“There’s something wrong with that child! She’s just not normal.” I hear my parents talking, just outside my door. The man speaking, my step-father, had my door sawed in half to see inside whenever he wanted, which allowed the yellow light of the living room to permeate as I tried to sleep. I can hear every utterance clearly, and breathe in the emotion in his face as I am lying there, falling asleep…
“She’s a devil child.”
You are young and sitting in your white room, the sun shining through the white window blinds and a girl walks in wearing all white shear lace, and a big smile. You recognize this girl as yourself, the same brown hair, the same dark eyes, and the same red lips. You realize, and accept, that you are always walking the world without yourself.
You two begin stripping pieces of white paper and scrawling on them what you both refer to as ‘secrets.’ She orchestrates the game and you partake but not with as much enthusiasm. You fill a black lock box with the ‘secrets’, and put it in a small cabinet in your desk, that is slightly stripped with a faded, peeling basket of flowers glued to it. You brush your hand across the baby’s breath ensuring her that the ‘secrets’ are safe.
The next morning, she is stripping your bed and body of your white sheets and you are shaken awake to her ransacking your room. In the same white dress she throws your clothes over her head, drawers out of your late grandmother’s dressers, and sprawls entire stacks of books and paper. “Where are the keys!?” You watch as she destroys your private space, breaking beloved possessions, sobbing.
She suddenly has a moment of epiphany and runs out the door, out into your childhood backyard, drops to her knees, and digs. Her finger nails break, her tears drop into the dirt leaving small beads to settle on top, her white, sheer lace covered in black. She stops, looks into your eyes, defeated.
I had an imaginary friend at the age of three, around the time my new baby brother entered the world, as is natural and healthy for a young child losing some of the attention from their parent(s). What’s remarkable about my old friend lie in two characteristics: her height, she was 3 inches tall, and her name, Amber. She looked exactly like me, though, of course, always wore different clothes. I berated Amber. I got to her level, waved my finger in her face, and scolded her every action. I stomped on her, imagining her flat, though knew she would survive my every blow. I do not remember having any love, at all, for little Amber. Even though it felt as though she was all I had at a time of such uncertainty, I hated her. While I no longer imagine Little Amber walking the world with me as I did when I was three, I now know her to have been a foreshadowing, a way for my young brain to understand the ways in which I will label myself, and be labeled, by others, as a stigmatized entity, or “A blemished person, ritually polluted, to be avoided, especially in public places” (Goffman, 1963). Though, when the Greek word “stigma” originated they were referring to physical markings forced upon the skin (branding, tattooing, etc.) to make others aware of the stigmatized persons ranking, the definition still rings true to many living with certain types of contemporary labels or identities.
In the following pages I will unwrap, and lay bare my personal labels. Labels I ascribe onto myself, and those inscribed onto me by others, as in Goffman’s use of the word “stigmatized.” I hope to shed some light on the complexities of competing identities, stigmatized ways of being, such as “mentally ill” and “academic”, as a strong indicator of individual and relational possibilities. Through my story, and snippets of others, I will walk through what it truly looks like living with these labels and the ways they effect the relationships we attempt. I will use an autoethnographic layered account separated by label, as a way to break the silence and open up new ways to understand self and other. What guides my research is focusing on the future because that seems to be the more fruitful option. Though messy, this analysis has the potential to improve relationships I thought to be irreparable. Remembering the hope of a child and latching onto it feels, right.
The Power of Stories
Autoethnography gives the reader opportunities for new ways of looking at social issues, self-examination and self-transformation. Taking from Ellis and Bochner the reader is “thrust into scenes that invite them to feel, care, and desire” though Berry would add it can sometimes feel like “reliving a loud car crash.” However, calling from Cissna, this connection to the reader can offer “novel ways to meet the call of applied research to not just understand communicative worlds but also change them for the better” (265). In this view, a connection with the reader is essential to make positive and meaningful change in the world, and to “make possible a coming-together” (Berry, Patti, p. 266). I have learned to understand narrative the way Michael Jackson (1995) explains, as having “more to do with how to live, than how to know,” that narrative inspires readers to think critically about their place in the world, invokes deeper empathy and connection, and to put it simply, make the world a better place.
Labeling Identity and Relationships
Carbaugh’s research asks if it is our genetics, human biology, psychology, or social interaction that determines our identity stating that most people believe themselves to be a specific “kind” of person where their core self is independent from their “psychological thoughts” (Carbaugh, 1996, p.19, 20). He concludes, however, that identity is a mixture of psychological thought processes and biological makeup, adding that we are always being “made and remade” through environmental factors known as “symbolic interactionism, or “a conceptualization of the self as emerging out of one’s social interactions as well as the perceptions of others” (Carbaugh, 1996, p. 21; Hecht, 2015, p. 176). Hecht says that “social role theory,” negates the existence of “one unified core self” and that we are instead many selves operating together based on roles we play throughout our daily lives (Hecht, 2015, p. 176). But he fears social role theory may end up “essencializing” people into stereotypes, or presubscribed boxes of expectations dependent on those roles (Hecht, 2015, p. 176). Furthermore, Carbaugh, again, says all people have an identity through which we communicate, claiming communication is our identity, because we are performing our identity as we communicate (Carbaugh, 1996). “Communication defines, or constructs, our social worlds, including ourselves and our personal relationships” (Baxter, 2004, p. 3). Though discursive struggles are stable in the moment they are often being renegotiated at each change in utterance (Baxter, 2015, p. 287). Some of this tension can often come from culturally dominant systems of meaning, or types of master narratives that can be reproduced so much as to be calcified and repeated again and again in a relationship (Baxter, 2015, p. 281). According to Dunbar, the power cultural narratives of ascribed meanings have often “has the capacity to produce intended and unintended effects, as well as influence the behavior of those in relationship” and is typically unseen and misunderstood (Dunbar, 2015).
For me, labels are both biological and environmental, relational and cultural, and above all else: inescapable. Even though being labeled, for all of us, is unavoidable, most do everything possible to keep from gathering any stigmatizing labels though there are just some things, like those aforementioned cultural narratives and ascribed meanings that which we cannot control. I was recently beginning to feel a bit more in control and felt as though I was getting rid of my fear of being found out as “bipolar” with hope for a better future in academia and my relationships with loved ones and colleagues. I guess, in this way, I was beginning to forgive myself for my past transgressions, the ways this label has affected my relationships, until I was unexpectedly pulled back into the whirlwind of an identity crisis, as a result of a traumatic suicide attempt and new diagnosis of “paranoid schizophrenia” adding to my already stigmatized mentally ill identity. I felt as though I was starting over from scratch.
The meaning making that occurs through talk is, as Baxter says, both literal and metaphorical (Baxter, 2015, p. 279). For me, these moments, as well as several afterward in the process of digging myself out of the lowest depths of depression, after my suicide attempt and just before a new diagnosis, has had me asking myself: What does healthy mean? What does normal mean? What does acceptable mean? I wonder if I have ever been healthy, normal, or acceptable. Is it the official diagnosis, or ascribing of a label from those with power what determine this, or was I always branded with these stigmatized identities from birth and relationships have nothing to do with it? I am here to illustrate how, for me, it was both. I have heard that the mind is the space between the cells. To me that means it can be argued we are not a slave to our biology. That there is a place to dwell where all possibilities are at our discretion. It does not matter where our differences come from, whether our architecture is given at birth or designed over time through interpersonal interaction, there is always space for reformation. The first step is knowing what it looks like, then making a choice to understand, not just what is already there, but how you want to use the gifts they carry.
I had a never ending hunger, an obsession for food, not just actual food, but pictures too. I had online albums full of thousands of photos displaying decorated Oreo cookies, cupcakes, and overflowing refrigerators that I viewed, and searched to expand, on an hourly basis. I printed out colorful and vibrant photos of individuals gorging themselves and pasted them to my kitchen wall. Thoughts of consuming food consumed my identity. The opposite was also true: while I was obsessing over food, the promise of emptying my stomach exactly 20 minutes after shoveling thousands of calories into it felt like just as much of a blessing. My food photos were private; however I chose to place on my ‘Myspace’ page for the world to see, a scattering of snapshots of young women purging into toilets, some with the vomit still in midair.
Bulimia kept me socially isolated
Taking the kitchen scissors I frantically tear open the tube of raw sausage and rip it into several globs, placing each of them on a pan I have not turned on yet. I press each one firmly with my thumb, causing an indent in the middle of each one, and licking my fingers. I walk toward the refrigerator door leaving raw meat residue on the handle and grab a couple of eggs. The slippery film on my hands cause me to drop an egg, and my toes drag clear egg white across the black and white tiled floor of the kitchen. I turn on the stove, crack an egg into the pan next to the sausages, and wait. Less than a minute feels like long enough to me as I am addicted to a cycle of eating and purging to such an extent that I cannot even wait for food to cook. I remove the sausage and eggs from the heat of the stove and push them onto a plate with a fork, struggling with the stickiness of the still cold meat and giggling egg white. Standing there at the counter next to the hot stove burner, I devour raw meat and eggs.
Bulimia made me homeless
This label is perhaps the one I am most ashamed of. The one I want to write through as fast as possible, if not for the shear disgust I feel at the memories of gorging on x-large pizzas, 3 2 liter bottles of Dr. Pepper, 4 cans of tuna, 2 cups of melted cheese slathered in ketchup, and then running to the bathroom to purge, feeling it come up in clumps, and then again, up to 10 times a day. I would call out of work, or even quit my job in order to continue this cycle. The knuckles on my right hand stung, my teeth were turning black on the bottom, my stomach no longer constricts to vomit (not even now 5 years later) vomit just falls out of my mouth like an infant, my lips were cracked and bleeding, I now have chronic acid reflux disease and at increased risk of esophageal cancer, and for what? The senselessness alone of the bulimic identity is enough to infuriate me now, and did so to those around me as well.
Bulimia caused me to lose my marriage.
It took the loss of a relationship, homelessness, and 3 years of therapy to strip myself of this label. I am confident in saying that I fought it, and beat it, alone and have no desire to begin again. For me, an eating disorder is an example of a chosen label. I do not believe I chose to develop the disorder, I was brought up with an unhealthy relationship with food, but I know that I did choose to keep it for much longer than I should have. Nevertheless, I walked away from this label, albeit one very few people knew I had in the first place. Some labels are easier to keep under wraps than others.
All the months of jumping on chairs and running around the classroom, screaming, culminated to one simple conclusion: you are gifted. It’s not that you are smarter than the other students, just different, with needs not able to be met by the school you are currently attending. Unfortunately, you didn’t understand what gifted meant, so you stared forward, silent, during the test, resulting in an ‘inconclusive’ score, leaving your inconclusive needs by the wayside.
Our culture is invested in finding a cure for mental illness, the National Alliance on Mental Health’s budget for mental illness research is currently 1.118 billion dollars, but what does that mean for those living with mental illness? The identity politics, weaving throughout the different aspects of self, involved with someone who has a disability is unique in that their divergent ability to maneuver the world is not cherished and respected, and with an obsession with finding a cure always looming, those with mental illness may feel there is something inherently wrong with them. The language used to describe someone living with mental illness, is the illness itself, such as “She is Bipolar” or “He is Schizophrenic” or “They have Bulimia.” This creates a 2 dimensional creature to be changed, because what they are naturally is seen an abomination.
In some cultures people with disabilities are considered to be blessed by a higher power and filled with the capabilities of a god. That being said, there are worries about the trend to ‘romanticize’ mental illness, with tropes about increased creativity, and I want to state up front that this is not an attempt to do so but an attempt to show the horrors as a way to understand the good that may come out of these stories. With my stories of hardship bestowed to me by my experience with madness I will freely tell you that not treating a mental illness is pure terror for all involved. Though bipolar disorder is characterized by extreme mood swings going from hyper mania to extreme depression, I am here to argue that bipolar disorder is also a swing from terror to happiness, bleak ends to promising beginnings (American, 2013). With the right treatment and willingness to explore our intricate identities we can dwell within sweet dreams more often with an appreciation of what our nightmares have taught us.
You can’t sleep or even keep your eyes closed. They pop open and it takes all the muscles in your face to try. As you lie there you feel your heart pump, and the blood flow along the walls of each vein. What’s worse, you can feel your brain squeeze and expand, bouncing against your skull, and it scares you. You rock yourself back and forth, crawl your legs up the wall next to the plastic covered window, as the moon shines in your face. Your eyes move rapidly from side to side and you are unable to control your eyebrows. Occasionally you put your body into twisted positions, as to feel more comfortable, and you begin to believe you may be possessed as you growl in exasperation into your pillow. In the morning you walk into the living room and sit on the couch, in a daze, after 3 days of no sleep.
A man you have never met says on the phone, with his deep voice, firmly “Yea I meet people back there all the time, its fine.” You see the café he is referring to knowing that the ally way behind it, just next to the beach, is the place. Hearing the pebbles crunch under your flip flops, feeling some get caught inside making you cringe is more agonizing than the idea of meeting a strange man for the first time, for sex, in a dark and secluded area of the night. You hear that familiar booming voice, “Hey girl.”
The loss prevention officer bumps into you hard enough to petrify your body and you realize immediately, you’ve finally been caught. The shoplifting has been going on for six months, resulting in thousands of dollars in unused clothes, because you just cannot stop. It is a thrill and proof of your invincibility. The handcuffs are cold and much tighter than you imagined. You never thought for a moment you would be experiencing the pinch and cold of being arrested. You are unable to move comfortably in the back of the police car, the seats made of plastic with a rough texture that you feel the handcuffs brush against, a sensation making you shiver from your bones with shame.
One of the telltale signs of a hyper-manic episode in bipolar disorder is the presence of a feeling of invincibility. With that often comes no fear of punishment, excessive spending, feelings of euphoria, and sexual promiscuity (American, 2013). These behaviors though at the time seem like incredible gifts, have consequences that can undoubtedly transformed, and even ruined people’s lives. Not just the lives of those living with the illness but the lives of those loving them. Negative responses to symptoms of bipolar disorder, are indeed, at the core, relational. The distinct lack of concern or interest in the lives of others, as a result of heavy hyper mania is heavily detrimental to the cultivating and maintenance of any relationship. The meaning in our transactions becomes one sided, and selfish, until connection and love begin to dissipate and leave the relationship altogether. The relationship with the self is brought to the forefront and becomes the only one that matters, until the moment we realize we are alone. For me, that old obsession kicks in, a panic, manifesting itself as hundreds of repeat calls and text messages to your loved ones phones begging for a second chance that will never come.
The stairs to your therapist’s office are rickety due to the age of the building. It is house-like with chipped white paint, and French windows allowing the sun to shine onto the myriad of magazines on the side table. The floorboards inside appear to be stripped and screech when you step. Every sound and sense of the building are especially delightful today as you breathe in the sounds of the birds outside the window and taste the green of the leaves that scratch the white cross-hatched gate. She calls you and you skip to her, smiling, and hop onto the floral upholstered couch and you begin to bounce and giggle as you talk over her, telling her things you did that you should regret, but you don’t. You are the happiest you have ever been, and you proclaim “this may be my last visit” clapping your hands in front of your chest. You lose your breath from rapid talking, and she gets the opportunity to say through your heaving, “Amber, I think you may have bipolar disorder.” She says, this could be the answer and begs you to go to your primary care physician immediately to get an official diagnosis. You think she’s the crazy one and say “Yea, uh huh, sure.” The next morning you wake up from a sleep so deep, you’re barely able to move your head, your eyes are heavy, and you have never been so tired in your life. Maybe she is right.
Whether it be that we are born with an abnormally developed brain, or it is established over time by a detrimental upbringing or traumatic event, there is merit in finding the threshold of any illness for the sake of prevention, but that alone begs the question, should certain mental illnesses be cured, simply because it does not match the norm? How can we walk that tightrope between understanding the illness in order to control its negative symptoms while adhering to the individual’s gifts and complex identity?
Approximately 15 Percent of people with bipolar disorder commit suicide and 50 percent report attempting to at least once, and 80 percent fantasize of the possibility (Bloomquist, J., 2008). Lost relationships and even the allusion of loss, based purely on paranoia, along with an intense fear of failure as an academic, contributed to my suicidal thoughts and attempts. Additionally, Emory University reports:
“Graduate and professional students are a high-risk group for mental health problems, including depression and suicidal behavior. Some research has shown that graduate students have the highest rates of suicide and that more than half of graduate students have had thoughts of suicide at some point during their lives. Those at greatest risk are women in graduate school and older students who return after being out of school for a significant period of time.”
I drove in a trance to the communication building after a few weeks of planning my suicide. It was midnight on a Saturday just before school released for winter break and I chose this time with the assumption there would be no one there to stop me. I began systematically going through the steps of my well thought out plan, all the while sobbing so loudly I could hear the tears echoing throughout the building.
ü Step one: allocate your books. The books about narrative and storytelling go to one of your officemates while those about performance go to the other, and so on. Lastly, The Forgiveness Project, goes to your mentor who understands more than anyone your passion for forgiveness research.
ü Step two: make your way down the hall, your sandals flip and flop onto your heel as you walk unevenly, periodically bumping into the wall, still sobbing and breathing heavily. You are simultaneously, present and ephemeral, focused and in a daze. You are walking so briskly you can feel your hair bounce onto your neck and shoulders.
ü Step three: remove your driver’s license from your pink rubber wallet placing it into your right hand knowing the police will have to rule out the possibility of homicide and you would like to make it easy for them. You also want to make sure they are able to contact the right people. People you do not believe will care you are gone.
ü Step four: id in hand throw your bag to the side, kick off your shoes and approach the green railings of the third floor atrium.
I attempted to throw myself over a third floor atrium to end my life. I did so because extreme let downs and grief are hard to handle when wrought with mental illness. While trying to jump I was stopped by 2 people who were around the corner. They ran to me at what I can only describe as Olympic speed, and snapped me out of a haze of allocating academic books to my friend’s mailboxes and uncontrollable crying. The police were called and I spent time in a hospital. From that point forward there have been a series of milestones and achievements. Showering. Doing the dishes. Dusting. Leaving my apartment. Not isolating myself. Going to the grocery store to fill my fridge for the first time in months, and going into the very building I tried to end my life in order to get books I need to finally finish my fall semester coursework I received incompletes in. While there I found a thank you card from a student, personalized and signed with the utmost sincerity. In times when I don’t believe I have the capability to survive academia I am reminded that I can. Not just by other people, but by myself with each victory.
As a grad student with hidden disabilities I experience what Hecht would refer to as “interpenetration” or mixtures of more than one identity (Hecht, 2015, p. 181). It is not that this isn’t the case for many other graduate students regardless of ability, it is that someone with a stigmatized identity, is forced into a process “of combining or uniting elements of identity” that do not always mesh well. Fear of failure, paranoia, depression, trouble concentrating, cognition slowing down unexpectedly, all of these symptoms, and more, can drop a graduate student with a stigmatized label into an “identity gap” where they have to make an effort to enact the behaviors of the kind of grad student they don’t yet have much practice being. The kind of graduate student the communal layer says they should be: quick witted, quiet, agreeable, cower to authority, never show emotions, compete, compete, compete. The kind of grad student I have never wanted to be (Hecht, 2015, p. 179, 181). I have discovered that there is nothing stable about my label as grad student/academic or the identity I am expected to enact in relation to it. But what remains static is the push and pull, the messiness, of understanding what being a scholar means to me. A chaos I have chosen to navigate (Hecht, 2015, p. 179)
My mother says to me after my suicide attempt:
“I want to hear your voice every day from now on, okay?”
What is of significance to me in my mother’s words that day is the implication of a future together. A future stemming from care and worry for me and my wellbeing. A care I did not believe she ever had for me. It is possible that my entrance into the hospital and desire to end my life may have lit a fire in her to not waste any more time, as well as prompting her to finally see me as a human and not a being that stole her life (Berry, 2012, p. 141). Scharp and Thomas say the histories of relationships are irreplaceable and can have a profound effect on the strength of the relationship (Scharp & Thomas, 2016). I have learned through all of this, that my relationship to my mother may have been stronger than I ever thought. We just did not know how to communicate that strength. In my opinion, my mother displayed for me a transformative dialogue type of utterance in her request to hear my voice every day for the foreseeable future, that which creates new meanings for the future of the relationship (Baxter, 2015, p. 281–384).
I have had a hard time not thinking about those 2 people who pulled me down from the 3rd floor atrium I tried to jump from to end my life in the late evening on December 3rd. I began to wonder if I have been in their presence since and just didn’t notice. I don’t have a vivid memory of that night but the idea of not being able to recognize someone who saved my life is heartbreaking. Upon walking into the Communication building I walked toward the elevator at the exact same time a young man was walking toward it from the other direction. I pressed the button, we waited. As we walked in, out of the corner of my eye this young man moved in such a way that clicked in me a connection. A slight movement of his body was all it took.
In the elevator he leaned against the far corner farthest from the buttons, I took a breath and asked: “Were you and a girl here one night at around midnight on a Saturday and stopped a girl from jumping off the atrium?” He looked deep into my eyes with care and concern: “Yes, are you okay?” He recognized me the whole time.
I rushed to hug him. He held me tightly and I cried. He told me his name (Abraham), and his girlfriend’s (Maria), and I knew in that moment I never stopped knowing them. I will always recognize them. I will always be thankful for their kindness. A kindness not many people would have shown in such a vulnerable and scary situation as that with someone they don’t even know.
This is when I decided I was no longer going to cover — “tone down a disfavored identity to fit into the mainstream” who I am for the sake of the comfort of others around me (Yoshino, 2006).
An anonymous graduate student writes:
“I was diagnosed with schizophrenia just a month after Steven Kazmierczak (quickly identified as “schizoaffective”) shot six people to death on the campus of Northern Illinois University. Undoubtedly primed by this shooting, wary, uncertain, without enough time to think, my doctoral adviser suspended my graduate assistantship, banned me from the university, and alerted all faculty, graduate students and staff to forward all emails [from me] to her and, under no circumstances, respond.
My adviser had been operating under the wrongheaded assumption that I was planning to plant a bomb on campus. Although the decision to suspend my position was reversed within a week, it triggered a downward spiral that ultimately resulted in my expulsion.
Friends — my doctoral cohort, as is often the case, were a close and tight-knit group — abandoned me overnight. Students and faculty passed me in the halls, staring ahead blankly as if I were an undergraduate they had never seen and would never see again. Parties were announced, talked about, and I was never invited. Never again.
For a while I struggled through classes, overwhelmed, perhaps in equal measure, by delusions and this new and unprecedented isolation. Voices took the places of both professors and friends. Following a hospitalization (and consequent withdrawal from a semester’s worth of classes), I descended into a state of the most stunning dysfunction, unable (or simply unmotivated) even to walk from my bed to the bathroom. I could not read, I could not write — words rearranged themselves on the page, and my own thoughts became so hard to follow that I simply could not make it to the end of a sentence; suspended linguistically, suspended in life.”
You shove a large safety pin into the middle of your tongue and roll your eyes into the back of your head as it goes in. You put the stove on high and lick the coils feeling it get stuck slightly from the searing. You walk up to a tow truck and slam your teeth into the metal while in the middle of the street. You cut off your bottom lip exposing your gums. You pull your molars out with a wrench watching in the mirror as blood squirts from the nerve. For years you have been calling these “visuals” because you dwell in a perpetuate place of denial. Upon being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia you now know these to be hallucinations.
You were raised recklessly while at the same time with deliberate force. Your door sawed in half, with the threat of harm perpetual, but always with a glimmer of hope. The fight or flight mechanism in the brain is well over developed in children who are in a perpetual state of fear, causing the frontal cortex, where decisions are made, to be underdeveloped and consequently the limbic system to be overworked (Perry, 1997). Causing visions and hallucinations that keep you in an alternate reality, as they are a foreshadowing of future possibilities (Read, 2003).
People are following you. There is a camera hidden underneath the artificial plant hanging from the ceiling at work that one of your preschool student’s art projects is dangling from. In your bedroom, there is one in The Complete Works of Shakespeare, conveniently screwed through a small hole. There is one in your car on the rearview mirror, and a tracker in the engine recording your every speed and location. Do they think you have information? Why else would they be watching you through your windows, standing outside your bathroom door as you shower, making faint scraping sounds to let you know of their presence, and disappearing when you open the door?
In her unique performance autoethnography, Mother’s talk about their children with schizophrenia, B Schneider interviews Margaret, who uses a few words to evocatively tell the story of her son’s level of paranoia and psychosis, and how it affected their relationship:
“He’d knock on our bedroom door and he’d say, Mom, they’re trying to kill me. Mom, they tried to stab me tonight. And, Mom, I didn’t think it was very fair of you to send pictures all across Canada of me with no skin on my bones.”
The water is running behind you. It’s the hot water and you know that because it sounds slower and plops as it hits only the bottom of the steel sink in comparison to the cold that sprays out hitting all sides. The coffee grinds in the machine to your right, the metal container tapping the shield rapidly causing a sharp vibration down your spine and you scream inside praying for the person grinding to pull out the canister so as to lower the sound just a little. “Patrick!” the names of the customers are yelled out in rapid succession, and the steamer is always echoing and clinking, and clinking, and clinking, inside the silver pitcher. You can feel that echo just behind your eyes and you lose your breath as you clench the stainless steel counter in front of you. The timer goes off. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. “Turn off that fucking timer!” You run, everyone staring. Another job lost.
An unrecognizable man pushes his hands through the drywall of your ceiling that is covered with water stains from decades of Florida rain. Once his arms are through he uses them to push his head through, and next his shirtless torso until he is able to reach through and attempt to grab you. He misses, and you run out of your room screaming, “There’s a man!” “Wait, what?” your mom says, lacking even a little surprise, as this has been happening for decades. “There’s a man coming out of my ceiling!” You insist on her following you and turning on the light you point to the ceiling just above your bed, and she says, “Well he’s gone now, go to sleep, you have work in the morning.”
You surround yourself with patches of printed out photos, the corners peeling and covered in dust, displaying dead horses hanging from ceilings and old illustrations of people overcome with psychosis and your obsession with death is starting to consume you.
You can feel them in your sheets when you’re lying in bed at night. You sit on the edge of your bed, feet dangling and several lights illuminate your room to allow the utmost visibility, as you try to locate the creatures living underneath your flesh. You can see them burrowing their trails and you search for the entrance points. You dig, your fingernails filled with the skin of your left arm. Blood trailing down to settle into the inside of your elbow.
For me I chose the use of psychiatric medication and treatment. Kay Redfield tells us in An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness that “No pill can help me deal with the problem of not wanting to take pills; likewise, no amount of psychotherapy alone can prevent my manias and depressions. I need both.” I realized upon the use of these drugs that it is not that labels are flaws that need to be cured but transcendence to be understood, not just by current culture but by the self. Learning how to control and use my powers for good turned my labels, to some extent, into a blessing. A psychiatrist does not cover a problem and a therapist does not analyze and brain wash, they are teachers and partners in the discovery of self that is otherwise blinded by expectations unable to be filled. Hallucinations turn into creativity. Paranoia turns into intuition. Psychosis turns into desire. Suicidal fantasies turn into a lust for life. Severed relationships become an inspiration for empathy and a motivation to love deeply. These qualities come innate in those stigmatized. We just need help finding them.
I have since decided to stop “communicating in ways that hide or deny my identity” (Orbe, 2013, p. 203). Berry in “Seeking Care” writes that “selves are always and already in process, fluid, and are forever subject to change. (p. 20). Eisenberg says part of our identity is comprised of an “awareness of an uncertain future” (Eisenberg, 2001, p. 542). This means that if identity is equated to our place in the world, or our cultural/social locations, we need to understand that our place in the world is always already in flux and requires an “enlightened indeterminacy,” or a preparedness to understand and embrace our certain ambiguity (Eisenberg, 2001, p. 534). I will not always be able to behave in the ways I would like, and I will never have a warning of which “tides” of myself I may encounter and this is something I will need to accept (Hecht, 2015, p. 178).
Telling these stories has been enlightening to what my personal gifts are and I can only hope it can help others discover themselves. It is complex and at times beautiful to describe and it is my pleasure to share. That pleasure comes with a feeling of urgency, of not just to prevent the loss of personal relationships due to miseducation, but preventing the preventable loss of those with unique minds, by their own hands. This sounds like, and is indeed, a large task, but there is a lot of power in simply communicating, with love, a dedication to the revelation of possibilities of those with stigmatized labels. It is not a cure we need to be urgent about, it is understanding and discovery of personal identity that can solve this problem.
You are young and your family is having one of their signature cook outs for the block, where they pretend to be a loving family. You get the urge to take your father’s keys out of his hand and run, dangling them in your five year old fingers over the pool. You look at him, gazing into his soul, knowing that with all these people around he cannot hurt you, but this embarrassment will hurt him. “Don’t do it! Stop!” You open your fingers and hear the individual plops as each part of the keys hit the surface of the water and float gracefully down the treacherous three feet that is the depth of the pool. You can see the ripples and waves of the pool being made by your siblings wading on the other side. The entire family and neighborhood is staring and you feel triumph. For the first time you won. That night you hear your parents discuss the incident. “There’s something wrong with that child! She’s just not normal.” You can hear every utterance clearly and can smell the emotion in his face as you’re lying there, falling asleep…
“Where are the keys!?” You watch as she destroys your private space, breaking beloved possessions, sobbing. She suddenly has a moment of epiphany and runs out the door, out into your childhood backyard, drops to her knees, and digs. Her finger nails break, her tears drop into the dirt leaving small beads to settle on top, her white, sheer lace covered in black. She stops, holds up the keys, looks into your eyes, and smiles.
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