A few nights ago, I posted a version of what’s below. Within about fifteen minutes I had gotten enough “Tim, don’t kill yourself!” emails that I took the post down. So I thought I’d try again. Here goes…
“How are you?”
My least favorite question.
Sometimes, mercifully, the answer really is “fine.” Some of the time, the answer is more like this: “barely putting one foot in front of the other; feel like crying all the time; want to lash out in anger at most of the people I know for one reason or another.” Worse yet, sometimes this would be the honest answer: “barely surviving…if I told you how badly I want to die, you’d put me in the mental hospital right this second. I fantasize about ways to kill myself. Better yet, I long for something/someone else to do the job for me so no one has to live with all the what-could-I-have-done guilt. If only I could get into a car wreck that looked like a true accident, one that would be guaranteed to kill me. Ahhhh, now that would be the ticket.”
If I told you how often I think like this, you’d probably have me committed. But I also know enough people who think like me to know that I’m not alone and that thoughts like these are not at all abnormal for those who are mentally ill. However, those of us who actually think these things aren’t allowed to verbalize them. Understandably, people are not prepared to hear someone else say they are longing for death. My purpose in writing this post is to encourage those of you who support someone who is mentally ill to understand the difference between wanting to die and being suicidal.
The truth is that all of the mentally ill people I know think about dark things far more often than you would want to know about. We are at war with our brains…constantly. No matter how much we want peace, it won’t come. No matter how much we want to get over our emotional pain, it won’t heal.
Here’s an example of my brain’s incessant negativity even about the smallest things: A friend introduced me to someone who has become one of my favorite musicians EVER (Sturgill Simpson). We were talking about him and I made some analogy comparing Simpson’s song-writing to my blog writing. I was by no means comparing our writing skills, but my friend laughed and said something like, “If only you could write as well as he does.” He didn’t mean anything harmful by it, and I understood his point, but here’s the rub: every damn time I listen to Sturgill Simpson, his songs are poisoned by my hurt feelings because of what my friend said. My brain won’t let it go. Trust me, I don’t want to hold on to these things; why would I want to hold on to something that hurts me and that I can’t do anything about? I can’t go back and confront my friend because he didn’t mean anything by it. I can’t prove him wrong because how would I do that? How would I prove that I’m as good a writer as Sturgill Simpson is? I’m probably not, but that’s not the point. The point is that, when Simpson’s songs play (and I have all of his albums so I hear him a lot even when I hit shuffle), I have a wound that won’t heal. I hear it over and over in my head: “You’re not as good as him; you won’t ever amount to anything as a writer, Tim. You’ll never impact people the way he does.” Maybe that’s not what my friend meant but it doesn’t matter. Whether I want to or not, that’s the “song” that plays on repeat in my head when Sturgill Simpson plays on my iPhone.
Our brains are broken, irreparably. In order to support someone who is mentally ill, you need to brace yourself for the ugliness of what we have to share. If I were to share the above with someone, most likely, they would say, “You’ve got to let go of that, man!” And I would say, “No shit. I want to let it go more than you can possibly imagine. I would give ANYTHING to be able to let it go.” But someone who tells us to “let it go” doesn’t understand the battle. We have bled, sweat, and cried, “Please help us let it go!” to no avail. And if you are going to be our supporter, you are going to have to reconcile yourself to the fact that we aren’t able to control our brains in the same way that you are. “Let it go” or “think positive” are meaningless to us. It’s not that we don’t want to; we can’t. Can a cancer patient make her hair grow back by thinking positively? Can a paraplegic make his legs start working again by letting go of negative thoughts? Obviously, no. And those of us with mental illness can’t quit thinking negative thoughts no matter how hard we try. Trust me, I would give literally anything to be able to let go of negative thoughts. Yet, the truth is, negative thought essentially consume my brain 24/7. I don’t want that to be the case. But it is.
So what should you do to support your friend who is mentally ill? You should prepare yourself for a very ugly reality. Instead of saying, “think positive,” you should just say, “I’m sorry” or “I will listen for as long as you want to talk” or, “tell me everything and I promise not to judge or freak out” or, “what’s your favorite mixed drink and I’ll make you five of them.” Better yet, in a peaceful moment, ask your loved one what they want you to say to them, and say that.
People talk all the time about “removing the stigma” of mental illness. Well if we are ever going to do that, there have to be people in our lives who see it all, know it all, hear it all, and still treat us with dignity…without minimizing our pain as if it were something that a clever phrase or new perspective could help us overcome. Our brains are broken. Allow us to tell you about our real, raw experience.
Here’s the truth: just because we think constantly about death, doesn’t mean we are suicidal. Those of us who think of death as a welcomed relief need people who can listen without freaking out when we talk about longing for death. These thoughts are the fundamental reality of our lives. Our lives are hard…so hard that we want to die. This doesn’t mean we are suicidal; it just means we are mentally ill. It just means that our brains are broken beyond repair. We’ll keep trying; we’ll keep fighting. But if you want to be part of our support system, you’ll have to accept that our reality is a dark one. And the best thing you can do for us is to listen without judgment…even when we tell you we want to die.
Friends, I need your help growing the reach of TKWANA. Its aims are to 1. encourage 2. educate and 3. connect people with mental illnesses and their supporters. Beyond blogging, podcasting, and speaking, I ultimately hope to develop a small-group model for those with mental illnesses – something not too different from what AA is for alcoholics. If you see the value in this endeavor, please consider sharing TKWANA with your Facebook friends or with someone in particular who might need it. Thank you!
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