Content warning: all the usual stuff, but also specific mentions of self-harm, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts.
The stereotype of mad people goes something like this: unable to get out of bed, unable to take care of basic needs (ie. food, hygiene), engaging in impulses, suicide attempts, active self-harming, medicated, attention-seeking, manipulative, engaging with any and all delusions or hallucinations- and the list goes on. Some of these things hold truth for some people (heck, all of these things may hold true for some people!), and that is valid. But those are not things that hold true for me.
I identify as being a mad person for a few reasons:
1. I was diagnosed with Major Depression, Generalized Anxiety, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, and as experiencing occasional quasipsychosis when I was fourteen. I was then treated by a team of psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and my family doctor through various therapeutic practices and also with medication.
It should probably be noted at this point that I feel strongly that if I were to undergo a full psychiatric assessment at this point in my life, eleven years after my initial evaluation, I would be given a pretty different set of diagnoses. It should also probably be noted that, while I believe first and foremost that everyone ought to have the right to treat their madness/illness/body in whatever way they feel may work best for them at the time, I am extremely noncompliant with medication and do not believe that it is helpful for me or conducive to my healing process at this point in my life. I also want to acknowledge that there was a point in my life where I did feel as though medication was helpful.
2. Sometimes, I feel mad. I feel crazy. I feel out of control. Sometimes, I am so depressed I want to die for no reason at all. Sometimes, I am so anxious, leaving my apartment takes hours because I have to check and re-check that i’ve unplugged everything in my apartment. Sometimes, I hear, and see, and feel things that other people don’t hear, or see, or feel. More often than not, I wake up throughout the night, either already breathless from sobbing in my sleep or completely paralyzed, as though there’s an alien laying on top of me.
3. Other people (sometimes) identify me as mad. When I’m having a panic attack, or when I disclose to a close friend that I am feeling “low-key suicidal” as I call it (meaning I am experiencing suicidal ideation but don’t plan to carry anything out/am safe overall), they identify me as mad.When I disclose things to doctors, they also identify me as mad. When my family has to put up with me unplugging everything constantly and panicking about it as I drive away from home, or my partner wakes up to me crying again, they identify me as mad too.
Whether I want it to be or not, madness is a big part of my life, and, given the day, I’ve been known to argue both sides. However, the stereotype of mad folks doesn’t fit for me. No matter how unstable I am feeling, I will always get up, force myself to eat, force myself to drink water, force myself to get dressed, force myself to go to work, force myself to prepare meals beforehand, force myself to maintain relationships, force myself to take time to rest and recharge, force myself to have boundaries, force myself to care for the people in my life. I haven’t attempted suicide in eight and a half years, I haven’t self-harmed in five years, and in that time, I have graduated with an undergraduate degree (with honours), maintained a long-term romantic relationship, improved my family relationships, maintained several long-term friendships, started my career, and found stable housing (finally). I am what people call high-functioning.
I work, I volunteer, I take care of myself, I maintain relationships and extra-curricular interests. People who aren’t close to me generally don’t even realize I’m mad, and in a way, that is a privilege. However, like with any invisible, chronic condition, there is something to be said for experiences being erased by what fits more easily: physical and visible manifestation of symptoms.
The fact that I am high-functioning does not negate my experiences or the validity of my healing process.
Sometimes, I feel guilty for taking up space in therapeutic settings or online support groups for mad people. Sometimes, I feel guilty because I feel as though I’m appropriating language around mental health to describe my experiences. But the reality of the situation is: just because I don’t kill myself, doesn’t make my nearly constant suicidal ideation any less significant to my lived experience. Obviously, that’s the most extreme example I could give, but you get the idea (and I do love the dramatic…).
A lot of the issue comes down to the nature of psychiatry. Lists of symptoms fit the criteria of a mental illness, as defined by the DSM V, so people are diagnosed and received the treatment that is supposed to alleviate those symptoms. Although this process has been life-saving in many different ways for many different people, there are tons of problems with this way of identifying and treating madness.That is an essay within itself….
The one problem with this that I want to draw attention to within this particular essay is that there exists this binary of “well”/“not well” or “sane”/“mad” or “functioning according to capitalist standards”/“not functioning according to capitalist standards”. While I’m all for resisting capitalism and not defining wellness or worth according to levels of productivity, I also happen to be a person who copes (and literally survives) by functioning. That is my way of resisting feeling like shit. This doesn’t mean that I think I’m better than (or more well than or healed than) people who are not high-functioning, simply that my way of working towards wellness and healing happens to look pretty high-functioning.
This also does not negate my experiences or the validity of my healing process.
Maybe it’s because I’ve been able to access many years worth different kinds of therapies. Maybe it’s because I was medicated for a few years. Maybe it’s because I have some wonderfully supportive, stable people in my life. Maybe it’s because my number one priority is my healing process (even when it may not seem like it). Maybe it’s because I’m a capricorn. Maybe it’s because it’s just the way I am. Maybe it’s because I was brought up in a WASPy, upper middle class, white family, and not being high functioning simply was not an option. It’s probably because of all of these things that I am a high functioning mad person.
Regardless, my experiences and my healing process are valid, even as a high-functioning mad person.