When You’re Not “Fine” (Attempt 2)

A few nights ago, I posted a version of what’s below. Within about fifteen minutes I had gotten enough “Tim, don’t kill yourself!” emails that I took the post down. So I thought I’d try again. Here goes…

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“How are you?”

My least favorite question.

Sometimes, mercifully, the answer really is “fine.” Some of the time, the answer is more like this: “barely putting one foot in front of the other; feel like crying all the time; want to lash out in anger at most of the people I know for one reason or another.” Worse yet, sometimes this would be the honest answer: “barely surviving…if I told you how badly I want to die, you’d put me in the mental hospital right this second. I fantasize about ways to kill myself. Better yet, I long for something/someone else to do the job for me so no one has to live with all the what-could-I-have-done guilt. If only I could get into a car wreck that looked like a true accident, one that would be guaranteed to kill me. Ahhhh, now that would be the ticket.”

If I told you how often I think like this, you’d probably have me committed. But I also know enough people who think like me to know that I’m not alone and that thoughts like these are not at all abnormal for those who are mentally ill. However, those of us who actually think these things aren’t allowed to verbalize them. Understandably, people are not prepared to hear someone else say they are longing for death. My purpose in writing this post is to encourage those of you who support someone who is mentally ill to understand the difference between wanting to die and being suicidal.

The truth is that all of the mentally ill people I know think about dark things far more often than you would want to know about. We are at war with our brains…constantly. No matter how much we want peace, it won’t come. No matter how much we want to get over our emotional pain, it won’t heal.

Here’s an example of my brain’s incessant negativity even about the smallest things: A friend introduced me to someone who has become one of my favorite musicians EVER (Sturgill Simpson). We were talking about him and I made some analogy comparing Simpson’s song-writing to my blog writing. I was by no means comparing our writing skills, but my friend laughed and said something like, “If only you could write as well as he does.” He didn’t mean anything harmful by it, and I understood his point, but here’s the rub: every damn time I listen to Sturgill Simpson, his songs are poisoned by my hurt feelings because of what my friend said. My brain won’t let it go. Trust me, I don’t want to hold on to these things; why would I want to hold on to something that hurts me and that I can’t do anything about? I can’t go back and confront my friend because he didn’t mean anything by it. I can’t prove him wrong because how would I do that? How would I prove that I’m as good a writer as Sturgill Simpson is? I’m probably not, but that’s not the point. The point is that, when Simpson’s songs play (and I have all of his albums so I hear him a lot even when I hit shuffle), I have a wound that won’t heal. I hear it over and over in my head: “You’re not as good as him; you won’t ever amount to anything as a writer, Tim. You’ll never impact people the way he does.” Maybe that’s not what my friend meant but it doesn’t matter. Whether I want to or not, that’s the “song” that plays on repeat in my head when Sturgill Simpson plays on my iPhone.

Our brains are broken, irreparably. In order to support someone who is mentally ill, you need to brace yourself for the ugliness of what we have to share. If I were to share the above with someone, most likely, they would say, “You’ve got to let go of that, man!” And I would say, “No shit. I want to let it go more than you can possibly imagine. I would give ANYTHING to be able to let it go.” But someone who tells us to “let it go” doesn’t understand the battle. We have bled, sweat, and cried, “Please help us let it go!” to no avail. And if you are going to be our supporter, you are going to have to reconcile yourself to the fact that we aren’t able to control our brains in the same way that you are. “Let it go” or “think positive” are meaningless to us. It’s not that we don’t want to; we can’t. Can a cancer patient make her hair grow back by thinking positively? Can a paraplegic make his legs start working again by letting go of negative thoughts? Obviously, no. And those of us with mental illness can’t quit thinking negative thoughts no matter how hard we try. Trust me, I would give literally anything to be able to let go of negative thoughts. Yet, the truth is, negative thought essentially consume my brain 24/7. I don’t want that to be the case. But it is.

So what should you do to support your friend who is mentally ill? You should prepare yourself for a very ugly reality. Instead of saying, “think positive,” you should just say, “I’m sorry” or “I will listen for as long as you want to talk” or, “tell me everything and I promise not to judge or freak out” or, “what’s your favorite mixed drink and I’ll make you five of them.” Better yet, in a peaceful moment, ask your loved one what they want you to say to them, and say that.

People talk all the time about “removing the stigma” of mental illness. Well if we are ever going to do that, there have to be people in our lives who see it all, know it all, hear it all, and still treat us with dignity…without minimizing our pain as if it were something that a clever phrase or new perspective could help us overcome. Our brains are broken. Allow us to tell you about our real, raw experience.

Here’s the truth: just because we think constantly about death, doesn’t mean we are suicidal. Those of us who think of death as a welcomed relief need people who can listen without freaking out when we talk about longing for death. These thoughts are the fundamental reality of our lives. Our lives are hard…so hard that we want to die. This doesn’t mean we are suicidal; it just means we are mentally ill. It just means that our brains are broken beyond repair. We’ll keep trying; we’ll keep fighting. But if you want to be part of our support system, you’ll have to accept that our reality is a dark one. And the best thing you can do for us is to listen without judgment…even when we tell you we want to die.

 
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Friends, I need your help growing the reach of TKWANA. Its aims are to 1. encourage 2. educate and 3. connect people with mental illnesses and their supporters. Beyond blogging, podcasting, and speaking, I ultimately hope to develop a small-group model for those with mental illnesses – something not too different from what AA is for alcoholics. If you see the value in this endeavor, please consider sharing TKWANA with your Facebook friends or with someone in particular who might need it. Thank you!
 
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7 thoughts on “When You’re Not “Fine” (Attempt 2)

  1. Another honest blog post Tim. The reality of mental illness can be very bleak but by continuing to talk about it, by continuing to explain just how it feels and the processes behind those thoughts people who have little or no comprehension of mental illness may well just start to understand and have a bit more empathy and or compassion for a loved one, friend or even colleague, who is suffering. keep up the good work. 🙂 P.S hope you are ‘fine’ today but if not thats ok too, just keep safe and try to be as kind to yourself as you can.

  2. Tim, honestly, I did panic a little (or a lot) when I saw the photo and your post. However, I think this real, raw topic is so important for people who support those with mental illness (or really, just the general population) to think about and appreciate as part of the struggles of those with mental illness. You are very much right about people’s capacity to process the struggles of others and the desire to “fix” it with advice or platitudes (I know I’m probably guilty of this as well, though I try not to be). I get a little weary of the discomfort/pity/avoidance/stigma regarding the dementia in my family, so I just don’t talk about it, though people view this as more neurological so they don’t try to tell me how to avoid it, reduce risk, fix it, etc. There’s a fine line or no line (in my mind) between neurological and psychiatric disease, the line is just limited by the progression of the research, but people treat neurological and psychiatric disorders so differently, though they shouldn’t. We just don’t know what’s going on inside other people’s heads, both in terms of negative thoughts and the neurochemistry that’s causing them. I can’t attribute my generally positive mood to some decision/character strength on my part – it’s just how my brain typically functions. Likewise, we shouldn’t attribute mental illness and associated negative thinking to any decision/character flaw on the part of those suffering either. The closest I can come to understanding the impact of biology on our brains is the extreme monthly moodiness I used to get when I was younger- I would feel like my brain was awash in something (hormonal changes- I know, tmi) causing this negativity/bad mood. It very much felt like something beyond my control, as it likely was since it was due to biological changes. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to have my brain awash in something all the time (instead of just a couple of days) that created such negativity. I’m sorry to all those suffering in this regard. Really and truly. And, you can cry about your dog any time- I still get teary talking about my sweet pups.

  3. Dr. Blue! You do make a difference; when I see another blog post email, I am always marking it “unread” so that I can find a place to sit and read through it well (not just scan it like I do for other articles.) I’m very proud of you and your thoughtfulness.
    There are probably many people who read and/or listen to you, but they haven’t thanked you yet. So, thank you 🙂 As someone who is working towards the Social Service Sector, I really appreciate your honesty, as this blog has helped me to better understand what those with mental illness go through each day. I really never would have understood it, and this has helped me with some friends that are struggling with mental illness.

  4. Tim: Honesty has to be better than dishonesty or silence. When a spouse dies we don’t want to always hear “you will be together some day.” We want to be together now! Granted, sometimes we don’t know what to say but as you say – silence and just being present is often better. You nailed it: “What should you do to support your friend who is mentally ill? You should prepare yourself for a very ugly reality. Instead of saying, “think positive,” you should just say, “I’m sorry” or “I will listen for as long as you want to talk” or, “tell me everything and I promise not to judge or freak out” or, “what’s your favorite mixed drink and I’ll make you five of them.” Better yet, in a peaceful moment, ask your loved one what they want you to say to them, and say that.”

  5. Tim I admire your honesty and bravery. I struggle so much inside my own head. OCD is a relentless disease that hammers at me day and night. Even in my sleep I am tormented. I have been suicidal. This disease can and does drive people to suicide. There is however a big difference besides being suicidal and wanting to die. I want to die most days. The constant torture my brain puts me through is really difficult to deal with. For me wanting to die is a coping mechanism. Maybe not the best one. The reality of this disease is hard to swallow. The thought of dying and knowing I have an out is the only thing that keeps me going some days. I know I can always end my pain at any moment and because of this I continue to fight and have hope for a better tomorrow and future. I do not tell people how badly I want to die. I keep these thoughts and feeling to myself just as I keep my OCD to myself. It is so sad that we live in a world where people are afraid to express who they really are for fear of judgement or being misunderstood. I have tried to share with people, but I am met with criticism and “you have so much to live for” the reality is what I have to live for is also what I want to die for.

    Sturgill Simpson is one bad ass writer and so are you! You are both real, raw, and passionate. You both have stuff inside your heads that you have a need and desire to get out, because of this people identify with you both. To me your writing is very similar to his and just as good. Keep writing Tim!

    1. Thanks Jen! Thanks for being raw and real and sharing your pain with us. Maybe someday more people will be able to handle the dark reality we live with. I hope so! Again, thanks for your bravery! Keep fighting. The world needs you.

  6. You don’t know how much I appreciate your transparency. I can relate to what you said in a huge way. I am in a very bad place today and it helps to know that you “get it”.

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