Today is World Mental Health Day. I wouldn’t know this if not for a tweet I saw from a game journalist linking to a blog post they wrote last year about suffering from depression. World Mental Health Day is about spreading awareness of mental illness. I ought to know when this day falls every year because I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1999 and had been suffering from it for almost a decade before finally seeking help.
There were two reasons why I never sought help. First I didn’t understand what was going on, and later when I had an idea that something was wrong I was afraid to do anything about it.
Over a few pieces at Unwinnable I’ve slowly been working into writing about this, stating that I had a mood disorder, having been severely ill in the past, and citing my issues with drug addiction that arose around trying to self-medicate my condition – a common enough state of affairs that there’s actually a formal, medical diagnosis for it – but other than these few references to the past I’ve avoided ever talking about having a mood disorder, or being bipolar. The precise, medical definition of my condition changes with each new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, but I’ve been afraid to mention my mental illness by whatever name because I’ve been afraid that doing so would come back to haunt me. The reason we need World Mental Health Day, and why people like me who are capable of effectively communicating the experience of being mentally ill need to speak up, is because these illnesses are still stigmatized.
I remember the first time I ever told anyone I was going to therapy. I was in seventh grade and mentioned it to a friend of mine while we were walking with three other people to class. He looked at me like I was an alien and am pretty sure he told me to get away from him. That was the last time I ever tried talking about going to therapy to anyone other than the closest of friends until, well, until right now, actually. It wasn’t until 1999, after a failed year of graduate school that I could lay on being high pretty much every day, and a year of working at a brokerage house in-between transferring to another graduate school rather than sucking up to mistakes and thus wasting an insane amount of federal student loan money as only three credits transferred over from an entire year’s worth of work, that I finally decided to deal with this issue because quite frankly I was tired of feeling like I wanted to kill myself on a regular basis because I was so depressed, so distraught, and so utterly devoid of hope.
This is the reason why mental illness is stigmatized. I can’t read that statement – I wanted to kill myself on a regular basis – and deny that it sounds absolutely crazy, or deny that someone who hears “mental illness” and thinks “crazy,” which is about as offensive a minimizing and a dismissal as one could commit, isn’t entirely in the wrong for doing so. Mental illness is scary. In some cases like mine it’s composed largely of getting stuck in emotional states that other people may feel occasionally but pass out of, or which they may never have felt at all. Most people have no point of reference for processing the idea of mental illness, or at least they don’t think they do. They may know numerous people who are mentally ill but not realize they are, because those people don’t talk about it for fear of what might happen next. For fear of being stigmatized.
The truth is I should feel no more ashamed of having a mood disorder, or dual diagnosis, or whatever the fuck it ought to be called any more than I should feel ashamed of having seven operations on my ears before I was 14 because they kept getting infected, or any more than I should feel ashamed for having any kind of malady. People with cancer generally aren’t ashamed about it, I don’t think. It’s an illness. It’s also an illness that’s easy to understand, at least the basics of cancer, because it’s physiological. If you understand cells, you can understand cancer. You can’t understand bipolar disorder if you know what it is to be really happy or really sad. You can’t understand it if one day you’re happy and the next day you’re angry. And that’s why it’s so important for people like me to open up and talk about being mentally ill, even if it may effect our ability to get a job if and when a potential employer Googles us and finds the writing.
One writer friend says if you don’t feel exposed after you write something you’re doing it wrong, and another writer friend says you have to decide how much of you the audience gets. It’s a fine line, but I’ve been way too far on the safe side of it for the past two years, and have been thinking about writing on this subject for a while now, in part on account of what I wrote about last time, the content mill grist that I’ve been pumping out pretty consistently for the past two years. I like being a game journalist. I’d rather be a writer as well as a game journalist, and that means taking some risks. It’s kind of like what I had to do in regards to treating my illness. I had to recognize what was wrong and stop being afraid to do something about it.
I was afraid to treat my illness because I was afraid of medication changing who I am (in actuality, meds help you be who you would be if you weren’t held back by the illness), and making the decision to finally deal with my illness is one of the best decisions I ever made. Financial success, marital success, professional satisfaction, none of it would have been possible without getting my shit together. I was afraid of starting a writing career because of the risk of failing or making a fool out of myself. I’ve been trying to take October off as a hiatus after feeling really burned out but the compulsion to write, which I finally have to acknowledge, is too much to sit with. And maybe I was feeling burned out because I wasn’t taking enough risks with my writing, wasn’t exposing myself enough, wasn’t saying enough true things. And so we get to this blog post, and plans for the future.
It was important to me to post this on World Mental Health Day, even if it’s a very unusual first draft blog post (i.e. composed on the fly and with very little editing before it hits the page, which is extremely unlike me), both to mark the occasion and also to help commit to this goal of writing about being bipolar or whatever the hell I am. My issue is not knowing how to do so. This blog is about video games, not just plain-old writing, and if I’m going to open up this can of worms I want to do it somewhere that people are really paying attention, so I’m looking at options now. I know that being mentally ill certainly has to have played into my geekdom and my love of video games somehow, such that they might be appropriate pegs to hang this discussion on, so that may be a place to start. I hope so, because those are the sorts of outlets I have access to right now and any writer who says they aren’t concerned about having an audience is a liar. We don’t do this because we don’t want to be read.
The other reason I’ve been afraid to write about suffering from mental illness is for fear of being defined by it, but what I’ve come to realize is that there’s no getting around this. Having a mood disorder does define me, not entirely, but in too large a part to ignore. It has literally affected every aspect of my life for the past 23 years. So, while I’m terrified to publish this, let me introduce myself.
I’m Dennis, and I’m broken, and I hope I find the right place to talk to you about it because there are more people just like me all around you than you probably realize, and it needs to be spoken about. It’ll be good for me, and it’ll be good for all of them, too, if I do my job right. Hopefully I’m up to it, because Glenn Close was perfectly correct when she said this:
The mentally ill frighten and embarrass us. And so we marginalize the people who most need our acceptance. What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, more unashamed conversation.
Candor and a lack of shame have never been problems for me. 🙂