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How To Stop, Drop, And Roll In Mental Crisis

flickr/Steve Johnson

At the height of my mental crisis, I forged a path to stability. Now, I’m hoping my own story can help empower others.

It’s been two years since the height of my mental crisis, when I tried to commit myself to the mental ward because I was suicidal, only to be turned away because I hadn’t performed my “crazy” satisfactorily enough. Instead, I was sent out the door, a mental-ward reject, with a few pamphlets stuffed in my hands, left to navigate the mental-health labyrinth on my own.

Back then, all my days found me contorted on the bed in the fetal position, exhausted of tears, and rail thin as my body had even lost the ability to hold down food. It wasn’t the first time I had experienced a mental crisis — but it was the worst time.

As kids, we were often instructed in sound life-saving emergency disaster training. Handy epithets spoken in childhood — “Do not struggle in quicksand”; “Break glass in case of fire”; “Never run with scissors” — are all intended to see us into old age safe and sound. However, as an adult, I found myself wholly ill-equipped when my life had become a raging dumpster fire. There was no “Stop, Drop, and Roll” poster to draw upon in mental crisis.

It wasn’t the first time I had experienced a mental crisis — but it was the worst time. Click To Tweet

I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on how my life had spun so out of control to bring me to this climax, and in doing so, how I had to relearn to live my life in a 180 degree pivot from how I lived before. I can now trace how I was able to forge my own path to stability: the resources I would ultimately discover and draw upon, and how that saved my life.

Ultimately, I was able to come up with a plan to save my life in crisis. Now, I hope my own narrative, and the crucial lessons I learned, can help others, too. Here are some guidelines I’ve developed around Stopping, Dropping, and Rolling in mental crisis.

One of the most significant factors that contributed to my crisis was that I had spent years exhausting myself to “front” and “pass” as “normal” in every facet of my life: school, interpersonal relationships, and my career. My bipolar disorder diagnosis was a closely guarded secret, and at the time I felt that if I just performed competence long enough — if I proved myself indispensable, and outperformed and outshone everyone, particularly at work — my erratic quirks would be forgiven and I would not be marred with “crazy cooties.” And in the eventuality I was outed by my own behavior, I’d have already long proven a legacy that I was the “right kind of crazy.”

I’d totally bought into the capitalistic myth that my value lied in productivity. Every entry on my CV added to an inflated sense of self-worth. And yet, to sustain this grinding level of productivity, I was ping-ponging myself into rapid cycles of hypomania/mania/mixed-states again and again over a four year period. And at the end of each cycle, the suicidal periods grew longer, harder to bounce back from, and more excruciating to bear.

I’d totally bought into the capitalistic myth that my value lied in productivity. Click To Tweet

Healing from life-long trauma and prioritizing mental health takes work, and I had no time (or the means) to take a leave of absence to address my well-being, because once I did, the cat would be out of the bag, and then I would be stuck with the reputation of being sick, unreliable, defunct. Unhireable.

After years of whiteknuckling it through one toxic and exploitative work situation after another — all in an effort to prove I had value — I was barely holding on when the thread finally snapped and I plunged into a mental abyss. I became paranoid, delusional, suicidal, and unable to get out of bed to brush my teeth. I didn’t know if I would survive this crisis, but I knew I would not survive the next one. I believed I had only two choices: end all my pain swiftly, or finally prioritize my mental health above all else and confront my history of trauma head on.

If only I could “fix” myself, life could go back to the way it was (back to the whiteknuckling grindstone, that is). I became so eager to conquer my illness that the psychiatrist I was finally able to temporarily access remarked I was one of the most pro-active mentally ill people she had come across. Of course I was! I wanted to get this nonsense over, heal, and get the show back on the road!

But ironically, in my diligent efforts to become “better,” I learned I had to perform something else: my illness.

Once in deep sickness, I was forced to expend the non-existent energy I had accessing any resource available: getting to various appointments with community case-worker agencies, mental health and social support programs, food banks, and so on, all the while having trouble crossing the living room without crumbling in despair. I began to miss crucial appointments, not because of an unwillingness to get well, but because I was just that sick.

At the same time, the mental-health system was putting stumbling blocks in my path to wellness by demanding that I prove I was “sick enough” to warrant care. For example, my family doctor had been continually dismissive of my concerns of being waitlisted for a psychiatrist to manage my medications over a six-year period in which I made regular appointments with him to ensure he was actually referring me, and taking my mental health seriously. In the height of my crisis, I lashed out regarding the lack of progress. He then put the onus back on my shoulders, stating that it hadn’t been enough for me to continually make appointments to ask for the help I felt adrift from, because I had failed to perform my requests with tears and anger in order to demonstrate I really required assistance. In this moment, I did not have the energy to point out that I had demonstrated tears and anguish in his office a year and a half prior on this issue, to which he had said the exact same thing to me.

In order to get out of this toxic cycle of performativity, I distanced myself from the goal of “fixing” my mental health. I still strove to meet appointments, but I did not shame myself when I was simply unable to make them, even when mental-health supporters would condescendingly suggest that I lacked commitment. If I lost my spot with a mindfulness program I had waited four months on a waitlist to join, because my apartment flooded the night before and triggered mania, so be it. I would download a free mindfulness program. If I slept through an 8:30 in the morning CBT group session because I couldn’t stop a six-hour crying jag till past 3 a.m., fuck it. I would find exercises online to do when the tap of tears had run dry. If I was a no show to a very important psychiatrist’s appointment because I had eaten bad meat as it was the last of the food I had left and now had the shits, tough titties — I had been waitlisted eight years for access to a psychiatrist, what was another week? If I could not travel to make it to group therapy sessions in person, I would find mental health support groups on Facebook.

How To Help The Cause When You Need Help Yourself

In fact, it was through the mental-support networks I was forging online that I was finally being told: “Your life has value. You have intrinsic value. Your only job today is to make it through. And again tomorrow.” And it was through these online support forums, as well as openly talking to anyone I came across physically about my struggles, that I started to learn, through word of mouth, how to navigate the labyrinth of a broken mental-health-care system: the hacks to getting care, which programs to avoid, and which to pursue.

In baby steps, I began to put one foot in front of the other with one directive in mind: simply being. I learned to stop performing both wellness and illness. I began to trust I had value even when I was completely dysfunctional. Even if I was a “burden on society.” I started making mental wellness programs work for me rather than making myself work for mental wellness programs. And I learned to opt out of any judgement that I was not trying hard enough, to accept I was sick and limited, and to reject the notion I was failing or had failed.

During this quest to “fix” my mental health, I discovered, in addition to my bipolar diagnosis, that I also had Complex-PTSD. In a free therapy program for survivors of sexual assault, I learned I had the right to protect my mental health above all else, unabashed and without guilt and shame.

I discovered in therapy that during my childhood trauma, I hadn’t been empowered to protect myself, and that the adults in my life failed in their job of protecting me. Now I was locked in a pattern of waiting for the adults around me to step up and treat me right, while desperately trying to prove my value and worth to convince people in my life that I deserved not to be abused and mistreated. However, as an adult myself, I now could develop the tools to protect myself: namely, not waiting for others to treat me right. I began to learn how to control triggers and enforce boundaries, but most important, I learned to protect myself by giving myself permission to leave toxic situations, including dropping friends, family members, activities, work situations, and even a promising career that had proven harmful to my mental health.

Now I give myself permission to protect my mental health first and foremost over the feelings of all others. For example, I used to be plagued with guilt if I defriended anyone on Facebook, believing that it was my job to tolerate toxic behavior. But now I am unabashed at hitting that block button if their continued presence on my feed will risk triggering my PTSD, whether it is intentional or not. I do regret when it becomes necessary, but I no longer allow guilt to prevent myself from prioritizing my mental health. I am often sick, and I can’t handle much. It is as simple as that. And that’s okay.

While Shonda Rhimes (who I love) was extolling the Year of the Yes, this period of my life became my Year of the No. I had spent my whole life saying yes to things in order to conceal my bipolar disorder; now I had to learn to say no to everything, including opportunities I would have killed to have had prior to my breakdown. This was the hardest struggle for me to overcome, coping with an identity crisis centered around a crucial question: “Who was I if I was not the me I had been fronting to be all along?”

Now, I can no longer aspire to the grand designs I had in mind for my career, and I’m becoming content with that, defining myself instead by qualities outside the parameters of work — my warmth, my sense of humor, my great capacity for love, just breathing. I now only take on projects that I can fit around my mental health, and write what I can only when I can. And fuck the word count/Sword of Damocles hovering over my head.

I now allow myself to be unreliable, the person you can’t count on to make it to the party or meeting, the friend who will drop the ball because she can’t get out of the house. I hate disappointing friends, but I can only hope they understand my fragility and value me anyways, and that I’m there for them when I can be, even if that might not be very often.

Most important, I stopped apologizing to my loved ones that I was sick and stopped acquiring an overwhelming sense of “social debt.” I’ll strengthen the connections of my network only when I have the strength to.

One of the most important things I had to learn was to stop becoming terrified by my suicidal thoughts, resist the shame spiral of guilt, and compartmentalize them.

When I was in the height of my mental crisis, suicidal ideation would send me into a panic. I still often have intrusive thoughts of suicide, but now instead of having a heightened panicked reaction, I focus on settling my mind and resist judging these thoughts to nip the dread in the bud. For example, I’ve come to realize that I have a heightened sense of morbidity the first hours of waking. In the past, these fantastical scenes of death playing out in my head would serve as evidence of how “broken” and “fucked up” I was. Now, when finding myself caught up with intrusive thoughts, I remind myself that I have these horrific fantasies every morning, and that soon my mind will settle down.

Over the last few years, I’ve learned to live with this frenzied hissy cat in the back corner of my mind that sneaks in at the most inopportune times. Sometimes I speak soothingly to this beast. Other times I shout it down. And by acknowledging these intrusive thoughts, by resisting giving into panic simply over their continued existence, I deny them from snowballing into sheer terror. And on the rarer occasion nowadays when they do snowball to terror, I give myself patience, and have a mental crisis plan in place. Also pharmaceutical products help.

Two years after the height of my mental crisis, my identity and self-worth no longer hinge on how well I perform. I finally realized that I can never afford to put my mental health at risk again in the creative industry, which grinds people into ashes with precarious contracts, unreasonable demanding hours for months at a time, and high-stress, volatile, hostile situations in a culture that demands its workers put their mental well-being at constant risk but will label you as a failure you if you dare get caught getting sick.

Instead, I concentrate on being, not doing; on sustaining myself through low-stress work that just meets my needs and through creative activities that nourish me but won’t pay the bills; on sustenance and well-being versus adding entries on my CV to prove to others I have value based on how other people see me; and on rejecting performing to others how well I’m managing my mental health. I allow myself to be unreliable, to do no more than I can, and to resist shaming myself for not doing more. If that means at times, even for days or weeks, that I can’t get out of bed — I don’t.

My identity and self-worth no longer hinge on how well I perform. Click To Tweet

I still struggle, but I’ve allowed myself to be okay with struggling, reframing it away from failure to doing only what I can within my limitations. I’m no longer hell-bent on fixing or curing my mental health.

Now, I’m managing my mental health the best I can without shame.