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I’m tired but can’t sleep; an experience everyone has at some point. But not everyone fears to close one’s eyes for what thoughts and dreams will rush into the void of sensation. Not everyone screams and mutters without making a sound in a familiar internal battle to “just shut up and go to sleep.”
Mental illnesses are as varied as personalities. We speak of symptoms and causes generally, as with diseases and purely physical ailments, because there is a utility in generalizations and playing the odds. But depression, crippling anxiety, compulsions, hallucinations, and other psychological oddities are not like a rash that looks the same on anyone.
After half a lifetime with various challenges, I usually avoid considering my problems in relation to medical diagnoses. Those frameworks are designed to facilitate understanding and plans of action. When they don’t help, forget them. Thankfully, unlike many fine folks, my difficulties don’t require medication so much as efforts to improve mental habits and daily routines. My schizophrenic cousin and bipolar sister can’t say the same.
What prompted this post is reflecting for the nth time, and failing as always, to explain why mental illness is so often hidden.
One sees infantilizing ads and media comments these days decrying the “shaming” of depression, as if many depressed people remain “in the closet” for fear of ridicule or something. Real situations are often more complicated.
For example, there is no way to share suicidal thoughts without permanently altering your relationship with someone. Democrats might enjoy living in a public status of victimhood, but not everybody does. Men especially hate to appear weak; especially when they are. And if you reveal to a loved one that you regularly suffer in any way, the loved one will fret about that suffering even when you show no sign of it. Commiseration is fine occasionally but can grow burdensome with repetition.
Thoughts of self-harm are even harder to share. Suicidal thoughts shock many people, but at least they can vaguely understand that someone in pain might want to end that pain however he or she can. But why would a person carve up his own arm (as I once saw a teenager do with a ruler’s metal strip) or repeatedly imagine running a knife across the back of one’s neck?
Even psychiatrists struggle to understand how particular misfires in a brain and a rush of the body’s own chemicals can elicit such impulses. But basically it’s like wanting to punch someone you hate or someone who infuriates you, only that someone is yourself. It’s a desire for action when one feels helpless.
An odder but milder quirk of mine is neologisms (“new words”). People often curse in frustration. I rarely do around other people. But when alone I have an inexplicable habit of uttering phrases which would more accurately be called gibberish if they were not so consistent. It’s like cursing in a language that doesn’t exist. I can’t even remember the words when I am not so frustrated, but they are the same every time.
Why such “creative language” is a common symptom of Asperger’s Syndrome (no longer in the APA’s diagnostic manual) is beyond me. But the reason I only do it when alone is probably no different than the reason many people who speak their thoughts aloud when alone are embarrassed when caught talking to themselves.
The most unusual symptoms I ever experienced were paranoia and hallucinations. The latter are hard to hide.
When as a young teenager I told my mom I preferred the backpack with roses by pointing to it, I couldn’t understand why she looked at me funny and asked if I was sure. I couldn’t well explain later that my brain had temporarily distorted the images into an abstract Aztec-like design. By the time my brain figured it out, the backpack had been purchased and I just had to live with it. So I painted over the strip of flowers with a black marker and made up some fiction about “black roses” as a rock music aesthetic.
Likewise, when I saw a butterfly ornament — up close, for several seconds — and ran inside to tell people about the giant butterfly that was in the garden (“Go and see!”), there was no way to hide that mental hiccup.
At least then, when I was more excitable, my hallucinations (seeing what isn’t there) were more interpretive than creative. In my schizophrenic cousin’s case, such misinterpretations could mean he thought his parents were angrily yelling at him when they were actually just trying to calm him down.
I don’t have that problem anymore because I learned to slow down when my excitement starts to drift into mania (apologies to the childhood friends I got into trouble with insane ideas).
Paranoia is a milder but more persistent symptom. Essentially, I can’t help but feel as if my every sound is heard and every movement or expression watched by everyone in the same room or space. Logically, I know it’s a silly notion. But it’s an itch I can’t fully ignore, like a phantom limb.
The feeling has become less powerful and less problematic with years of self-correction. During college, I gradually shifted from always sitting in a back corner (where fewer eyes could see me) to forcing myself into the middle of a classroom. These days, it’s mainly a problem when I try to perform my music… and feel as if I’m being critiqued even when completely alone. Sometimes I even hear someone calling me away from my music because the hyper-vigilance is so great.
You would never know about the paranoia if I didn’t tell you. My family doesn’t know. My oldest friend doesn’t know. I don’t tell them because I don’t see a strong reason to do so. One should ask for help when one needs help. But sometimes knowledge is a needless burden.
This old symbol of theater drama and comedy reminds some of actors like Robin Williams. We are told he suffered from depression, though we usually saw him smiling and making us smile. That has been the situation with many artists and innovators.
People with depression do sometimes put on a brave face like we expect of all people at times. They do sometimes hide their true feelings, as all people do (well, not some people, to others’ frustration and amusement). But if a person has a habit of cheerfulness in good company, it does not suggest cheerfulness apart from such company. In solitude, in moments apart from external challenges and distractions, some people implode… until they are brought out again into society and activity.
As I said, generalizations are useful but can mislead. Different people exhibit such dichotomy between public and private life, social life and solitude, for different reasons. But it can help to better understand some cases, at least.
If someone you know does something wild or hurtful when apart, it does not mean that you didn’t really know that person. It doesn’t mean that person was putting on a show. It might just mean that there are aspects of that personality that are drawn out in other conditions or were never relevant to your particular relationship.
That’s an especially difficult lesson when people commit suicide. It is often a shock to loved ones. And often the depressed person had opportunities to seek help. But people are different when alone. We are different among some people than with others, because of how personalities and circumstances combine to draw out particular traits and ideas.
Human beings are endlessly complicated.
Though there is much I didn’t see after two full weeks in Ireland long ago, I don’t feel cheated. What I didn’t see and don’t know doesn’t cheapen what I did enjoy and still remember. People are the same. Appreciate what you know. Accept that there will always be mysteries. But, of course, never cease to explore.