My whole family has this weird idea about illness: that if you’re sick, or injured even, that it’s because you did something wrong. If you catch a cold, it’s because you didn’t eat your vegetables. Maybe you missed a doctor’s appointment. Or maybe didn’t take your Vitamin C. Perhaps you kissed someone with a cold or forgot to wash your hands. Or forgot to spray the telephone receiver with Lysol after someone with a cold used it. You spent too much time with sick people. Maybe you picked your nose, bit your nails. Maybe you smoked. Maybe you drank, or hung out with the wrong crowd. Maybe you watched too much TV, or not enough TV, read the wrong books, didn’t get exercise, had too much sex, worked too hard, slept too much. It gets worse. It becomes a moral issue. You don’t have the right attitude. You don’t know how to take proper care of yourself. You aren’t optimistic enough. You don’t have a youthful spirit. You’re not aging well. You’re not mature. You don’t believe in God. You’re a religious fanatic. You’re a homosexual. You’re weird. You’re weak in character. You’re uncomfortable with yourself. You just don’t have it together. You’re insecure. You’re a sinner, a liar, a cheater, a beggar, a wimp, a whore, a thief, a murderess. That’s about how it went in my family–when you got sick, it was your fault; you were asking for it. But don’t for a moment think that this attitude is only found within the confines of my own family! All of our society blames the ill for their illness. And so, when I became mentally ill, I did what I was trained to do; I blamed myself. I shamed myself. I told no one.
I told no one, and tried to cure myself on my own, in secret. It was all my fault. I had gotten myself into the mess I was in, so I would get myself out of it. I was too fat (I was so thin that I no longer menstruated), Martians were trying to run my life, I was terrified of other humans, and about twice a week I stuffed myself with whatever I could eat–sometimes it wasn’t even food–until I was so full I passed out on my bed, still clothed, until morning. And I was deeply depressed. And I was lonely in a weird way: I was afraid of humans yet craved companionship; it was a catch-22 that I still deal with even today. I tried every diet I could think of, including restricting myself to 300 calories a day. I restricted myself in all sorts of ways, for instance, drastically limiting monetary spending and telephone use, to rid myself of the Martians, but none of these methods worked. No one knew. Only a handful of people commented that I had lost too much weight, but nothing came of it.
So when word got out in my family that I was “having problems,” I was sorely blamed for these “problems” I’d gotten myself into. I was weak, I didn’t have the right attitude, I didn’t like myself, I wasn’t likeable anyway, I didn’t wear a bra, didn’t stay in touch with the family enough, didn’t have enough goddamned respect. This “problem” wasn’t referred to as “illness” until well after I was hospitalized, three years later, and in the meantime, we’d had some family therapy, during which the therapists tried to blame my parents for my “problems” (the therapists, too, avoided “illness”–how could it happen to a Bennington College high achiever whose parents were paying fifty dollars a day for her to come to their program?). My parents later joined NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) where they learned that mental illness was a physical problem, that they were off the hook and I was back on the hook for having a brain disorder. I picked my nose, smoked, hung out with scummy people, watched the wrong TV shows, didn’t read books, didn’t exercise, had too much sex, was lazy, slept too much, and yes, it’s a moral issue–I didn’t have the right attitude, couldn’t take proper care of myself, was a pessimist, shaky, immature, weird, weak, a sinner, liar, cheater, wimp, a filthy, pimply, smoking, coffee-drinking, diseased whore.
Today’s society both hates and glorifies the ill. We hate the guy on the bus who smells and talks to himself but we love the learning-disabled boy who, against all odds, is able to complete his high school education. We hate the welfare mother of six who begs on the street every day for money to heat her home but we love the paralyzed child who overcomes her disability and learns to walk again. Disabilities generally aren’t overcome. They are endured. I take seventeen pills a day (not including vitamins). That’s the easy part. I deal with Evil Beings sometimes. I deal with depression sometimes; sometimes I have to put up with side effects of my medication. I have a plethora of physical complaints from having the illness itself and taking medications long-term. But the toughest part is the shame. Crazy. Off her rocker. Bonkers. Lights on, nobody home. Whacked. Psycho.
Society loves those disabled people who achieve in spite of their disabilities, not along with their disabilities. But I am lucky. I am achieving because I am writing about my illness, using it to express myself; I am using writing and writing about my illness to reach other people. I am writing about what has consumed my life for the past 28 years. I feel that I know it very, very well. I no longer blame myself for it. It is not anyone’s fault that I became ill and that I still am ill. It simply is so.