“I suffer from a mental illness.” by Sagacious Hawk
I have cyclothymia. It’s a more mild form of bi-polar disorder indicated by up and down periods. It’s not often diagnosed, because the symptoms are subtle. With bi-polar disorder, the periods are clearly defined. The behaviors border on extreme so that it’s easy to tell that something isn’t right. With cyclothymia, the symptoms are more subtle. It’s easy to say I’m tired because I haven’t been sleeping well. Or I just got into an argument or I’m facing a lot of stress at work so that’s why I’m feeling down. Or life is really good right now so I’m going to reward myself by buying this… and this… and maybe this, too. Or I haven’t been able to sleep lately because my mind is just racing with all these ideas and it’s like I can’t get it to shut up! All these incidents are normal so it’s easy to explain away. For the longest time I thought I was just imagining that I had a problem. Sometimes, even given all the evidence and attempting to document it as best I can over the last year, which because of it doesn’t go very well, I still wonder if I do have a problem. If it wasn’t for that nagging sensation that this was happening over and over again month after month, then I wouldn’t have even considered that there was a problem and wouldn’t have talked to a counselor to begin with. It was only when the depressive episodes became too much that I finally saw someone.
The constant cycling makes life really hard. I never know what tomorrow is going to be like. I have no idea anymore what it feels like to feel normal. It’s like standing in a sea and feeling the vast weight of the water dip down and pull you out towards the abyss then race up and throw itself against you pushing you towards sun-baked, party-scene beaches only instead of this happening over 10 seconds it happens in super slow-motion over 4 to 5 weeks. Sometimes, I wonder if the periods in between are when I’m a normal human being, but then other times I wonder I’m actually at one extreme normally and I just fall or rise really high. I’ve lost any base line for who I was before.
Like feeling the water pulling against me, I can feel my mood changing. Occasionally, I only realize it when I exhibit certain behaviors, but not always. My up periods are pretty awesome. I really like them. I’m super productive, creative, outgoing. It’s like a drug. I get ramped up. My brain just races with all kinds of ideas. I feel like there isn’t a damn thing in the world I can’t accomplish. I only need three or four hours of sleep and I can still function. I have to force myself to sleep, which doesn’t always work. It’s like the ultimate caffeine rush that lasts for four or five days. Sometimes, it builds up to a giant rush like a crashing wave that suddenly crests and plummets. Other times, it climbs slowly and falls just as gently. A perfect sine wave. It’s disheartening when it passes, because there is so much I want to do that I know I won’t consider doing for at least another month if not four. There is so much that gets left undone especially considering that when I’m up I got soooooo easily distracted, yet at the same time I can obsess over the smallest of things and spend hours doing something stupid like cleaning all the lint out of my PC.
My down periods are terrible. Just getting out of bed is a struggle. The only things I do are the things I feel that I have to do and even then it isn’t always enough. I let things fall by the way side. You should see my room, it gets to be a mess. I hate it, but that still isn’t motivation enough to do anything about it. I don’t eat sometimes. I skip meals. I just want to lay down and sleep. If I don’t get at least six hours, I simply can’t function. I could sleep practically all day if I let myself. I still want to do all sorts of things, I just lack the motivation to do anything. It’s frustrating. It’s like I can’t make my limbs work. I stop wanting to talk to people. I disappear for a time drawing away from everyone else and I have zero inclination to deal with other people’s emotions or stress. As an already introverted person, sometimes other people just make me want to run off and hide away from everyone. Then I start thinking about all the things I wanted to do two weeks ago that I’m neglecting and I just feel more broken. I get more emotional when I’m down. It’s like the emotions are stronger and harder to hold back. The only good thing to the down periods is that they never come quickly. There’s always a progressive decline. Sometimes, they end quickly especially if environmental circumstances have extended the length.
And that happens from time to time. The greatest factors that I have been able to pin down are stress and sleep. High stress and irregular sleep will keep me in an episode for longer. Lower stress with seven to eight hours of sleep each night can practically prevent them from happening. I still haven’t been able to figure out if there are specific triggers, and I still wonder if diet plays a factor, but because of the DFAC schedule, my own time schedule, and my down periods playing havoc with my appetite, I haven’t been able to control for diet to find out for certain. Having a set schedule from day to day really helps. While I was in Turkey on mission, I had the same schedule everyday for the better part of the month. It was difficult to tell if I was up or down or fluctuating somewhere in between, I almost felt normal and it kind of freaked me out. When life gets too chaotic and there’s a lot going on, it’s easy to start into a strong phase sometimes with little or no “normal” time in between. That’s really the worst. The up phases can end rapidly over a matter of as little as a day and start into a down episode.
I’m worried about the future, but at the same time, I’m still hopeful. Being an enlisted member of the Army is the most stressful job in America. If I’ve been able to do well here and manage this for so long, I’m fairly confident that I’ll be able to do well when I’m no longer in this job. There’s still that nagging what-if feeling though. I know how difficult life can get. I know how it can be overwhelming. I know how the chill wind of the abyss can turn into the haunting melodies of a siren’s song. “More than 90 percent (http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/the-numbers-count-mental-disorders-in-america/index.shtml#Suicide) of people who kill themselves have a diagnosable mental disorder, most commonly a depressive disorder or a substance abuse disorder.” And as a man, I’m four times more likely to die from suicide. I realize that statistically I’m more at risk. Thankfully, my near unbreakable, positive outlook that I’ve been cultivating along with a finer appreciation of the small joys in life have made me a happier and more resilient person. Knowing I’m more at risk is why I’m breaking the taboo and talking about mental illness. Having a support structure of other people is the greatest way to help manage the illness and minimize the risks associated with it. How can I find help from others if I’m not open about what I’m facing?
We have a problem in our culture of masculinity. Asking for help is a tantamount admission of failure. Men aren’t supposed to fail. Failure is weakness and “real” men aren’t weak. Likewise and compounding the effect, men aren’t supposed to admit they are sick. Suck it up and drive on. Walk it off and get back in the game. Quit being a woman. We’ve all heard these words our whole lives as men. It’s why men die earlier than women. We don’t go to the hospital. We don’t take care of ourselves. Who needs a doctor? I’ll just rub some dirt in it and get back to work, go chop down a tree, and wrestle a bear because I’m a man damn it!, and men don’t need help. We certainly aren’t supposed to admit that our illness is in our brains. It’s like admitting that we’re crazy, and we all know that crazy is contagious. It’s like a zombie plague, but worse. You who was crazy? The dude who chewed off a homeless man’s face. See? Worse than zombies. And men definitely aren’t supposed to admit that they have a mood disorder that cycles on a near monthly basis. I might as well castrate myself, because that sounds like PMS! And to ask for help? Risk sounding like at some point I’m helpless? You know who’s helpless? Damsels locked in towers with hair that has a ridiculously high tensile strength. Women tied up on train tracks by mustachioed villains. Princesses of toadstool kingdoms captured by fire-breathing, wand-wielding, oversized snapping turtles. In Man-World, asking for help = woman = completely un-man like. And don’t get me started on emotions! Real Men™ don’t have time for emotions. We’re too busy eating bacon, downing alcohol, making money, revving our engines, or copulating copiously. You have emotions? You must be a woman. Go cry over there about the sand in your vagina. (Yes, I have heard this phrase uttered many times.)
It’s all seriously fucking stupid.
But even though I know it’s all stupid and I’m fully aware of the ridiculousness of these expectations, I still feel the pressure to conform. It’s still hard to ask for help. It’s still hard to talk about this. It’s still hard to admit that I have a problem that has become difficult for me to handle on my own. Frankly, I don’t even know how I do it, yet somehow I manage and at the same time still do well enough to not let on to others that this problem even exists, but I can’t do that forever. Deep down, I know it’s just a matter of time before one of those waves crashes down on me, hits me upside the head, send me end over end, and I’m underwater without knowing which way is up. And when that happens, I really hope someone is there to help pull me out. That’s why I’m telling you right now. Everyone who can read this. I can’t do this on my own forever. I’m crying a little right now thinking about it. The sad part is that I don’t really know why. (Thanks hyper-masculine culture for stunting my emotional growth as a human being! Totally appreciate it.) I know I’ll need help, which is why I’m doing my best to break from this unforgiving stereotype of how I should act as a man.
Because one day, I may need saving.
At least the damsel is willing to call out for help. I hope if that day ever comes, I can do as well.