When the phone rang that night, I was asleep. It was probably 1 am or so, and my 10-year-old body wasn’t used to being pulled from slumber at such an unreasonable hour. I closed my eyes and willed myself to slip into unconsciousness again. The voice in the back of my head told me I shouldn’t sleep; that I should get up and find my sister and whichever parent had kept watch with us that night, and listen to what they had to tell me. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it because I didn’t want to hear what they were going to say. If I went back to sleep, it’d be a dream; a terrible, awful, nightmare. The phone call would be a figment of my imagination.
I woke up again, when it was light outside, to my mother’s sobbing tearing through the walls. Sharp sobs. Unearthly wails. I can’t describe the grief and the overwhelming anger and helplessness that I could hear in her voice. She was in the bathroom with the door shut, but nothing was hidden from me and my seven-year-old sister. We sat up in our hideaway couch bed and I saw my father sitting at the little table across the room from me, with tears in his eyes, but his demeanor calm.
I knew the words that were coming next. The phone call hadn’t been a dream, and my willful ignorance had been pointless. I started crying. My sister got scared and started crying, too, not really understanding what was going on.
“Sara went to be with your sister last night.”
Angry sobs. Uncontrollable tears. Cursing God. Hadn’t I prayed hard enough? Losing Kristin was hell on my parents… and now Sara’s gone, too?
It was three weeks before her fourth birthday.
Image from STYLEGERMS
My dance teacher threw up her hands, exasperated.
“Why don’t you even try?” she asked. I was half her height and couldn’t look her in the eyes. We stood in front of a wall-sized mirror, where she scrutinized my form as I practiced a section of my dance routine in a trance-like state.
“I am,” I said. We stared at one another for a moment, our eyes locking in the glass, and then she turned and went to assist one of my classmates. I wanted to leap through the glass like Alice, and escape from the inanity of memorizing a simplistic, boring dance routine. What did it matter, anyway? The only people who cared were my parents. They were the only ones who showed up to watch their kids prance around on a stage like clumsy little mannequins, wearing far too much makeup for their own good and hair sprayed into place like a tiny Texas beauty queen. Who else cared? I couldn’t think of a single person.
But my mom paid for classes. And I had to keep everyone happy.
I forced myself to move again. If you squinted, it looked sort of like dancing.
“We need to talk,” my piano teacher said, looking at me while I let my fingers slump from the keys and into my lap, knowing what was coming. “You haven’t been practicing, and you seem very… sad.”
I refused to make eye contact and just stared at the keys, tears welling up in my eyes as I tried to choke out some kind of answer. Words weren’t coming.
“Is it because of your sister?”
Yes, it is because I have a gaping hole in my life where her little bald head should be. Her adorable, round eyes and her singing and dancing and hilarious jokes. She should have been free of her illness, and don’t you think I am angry that such a sweet little person had to suffer so greatly? I hear her voice when I try to sleep, and my chest hurts so bad that I feel my heart will tear itself apart.
I have her drawings of our family together. It will never be the same. I have a mother who won’t stop crying, a father who gets the brunt of her uncontrollable wrath. A younger sister who is clearly struggling to process death and is doing worse than I am. I pretend I can’t hear the arguing and get angry with myself for being such a failure at everything instead.
“Yes, I’m sorry.”
She understood. She said I had to keep trying. I was trying. I was. Why did everyone think I wasn’t trying? I was reaching for something in the distance, but I never seemed to get any closer. Reaching was all I could do.
Image from TheOnion.com
“Girls, come in here,” my dad called. My sister and I were in the family room, and he and my mom had been fighting in the bedroom for what seemed like hours. I knew what was coming. We stepped into the room and they looked at us with somber, controlled expressions. I crossed my arms.
“Your mom and I love you two very much…” my dad choked out, then trailed off.
“You’re getting divorced, aren’t you?” I asked. He shook his head.
“We’re just going to try being separated for a while. I’m going to get an apartment and you can come stay with me every other weekend.”
I was so mad I was just numb. When the “conversation” was over, I left, and felt like crying, but it was the anger that was growing more than anything else. I hated my life more and more with each passing day. I didn’t know what normal was anymore.
“I think this sounds like you,” my friend said, pointing to the phrase BIPOLAR DISORDER on our worksheet. “You’re like, happy some days, and so sad the next that no one knows what to do around you.” I stared at it, then looked at her. Learning about psychology had apparently made our class into a bunch of 12-year-old mental health professionals. Still, something about all the symptoms made sense. I lagged behind my friends now that we’d started middle school. Boys terrified me. Doing anything physical in front of anyone terrified me. Going to church on Sundays terrified me. I hated everyone and everything, and had thought repeatedly about dying that week to escape from the misery of hormones, schoolwork, depressing home life, and practicing activities that brought me no joy whatsoever.
“Yeah, maybe,” I said, and went back to doodling on my notebook. The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that maybe there was a name for how I felt. I walked up to the teacher after class and I told her I thought I had it. She looked at me strangely and said, “You should talk to someone about this.”
So I told my mom.
She said I didn’t have it, and demanded I go apologize to the teacher and clarify before they started to think I’m crazy.
I looked at the bottle of painkillers and wondered. If I ate them all, would it stop? I thought of my sister and of my parents. Well, maybe I’d just take a few and see if it helped me be in a dreamworld or something. I took 10 and fell asleep.
I woke up the next morning as usual. I was disappointed.
It continued throughout high school. I could never focus. I hated most things and most places. And most people. I watched my close friends get picked on and plotted revenge against those who would hurt the few I did care for. I was just a girl, though, and the bullies were guys and totally unthreatened by my stature. Go figure. But some people thought I might be crazy, and many definitely found me strange, and that scared them. I began to channel severe rage episodes into art and writing, finding new ways of killing off characters who were quite thinly-veiled representations of the awful bullies in my life. But it was all written off as being a hormonal teenage girl.
On one occasion, I confronted a bully and threatened him, wanting so badly to tear him to shreds mentally and physically for picking on a harmless, shy friend of mine whose only crime was to draw too many anime girls on her notebooks. His mother was friends with my mother, but I didn’t care. I made him feel like the tiny, insecure little prick that he was, and I felt good about my meanness for once. But it was a short-lived victory. I still cried at night, not just because I was sad, but because I was angry. Because I didn’t want to deal with any of it any longer.
When I went home at night, my mom would keep her hawk eyes on me. I could never go anywhere unless she’d planned it about a week in advance. I understood her fears. I enabled them. I told her everything to keep her calm and as happy as she could be. She was petrified of losing another child; how could I be so selfish to be away? Especially when my younger sister, who was on the verge of a very serious transition in her life, was being picked on at school for being eccentric? It was my job to hold it all together. My burden I placed on my own damn shoulders.
I didn’t start cutting until I was about twenty. I was slow to arrive at the rodeo, I guess. My boyfriend had been watching so much porn on my computer that it was all buggy and gross, and I was livid about it. I told him how much it hurt me that he wouldn’t touch me, but he wanted the faceless girls on the internet; he apologized to me and he promised he’d stop. He never did. Not once in our nine-year relationship (in which we eventually got married) did he ever tell me the truth about his intentions. He just kept doing it and telling me he wasn’t. I got so good at catching him that I reveled in the fact that I was smarter than he was. But I felt so worthless and ugly after knowing what he did that I would cut myself out of anger. Punishing myself for being… me. For being not good enough. Because how fuckable he found me was apparently the only self-worth I could see inside of myself. I didn’t realize how unhealthy these thoughts were until our marriage fell apart.
He told me he’d been in love with one of my best friends for years when we’d been married for a year and a half–I was 27 at the time, living in a state far away from any of my friends or family. He wouldn’t stop drinking until he was an obnoxious asshole who sneered at people and blamed me for everything wrong in his life. He’d watch porn ON THE TOILET IN THE MORNING and completely ignore me while day drinking at his job that I GOT HIM. I’d started detaching myself from the relationship already, which was not the nicest thing I’ve ever done in my life, but I was mentally and physically exhausted. When he told my poor friend of his true feelings (while smashed, of course), she was floored and didn’t know how to respond. This girl was one of the friends who was picked on in high school–we’d known one another for 13 years–one of the girls I’d wanted to protect.
For months after this, I switched back and forth from uncontrollable anger to severe depression. Body wracked with pain, mind completely blank, heart utterly shattered kind of depression. I went to therapy immediately, but did not see major improvements until I went to a psychiatrist and asked him to please help me by putting me on medication. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and chronic clinical depression. I also have body dysmorphic disorder and extreme anxiety when it comes to certain pornographic materials (just about on par with PTSD, but I don’t like saying that because I feel my case doesn’t merit the title. I was sexually assaulted and emotionally abused, but so many people go through so much more than I have and I feel PTSD isn’t the proper term for me–I’ve seen my soldier friends with it and I just can’t bring myself to use that terminology.)
I’m turning 30 this week. Mental illness has nearly destroyed my life. I once contemplated killing myself when I turned 30 if my life was as miserable as it had been for so long. But before you get all panicky, I’m happy to say that while I’m sad about this milestone and being “behind” my goals, I’m here to stay, and I’m recovering more and more each year.
These stories don’t include the struggles my one surviving sister has; those which my mother has dealt with; my father’s huge emotional and spiritual journey; the impact of an attempted rape (I just can’t write about it in this context) and an (unrelated) unplanned pregnancy; nor does it cover the impact that a building autoimmune disease and undiagnosed genetic syndrome have had on my life. But what I want to say is this:
If you have ever wondered whether mental illness was one of the following:
- A phase everyone goes through
- Something someone just needs to “pull themselves out of”
- Something you need to just “get over” or “snap out of”
- Attention-seeking or selfishness
- Stupid or unwarranted, given the person’s status
- Not justified in your eyes (i.e., someone rich or someone very attractive suffers from depression and you think it’s just them being stupid)
- Something you should be able to get over without the use of pharmaceuticals or therapy
- Something only for damaged people who are likely to be a threat to themselves or others
- Something you can discriminate against because those who have it are “crazy”
You’re a moron. Okay, scratch that–you might be naive, but you’ve also got no handle on the reality of mental illness. Someone in your life may be afflicted with an invisible, awful, alienating disease such as clinical depression. As in, right now. When you pretend these things aren’t serious, or when you push away someone who is suffering, you’re doing them a disservice. You may not be a therapist, but you can be the one to reach out your hand and tell them they’re not alone. That you won’t judge them or shun them for asking for help. Many sufferers just need to know that someone cares.
Oh, and never fucking tell a mentally ill person that if they ate a better diet or took some herbal bullshit supplements that they’d cure themselves. That’s not how it works.
Visit this site if you’ve had thoughts of ending your life. Cliche, but here it is.
I wrote this today after reading the discussions surrounding the death and apparent suicide of Robin Williams. Mental illness doesn’t discriminate and it’s a fucking tragedy that it took the life of someone who has touched so many hearts with his successful career. My story is just one of many stories that could and should be told. I wanted to share just bits and pieces of my struggle so that people could see that it’s very real. It’s very dangerous. And I’m here today because of the support of friends and family, and because of medication and therapy.
If you need help, I’m here to tell you you’re not alone. Fight this shit. Fight it as hard as you can. And change the discussion surrounding mental illness. We need to remove the stigma and push for more affordable, accessible care.
If you like, you can watch a tribute video I made for my sisters below, and you can read the story I wrote about Sara’s death here.
You can also read my writing here under my pen name Deina Furth.
Art continues to help me and heal me in ways I can’t anticipate. I appreciate your support. ❤