Last night, I dreamed that I watched my brother pull out his small intestine through his navel. I could barely bear to watch it, but I had to know whether he would collapse. He remained intact and gathered his guts up. I woke up.
Finally, I really understood how readers—especially those close to me—feel when they tell me that reading my book is a deeply uncomfortable experience.
Part of me has understood since I began to write it: I did not mean for the book to be pleasant. But after years of living the events and turning them into prose, I became divorced from the visceral experience of the work. I am no longer afraid of the things I have learned found harbored by this world.
Robin Williams has killed himself, and my Facebook and Twitter feeds are full of implorations to call crisis lines for help or reach out to friends in times of suffering. I know that these messages are well-intentioned, and the information is important. I’ve called those crisis lines during a bipolar episode—they’re handy to help me bide my time while I wait for my antipsychotic medication to kick in, but a crisis line is not a solution. We like to think that the system will handle the problems of anyone who seeks help, and we like to think the hotlines will put out fires, but sometimes, what we hear silences us.
And anyone suffering from mental illness needs a support system of loved ones—but how many of us have needed that support at 4:40 a.m. and had nobody to call? How many of us have felt hesitant to reach out after we let ourselves be seen and felt judged or even punished for it?
Of course, be a friend to those in your life who suffer--but know that standing by is not enough. What we really need is for our workplaces, educational spaces, and social spaces to become safe places. I am so lucky that I have the luxury of being open about my bipolar disorder. Life was harder when I didn't feel that I could be. I went to work and school sick. A professor once refused to honor my doctor's note.
We do need crisis hotlines and empathetic loved ones to be there for us when we feel broken. But what we need more than anything is increased knowledge about the sources of our torment. My moods, for example, have dramatically improved since I cut out gluten, started taking 5-MTHF (I have a genetic variation that impairs my ability to use folic acid), started seeing an excellent therapist every week, and changed my life in other ways to support my health. I’ll never really know exactly how my brain was made into what it is. I hope for a world in which crisis aversion and prescription drugs do not form the core of our mental health treatment regimens.
When a well-loved famous person commits suicide, many people feel a sense of loss. Some people want to know what they can do for others who are suffering. Certainly, empathy must be the starting place. There is vague talk about the removing of stigma, and to me, that means, in a practical sense, having real and navigable policies in place that allow for the use of sick leave for mental health reasons—and the freedom for employees to use it without feeling discomfort. It also means avoiding using terms like “schizophrenic,” “bipolar” and “ADD” when we’re not referring to the conditions themselves, but behaviors that irritate us. It means having healthcare that honors our conditions as the medical conditions, sometimes debilitating, that they are, and allows us to alleviate our pain and work toward healing.
For individuals who want to help, it’s important not to make promises that can’t be kept when it comes to emotional availability for someone who needs a confidante and friend. Reaching out can feel like a great risk, even when invited, and nothing feels worse than being shut down by someone who has had enough. Be a friend, but make your boundaries clear and take care of yourself. The effects of being made to feel crazy, shut down, or alienated by a friend can be devastating for a sensitive and suffering person.
Tonight I am going to party with my friends as we celebrate my book release. My book has been unleashed upon the world. Anyone who wishes may see my guts. Watch as I pull them out of my tender belly. They are a thing to see.