(This is a joint issue with Amy Writes Words. If you'd rather listen to this than read it, go there. Also, I thought I'd sent this last week but I hadn't. So if you read last week's Amy Writes Words this is not a new issue to you. Sorry, but at least you don't have more reading to 'put aside for later' and never get back around to reading. For those of you who are only subscribed to woe, here you go, brand new words. If you also would like to read about why I think the future must include a lot of Karaoke check out this week's Amy Writes Words, which also includes gorgeous owl photos. )
Sorry to be a bummer but for most of us it is simply not true that the hardest part of mental illness is the part where you admit you need help. This is a Hollywood storyline that makes great after-school specials and dramatic moments in gritty dramas, but it is not how things work in real life.
I know this because I have admitted I needed help about seven thousand times in my life and all of those times were easier than about seven million other things that have come with my mental illness. The time I lost a dear friend because I was absolutely bonkers nuts in their direction. The time I was involuntarily committed. Waiting two months for ketamine infusions through a fog of suicidal depression while working full time as a director of engineering, and then when I finally got around to the part where I paid six thousand dollars and got the damn infusions they helped, but they weren’t any kind of miracle, just like the ECT helped but it wasn’t any kind of miracle, just like all the meds have sometimes helped and never been any goddamn miracle, just like meditation helped and has never been a miracle and praying fervently helped but it did not bring about a fucking miracle.
Admitting you need help is not some kind of fucking miracle.
On TeeVee, when someone realizes they haven’t left the bed for two months and admits they need help, there’s a simple and easy trajectory to wellness or recovery or whatever kind of sappy end-state the TeeVee writers are aiming for. Admitting you need help really is the hardest part on TeeVee because therapists are easy to find, everyone has health insurance, the first med you try works like magic and never stops working and doesn’t have any terrible side effects, and there are no external factors influencing your level of stress or ability to cope in life.
In real life the other day my younger child rushed into my bedroom wailing “I need help!” and sat down on the bed in desperation, and the only thing I had to offer them was a joke.
I knew they needed help. They’ve been almost continuously depressed and suffering from crippling anxiety for the entirety of the pandemic, and they’d been on meds for a year or so prior to that. I knew they needed help because they’d already been through a partial hospitalization program and they were failing all their classes and they could hardly make it through a single school day without escaping to the social worker’s office. I knew they needed help because we’d spoken several times about whether and when inpatient hospitalization would be something for us to consider, and because we were in the middle of getting them an IEP, and because many afternoons when I picked them up from school they got into the car sobbing with exhaustion.
“Oh,” I said, “now that you’ve asked for the help, finally, let me just pull the real help out from under the bed here.”
Reader, they laughed, because we do a lot of dark humor in this household. Everyone needs humor, and a lot of the time dark is all we’ve got, so dark humor it is.
I first asked for help from my third-grade teacher. Later, my first year of college, I asked for help from my university health services and then later I asked for help specifically from university mental health services in the form of medication and then two weeks after I started the medication I went to the health services urgent care again asking for help because I’d started cutting myself with an exacto knife, and then when I graduated from college and lost my health insurance and my doctors and my meds, about two months in to lying in bed surrounded by half-empty coke cans and dirty clothes and cigarette butts I finally called the man who I later married and asked for help finding a psychiatrist and then I asked my parents for help paying for the psychiatrist. Later I asked for help from a manager filing for a medical leave and then I did it another time and then I went searching for other kinds of help and I asked for help from coworkers and from friends and from babysitters, and even from my dental hygienist, who has for over a decade never cleaned my teeth in December without quietly comforting me while I cry for no reason at all, except that it’s December.
I suppose you could maybe make a case that the hardest thing is asking for help like that again, and again, and again.
But I don’t think that it’s exactly the asking that is the hard part there. The actual asking gets easier the more you do it. Never easy, because nothing about this is easy, but easier. I think what remains hard is maintaining faith that there is help, especially when you know through long and bitter experience that none of it, none of it, will be a miracle.
Generally speaking when I have believed some treatment to be a miracle I wasn’t cured, I was just manic.
This is supposed to be a tip and instead I feel like I’m just being a downer. I dunno, maybe you got a miracle. Sometimes you read about a guy who had some kind of weird amino acid deficiency and they just take one supplement and they are all better and then they are like “THANK GOD I WASN’T ACTUALLY MENTALLY ILL! IT WAS JUST A SIMPLE NUTRITIONAL DEFICIENCY!” and those people can go fuck themselves acting like their easy-to-fix deficiency puts them safely in the “sane people” category.
The people who are all “it’s just a simple neurotransmitter problem and Lexapro fixed it all, it’s not my fault!” are not quite as annoying since they don’t quite claim that this puts them squarely in the “sane” category.
But, if you’re still insisting on firm boundaries between “sane normal person” and “lost their fucking mind” well, that’s adorable and quaint, I guess, but not at all how brains work, and also annoying, and also not sure you noticed but the combination of the ongoing pandemic, the climate crisis, and encroaching fascism is causing all the sane people to jump the sanity shark and then guess what, those of us who already know how to lose our minds are now the experts you need to be listening to.
Folks, I already owned a pulse oximeter.
I already owned a pulse oximeter because I have been inventing apocalypses for myself for my entire life, and a pulse oximeter is one of the many tools I use to determine whether or not a particular health-related apocalypse is real.
For example, I once believed a pill I swallowed had punctured my lung and I was slowly asphyxiating to death, and I spent an entire night in an ER with absolutely nothing wrong with me being convinced I was dying and composing last texts to my loved ones. The most hilarious thing about that was the pill was a Klonopin and the creepiest thing about it was that it turned out to be the same night a friend asphyxiated himself to death, and no it wasn’t a sex thing. He did it on purpose.
Anyway I could have saved myself that entire ER trip (although not the aftermath of the suicide) if I’d had a pulse oximeter then, because if you’ve got a punctured lung your SpO2 will not be okay, and if your SpO2 is okay, you do not have a punctured lung.
So if you feel like you’re losing your mind, and this is new for you, allow me to welcome you to team crazy. Although I don’t believe, like Thomas Szazs and his associates, that all mental illness is caused by society’s ills and/or a conspiracy of evil psychiatrists and pharmaceutical companies, it’s obvious that even before the pandemic we humans had made a world that was just too damn hard to live in, even for the most privileged among us, and now it’s harder still and there are some externalities that don’t seem like they are likely to get easier anytime soon, so, yes, everyone is in fact losing their mind. Losing your mind is actually the sanest thing to do under the circumstances, a real-life Catch-22.
It will be okay. You can actually survive losing your mind, I’ve been doing it all my life. Come on join me at this tea party and let me tell you what I know about this topic.
Yes, if you come on over and sit down at the crazy table you will be implicitly admitting you need help, and yes, that could be hard, but don’t worry, it’s not the hardest part.
To the extent that it is hard, by the way, that’s largely because the death cult we call late-stage capitalism requires us to buy into the mythology that we are all independent individuals who pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps and don’t need anyone else’s help. If we all believed that needing help was okay and that we’re all connected in community then we would perhaps agitate more aggressively for any kind of social safety net or universal health care or universal basic income or student debt relief or rent control or public transit. That way lies socialism! Socialism, I tell you!
Yes, it’s true that lots of people maybe have been able to avoid asking for help in their lives, if they’ve held all the right privileges. They may have experience Demanding Service, yes, but not Asking for Help. But, as disability justice activists like to point out, if you’re not disabled now, well the chances are real good that someday you will be, because that’s how aging works. And even many of the most privileged people have found themselves needing to ask for help during this pandemic.
Even so, even though asking for help puts us in the category of weak humans who need help rather than successful humans who are Winning, I still contend it’s not the hardest part. In this world, we all need help, right now, today. We’re all in this community breathing the same goddamn air and all its aerosolized virus together (even the Rage virus in 28 Days Later only spread through droplets, so this thing is arguably worse than the zombie apocalypse). So let’s just drop the angst over asking for help and move on to the actual hard part: this is just what reality is like right now, and it’s making us all crazy, and we have to live with that and figure out where to go from here, and do it again, and again, and again.
I promise you this will be harder than merely asking for help. Asking for help produces no miracles. Asking for help is merely necessary, but it is heartbreakingly, lolcryingly insufficient.
The good news though is we don’t have to do this alone. In fact, we can’t, and we should not. Falling for the belief that we have to do everything alone is part of what got us in this situation in the first place.
The other good news is that to the extent that asking for help is difficult, and I never said it wasn’t, the more we work together in this moment and the next, to make a world that is a little bit more emotionally livable, even as it becomes, environmentally speaking, less livable, the more we will overcome the toxic mythology of individualism that is the reason we find it so difficult to ask for help in the first place.
I will have more to say on this topic in the new year.
In the meantime, I hope you’re resting. Losing your mind is extremely computationally intensive, so it’s normal to need a lot of rest and it’s important to get as much of it as you can.
Finally, thank you for your attention.
Happy New Year,