My mother is looking at my nail-polish, bitten, chipped and the colour of a rose, deep red. She reads a poster on the wall, then looks back to my hands. They are shaking, nails on one hand gripping the other so tightly I know I am leaving indentations of half-moons, tiny little nervous red marks.
My nails need to be painted, she says, then looks to her watch. Nervous habits, I am thinking, this is all this whole charade is. Neither of us know what to do, or think, or what will happen. I, for one, am utterly convinced I’ll be in a mental institution by this time tomorrow. I am already planning how I am going to fit in my work around recovery, if there is one, if I can get better, that is. It’s amazingly frightening once you realise your sole and biggest enemy in the whole world is inside your own head.
My first appointment with a psychiatrist is a long one. An hour and twenty minutes of questions about my entire life –span, as if every emotion and up and down and love and hate can be contained in that time. As if I’d even know where to begin. My psychiatrist has a tattoo and an eclectic fashion sense. She makes the idea that my mind is so muddled and out of sync seem almost funny.
‘I hear voices,’ I tell her... ‘But that doesn’t mean you’re crazy,’ she replies.
‘I hear voices,’ I tell her, ‘sometimes they say clear things, sometimes just mumbling.’ ‘But that doesn’t mean you’re crazy,’ she replies. And I am stumped. How can hearing voices in any way be considered a normal thing? ‘When people go through a lot of stress and become very, very low, the mind can play tricks on you. It does not mean you are mad, or insane, it means your brain is confused and panicking. It’s a cry for help, telling you that you’ve suffered enough, that you can’t cope anymore.
And that breakdown, that rush of emotion is what makes you human.’
My psychiatrist says I have wide eyes, bright and alive. Crazy, I suppose, in the non-literal sense. It’s nice to have someone pick up on the finer details, to not be hung up on the hospital appointments and the pills, the guilt and the shame and the self-hatred that comes with being ‘not quite normal’. It’s nice to know I’m human after all.
In the car. The way home. Things are muted and surprisingly normal. My mother – the one I inherited the eyes from – is strong, my hero. How she can deal with her teenage daughter’s mental breakdown – a triple strike after a parent with cancer and the leaving of her husband, my dad – is a mystery beyond me. She has shoulders of iron.
‘There’s a stigma against mental illness and it’s wrong’ she is saying.
‘There’s a stigma against mental illness and it’s wrong’ she is saying. I look away from the window to look at her. She stares straight ahead, eyes glazed. The road could be clouds for all I know. ‘People don’t understand it, so they shun it. People are just scared of something they can’t understand.’
I’m lucky that people noticed I had a problem before I even did. My mum sitting me down and telling me she thought I needed to see someone, my friends telling me they were worried about me – those were the first signs. They understood I needed help even if they didn’t understand what I was going through themselves, which made all the difference. Just knowing someone is there just to listen to you, even if they don’t have anything to say back, even if you’re making no sense, can be the difference between a good day and a bad one.
I admit, even to this day, I’m scared of admitting to a lot of people what I went through.
Of course, that doesn’t mean everyone has been as accepting. I admit, even to this day, I’m scared of admitting to a lot of people what I went through. There can be a lull in conversation if it’s ever mentioned, an awkward pause before someone moves the conversation on. It annoys me at times because I feel if I mention I had gone through and beat a physical illness, their reactions may be a little more engaging and encouraging because it’s something people are more able to comprehend.
And that’s part of the problem. A broken bone is just that – a broken part of your insides that can be easily mended and one doctors know how to do all too well. But when it’s your own brain that’s broken, no one can truly understand and no one can truly help because no one but you is inside your own mind. It is a ghost that will haunt you forever, even when you are better. It becomes a part of you.
I am strong because I struggled with the help of others.
The pills I started taking that day were diamond-shaped. Like a diamond in the sky, a star, they are not a setback, but a wish, a window back to normality. I am not strong because I struggled alone; I am strong because I struggled with the help of others. The pills slip and slide down your throat like any other pill, block out symptoms like any other medication and improve health like any medical implement should. The road to recovery becomes one more easily travelled.
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Rachel is a Literature and Linguistics student and a fashion, music and culture writer. She is Deputy Editor of fashion webzine British Style Bloggers and Founder and Editor of blog Watch This Place. She’s also been featured in 15 poetry & short story anthologies, both in the UK and the USA as well as being longlisted for the Christopher Tower Poetry Prize in 2011. Once upon a time she was a psychiatric out-patient for over a year and now works to help break down the stigma and discrimination surrounding those that suffer from mental illnesses.