Life in No-Man’s Land
I have a secret. I dare you to guess it. To judge me. Am I preoccupied with vanity, ruthless in my pursuit of the “ideal body size”? Am I purposely defiant, an attention seeker and an egomaniac? Do I dress in black, don chains and piercings? Am I always crying, always complaining, always overtly sad? Anorexia nervosa. Clinical depression. Generalized anxiety. Do you think I’m eccentric? Unstable? Insane?
My pastimes include watching The Office and flipping through the latest issue of Cosmo or Marie Claire. I hang out with friends and go to the mall with my sister. I captained a Relay for Life team, was Treasurer of SADD* two years running. I have loving parents and a stable home life. I don’t fit very well into the box society has appropriated for the mentally ill. I don’t match the stereotypes. I don’t embody the mold. What if I told you, however, that I do exemplify the norm; I bear the all too common, though rarely talked about, risk factors and characteristics. One in four people worldwide suffer with a mental health disorder, yet these conditions remain largely taboo, discussion of them extinguished by social stigma and discomfort.
Maybe my secret is that I’m just like you. Who would have guessed?
A Parallel Universe
As I left the shop my glance met his, and he gave me a look of such terrible intimacy that I cringed. I know who you are, said his look. What were we, that they could know us so quickly and so well? . . .The question was, What could we do? Could we get up every morning and take showers and put on clothes and go to work? Could we think straight? Could we not say crazy things when they occurred to us? Some of us could, some of us couldn’t. In the world’s terms, though, all of us were tainted.
- Susanna Kaysen, Girl, Interrupted
Asylum. Sanitarium. Mad House. Loony Bin. Susanna Kaysen spent two years in one of these notorious psychiatric hospitals, admitted at a mere eighteen years of age. I was eighteen; could this have been me? Weighty metal doors and thick panes of glass separate residents from “the outside,” protecting them. Or so they say. Spend enough breaths inhaling the lingering scent that characterizes careful sanitation, squander enough steps pacing the somber hallways, counting each passing minute, another precious moment of life escaping your grasp, and you can only begin to wonder. Are they protecting me from what lies beyond these imposing walls, or are they protecting it from me?
Kaysen suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder, but it doesn’t matter; she could have just as easily suffered from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, an eating disorder, it would still be the same. Wasting away within the strict confines of the psych ward, she was just another patient to deal with, another nut case to treat. This attitude seems to transcend Kaysen’s 1960s, infecting society to this day. Will they look at me differently? What have I become?
Diagnosis of a mental health disorder remains an ominous notion, a condemnation to a life filled with incessant judgment and fear, averted glances and nervous shudders, degrading pity and accusatory stares. I know what you are (124). Do they? Do they really know us at all?
It is not unusual for society to fear the unknown, but why is it that despite these recent decades of rapid social change, mental illness remains so frighteningly unfamiliar? It’s no surprise that many of those who suffer from such disorders delay seeking help. Would you really volunteer yourself to be the object of such intense stigmatization? Perhaps the better question: would you leave yourself alone with someone who had been in the “loony bin”? With a mental patient? With me?
West of Wonderland
As tempting as this health thing is, the idea of going back to my familiar obsessions is more so. I want out. I want my bones and my books back. I become the star patient. I talk them into letting me go to college, and they finally agree. I want to be rid of who I am, go back to the place where I wasn’t a [screwup], where I was good at something, instead of a place where all I do is talk about how [screwed] up I am. I’ve got to get out.
- Marya Hornbacher, Madness
I do not have a problem; I can stop whenever I want to. I will stop, as soon as I go to college, as soon as I fit into these jeans, as soon as I’m happy. Going to all the appointments, seeing the dietician and the therapist, attending a partial hospitalization program? Just playing the game, buying myself time to convince them all that I’m as sane as I know I am. Sure, I’m a little underweight, but it’s not as if I’m not eating. I eat all the time, six regular meals, actually. An anorexic does not eat six times a day. An anorexic is not as intelligent or driven as I am. An anorexic could not handle a part time job and a handful of AP classes like I do. I just cannot possibly suffer from anorexia, you see, it is simply absurd. Wait until I get to college, then I’ll show you! All your worrying and doubting, your trepidations and warnings, will be in vain. I am going to soar.
An observer could have easily detected the fundamental flaw in my reasoning: I do, in fact, suffer from anorexia. Not unlike many victims before me, and undoubtedly future sufferers as well, it would take a forced hospitalization and weeks of intensive therapy to convince me that I even had a problem. This denial had become deeply entrenched in my identity, almost as engrained in my mind as the eating disorder itself. Anorexia nervosa, among multitudes of other mental health disorders, bestows its prisoners with the ability to rationalize the inherently irrational, allowing them to become blind to the most apparent of symptoms. Clumps of hair clogging the shower drain? I must need to change shampoo. Having heart palpitations? Well, so would anyone after walking up Cardiac Hill. Fortunately, I was torn from my delusions early, ripped from the tight grasp of the disease before it demonstrated the true potential of its physical destruction. Many are not as lucky; Hornbacher would spend her sophomore year of college lying in a hospital bed at a mere fifty-two pounds, half-dead and ragged captive of her devastating disorder.
Examining Hornbacher’s extensive history of drug abuse and eating disordered behavior, it would seem ludicrous to deny that she was at least partially responsible for her ultimate failure to stay in school. If she really wanted to return to the place where she “wasn’t a screwup,” why didn’t she just stop using behaviors? How could she possibly be “good at something” if her life revolved squarely around cycles of starvation and self-abuse? Mental illness contorts the mind in ways unfathomable to an outside observer. Unlike cancer, diabetes, or heart disease, mental health disorders cannot be evaluated objectively based on x-rays, blood tests, or biopsies. The only evidence of faulty mental health exists in the thoughts of the afflicted.
But these thoughts are dangerous; they can torment, they can kill. Osteoporosis, organ failure, or cardiac arrest—be it the result of chronic physical illness or tortured emotional wellbeing—is agony all the same. Pain is not any less miserable, yet insurance companies and healthcare providers all too frequently decline the psychologically-suffering the resources they need. The resources that would save their lives.
Land of the Free
Just like the Cheshire cat, someday I will suddenly leave, but the artificial warmth of my smile, that phony, clownish curve, the kind you see on miserably sad people and villains in Disney movies, will remain behind as an ironic remnant. I am the girl you see in the photograph from some party someplace or some picnic in the park, the one who is in fact soon to be gone.
- Elizabeth Wurtzel, Prozac Nation
They had probably met. Brushed past each other at a party or crossed paths at Plugged-In. They hung around the same group of people, after all. She found his Facebook page, tried in vain to find his image buried somewhere in her memory. He was just another person she had casually met, a face in a crowd. They were seventeen, just a couple of juniors in high school, my sister and he. They were having fun, just learning to live. Except he wasn’t. But how was she to know?
Matt Hurley* died on a Thursday in February of 2011. The fourth student in two years that Needham High School lost to suicide.
He had been popular; he had a lot of friends. He had devoted a considerable amount of time to volunteer work, had played guitar in a band to raise money for charity through Needham’s Plugged-In program. He belonged to an upper-middle class family, was relatively wealthy, had a twin brother. No one can say what brought him to that final decision, what prompted him to take his own life. All the community can do now is mourn and take steps to ensure such tragedy doesn’t occur again.
But what steps do they have left to take? Growing up, my friends were nearly exclusively from Needham; we attended St. Joseph Catholic School in the affluent suburb’s central square. To the horror of many of our parents, the school began running suicide awareness programs when we were eleven. Every year that I was in middle school, someone in the public school system died by suicide. Every year our teachers assailed us with the warning signs, cautioned us to seek help at the first sign of trouble. With such ill success, however, parents are beginning to suspect that these programs aren’t helping us; in fact, they may be hurting us.
In recent years this argument has become more pervasive, amid Needham High School’s futile attempts to protect its student body. Are we making these victims martyrs? Are we glamorizing their decision, sheltering students from the harsh reality of what suicide really is? A permanent solution to a temporary problem. What message are we sending by bringing so much attention to these heartbreaking deaths? What other option do we have? What else can we do?
Matt Hurley’s family will certainly never know.
Sixty-two days. For sixty-two days, I occupied one of the thirteen beds on the third floor of Cambridge Eating Disorder Center in the heart of Harvard Square. For sixty-two nights, I tossed and turned in an Ativan-induced slumber, trying to ignore the noise of the RC patrolling the halls, the periodic flash of harsh, fluorescent light as she checked our beds, monitoring for missing (or misbehaving) patients. For two and a half weeks I wasn’t allowed to go outside, my weight too low to be considered “stable” enough to interact with the non-disordered world. For over two months my privileges were based solely on compliance and weight gain. I gave up the right to go to the bathroom or use a pair of scissors without permission. I gave up my freshman year of college. My freedom. My self-respect. How could I, an otherwise intelligent and responsible young woman, have let things get this bad? How many other Americans are asking themselves the same question? How many children are already lost?
Hornbacher, Marya. Madness: a Bipolar Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008. Print.
Kaysen, Susanna. Girl, Interrupted. New York: Vintage, 1994. Print.
“Startling Statistics About Mental Illness | ASHA International.” ASHA International | A Source
of Hope for All Touched by Mental Illness. ASHA International, 2007. Web. 22 Sept.
“WHO | Mental Health: Strengthening Our Response.” Mental Health: Strengthening Our
Response. The World Health Organization, Sept. 2010. Web. 22 Sept. 2011.
Wurtzel, Elizabeth. Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America. Boston: Houghton
Mifflin, 1994. Print.