be a beautiful gift. And an invitation to finally let in the light that shame and fear and pain tried, but failed, to steal.