Mental illness as part of a complex identity

Lisbeth in her gardenBy Lisbeth Coiman

A Broken Child, a Broken Mind

I am a survivor of child abuse. Sixteen years ago, only 10 months after immigrating to Canada with our young family, my husband and I experienced one of the saddest episodes of our lives. It was a new beginning, but it had taken a great deal of stress and sacrifice to get there. When it was time to stop and reflect on the next step, I had a major mental break down.

The news referred to me. The details of my domestic life showed in the giant screens of the World Cup in the stadiums in Europe. I pulled my hair out in chunks, broke dishes, screamed, and had battles with human size cockroaches, while cameras hidden in the fireplace or in the kitchen recorded my outbursts and broadcasted them to the world. Worst yet, the traumatic images of my childhood played in my mind and felt as if they were happening all over again, complete with sound track. I spoke a thousand words per second; I doodled non-stop for days.

Only a friend of mine, hundreds of miles away, noticed that the letters I wrote to her didn’t make sense. In my incoherent words she saw mental deterioration and contacted my husband. Together they procured the safety of my children, before finding professional help. The doctor diagnosed bipolar disorder with a tendency to develop psychotic episodes.

I felt relief, because what I had experienced had a name and could be treated. I learned that I couldn’t be cured, but I could manage my condition much like a diabetic manages his/hers. Frustration followed when the side effects reduced my quality of life. Coming to terms with the side effects of the medication has proven far more difficult than accepting the fact that I see or hear things that are not there. I don’t like it, but I live with it.

Fighting Stigma with a Complex Identity

Stigma on the mentally ill causes more emotional stress than the effects of medication. That’s the battle to fight and the reason I joined forces, through NAMI, with equally affected people to overcome this social burden on our health.

Social movements based on the politics of race, gender, religion and equality in general have placed enough pressure on the media to make them careful when choosing scapegoats for our common social ailments. In later years, the mental ill emerged as the new scapegoat in America. I accept myself as mentally ill, but society fears the mentally ill.

Stigma reflects the fears of society at a specific point in time. Usually those fears are placed on The Other. I am The Other. I’m Hispanic, have an accent; I’m an immigrant, married to an Arab, an atheist; I have a conspicuous skin condition, and suffer from mood swings and self-referent thoughts. People tend to fear those like me, because our very presence challenges everything they know for sure.

However, most mentally ill people are a danger to themselves, not to others. My occasional hallucinations don’t pose more danger than my accent.

If anything, I have become more human, because I have a mental disorder, not despite having a mental condition. I now understand pain and suffering and the need to help the underdog.

Treatment and Insight

I take my meds, talk to a therapist, see a psychiatrist and pay close attention to the questions these professionals ask, because they set the basis for insight. There is no improvement if I don’t try to understand my actions, and reactions, why I do the things I do and reflect on what I can do besides the medication and therapy. I strongly believe that I am the only person I can change. Any effort to try to change others is futile.

There is therapeutic power in earning money, knowing that I am productive, that I can help others through my work, and that I am not a burden. I have a disease, but I am not disabled. A paycheck at the end of the month, modest as it may be, feels good and doesn’t have negative side effects.
When the psychiatrist in Canada gave me a diagnosis, he did not extend a blank check for misconduct or criminal behavior. I don’t do drugs, I am not an irresponsible spender, and sex is the only thing I don’t do in front of my children. I am a law-abiding individual who loves her new homeland and does not condone a culture of violence and murder. I am mentally ill, but I am peaceful.

Slowly I have accepted my condition. Although I have never again experienced the horrors of that first break down, my life isn’t free from dark moments. At worst, I am suicidal. The anger outbursts have faded away, but what never goes away, despite the medication and treatment, and the love of my family, is the feeling that my actions are under constant surveillance, that everybody is out to get me. Because I have a conspicuous skin condition, I am easily recognizable. I feel like The Gingerbread Woman.

Healing Power of Writing

As I accepted, I learned to cope with my mental condition by taking care of the three most important parts of me: my mind, my body and my soul.

I acknowledge any paranoid thoughts without silencing them. Then I tell myself what my good friend told me fifteen years ago, “I am important, but not that much.”

I write, and for that I have opened several files in my computer. If the thoughts are delusional in the form of farfetched stories, I type them and save the story under fiction. If the thoughts are incoherent, or represent isolated images that evoke strong emotions, I type them and file them under poetry. If the thoughts are cathartic, I write a journal entry. A few years ago, I opened yet another file for my musings, what I have learned through this experience, about letting go of the pain of my formative years and of the hand of my dying friend. I called that file memoir and I hope to publish it one day.

I also read with hunger, and I constantly try to learn new things. I follow a healthy daily routine for chores, and exercise that includes time for volunteering and entertainment.

I also avoid triggers like the plague: my triggers are toxic people, stressing situations, and sensationalistic media. Let’s just say that I choose carefully what I hear, what I see, and whom I call friend.

I make every effort to keep myself employed. It’s a challenge to find good part time employment, but I persevere in my quest. I see the scores of mentally ill homeless and I fear one day it could be me. So I keep myself employed and out of debt, hoping that I can reach old age with financial security and social stability. In case everything else fails, I hope I have prepared enough to have a roof on my head.
Without family or god, solitude is infinite. For that reason, I nurture my soul to the point that is rich and fulfilling. My garden is my shrine to mother nature. Through the weeding and aeration of the soil, I prepare my soul/soil for planting new seeds that will eventually give a display of color and beauty. I plant trees to provide a habitat to birds; I plant flowers that smile at me when I walk into my garden, and I plant herbs to perfume my kitchen and easy my pain. I have planted three gardens already.

Garden of Hope

With medication, therapy and the love of my husband and children I live a happy, beautiful and well-rounded life today. I am proud of one thing:

I broke the cycle of abuse within my family. My children have been raised with love and care and live a good life; hopefully, they will build healthy families of their own.

I hope one day to be able to laugh at the self-referent thoughts.

I hope my children never develop this disease, that they have not inherited this gene.

I hope that one-day through education, prevention and outreach we eradicate child abuse and its devastating effects on the child’s psyche.

I hope that one day through research and medical inquire, we develop treatment for the mentally ill that provides alternative to the chemicals currently used.

None of that is within my reach. However, I just need a pile of dirt, and a few seeds to keep planting trees and gardens wherever I go, for the rest of my life. That’s within reach, my modest contribution to make this a better world.

I don’t dream anymore, because I am actively pursuing my goals. My mind produces farfetched stories, and weirdly enough I feel fortunate because I never have writer’s block. Ideas for writing come complete with detailed settings, wonderful characters, even sound track. I have an overactive perception system that picks up signals in the environment that ordinary people miss. I am determined to use that extraordinary brain activity to become a published writer.

I have a long way to go, but I have been to hell and back and it only gave me confidence to pursue my highest ambitions. What do I have to lose, anyway? I already lost my mind.

 

Image: Lisbeth in her garden.

 


LisbethLisbeth Coiman
writes weekly about living with mental illness in her bilingual blog Gingerbread Woman. As a member of NAMI’s In Our Own Voice program, she helps spread the message of recovery and hope. She currently lives in Los Angeles, CA.


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Comments

  • KarenMaria

    Lisbeth, as I read your story, i just was amazed at your strength, and determination, as you said besides the illness you had other factors such as race to contend with. I am so very happy you found happiness and love ,I am a mom also and have a few mental health issues, but God blessed me with them…they kept me going many days…I was very encouraged by your story and speaking out to help break the stigma.. Best of luck with with your future endeavors, I have no doubt you will obtain whatever goals you have set for yourself!!

    • Lisbeth Coiman

      Thanks, KarenMaria, for your good wishes and kind words. I am happy my article inspired you to help break the stigma.

  • Jessie Voigts

    This was very illuminating, and I applaud your writing it and educating about the toll living with mental illness can take. I love your very last paragraph – it made me smile, and gives hope.

    • Lisbeth Coiman

      Thanks, Jessie Voigts. I am glad it made you smile.

  • JoDell Saint James

    Lisbeth, your writing about your own struggle with mental illness comforts me as I struggle to cope with mine. You express so well what you have had to deal with. Your writing is so clear in the way it expresses the thoughts and feelings.

    • Lisbeth Coiman

      JoDell, It’s nice to learn that my story comforts you in your struggle. Let’s support each other.

  • Lisa T

    Wonderful essay of hope and how to thrive despite life’s circumstances. Walk in beauty…

  • Laura

    Breaking the cycle of violence is a tremendous achievement. The love and care you give to your family and yourself is inspiring. Thank you for sharing this piece.

    • Lisbeth Coiman

      That was a hard one to break, but we live free of that monster now. Thanks for reading.

  • Tino

    “Without family or god, solitude is infinite”. Dont forget the friends, who are also a kind of a family, even if blood ties are not there. Not to mention the nuclear family, which you imply you have. But, yes, solitude is infinite all the same.

    Let the creativity unfold. Good things can come from a bad situation.
    Beautiful article with lots of food for thought, thanks.
    Please do keep writing.

  • Lisbeth Coiman

    Thanks, Tino. I will continue writing for sure. Thanks for reading.

  • Bob Brotchie

    Oh Lisbeth, I have met so many inspirational people, and read the words of so many more, yet, what you have summarised in this piece is so incredibly powerful.

    I will want to share this standpoint and perspective with those who feel ‘hopeless’; I think you say it all!

    You appreciate the gifts that being challenged has brought – and can bring. You recognise the choices and embrace those with al your being, choosing to focus on these, rather than what may be less attributable to good health. I particularly love the manner in which you record your specific thought genres – how very useful!

    There is no need to validate your efforts and who you are, I simply wanted to share how valuable this contribution is.

    May you continue to establish peace for yourself and others.

    • Lisbeth Coiman

      Bob, thank you very much. It makes me happy that you want to share my writing to bring comfort to those in need.

  • Lisa S.

    Lisbeth,

    This story is a testament to how much breaking the silence opens a door for all of us. May we all continue to be brave and supported in our life’s journey.

    • Lisbeth Coiman

      Thanks, Lisa. Yes we need courage and support to break the silence.

  • Kimberly

    This is painful yet filled with strength, hope, and a fierce voice for so many of us who choose to stay silent…because of stigma.
    I too battle paranoia. I once thought that my neighbor had put cameras in the eyes of her plastic lawn ornaments. She kept buying them and I thought that she was trying to cover all angles of my house. As ridiculous as it sounds, it seemed so real. like you, I was told to acknowledge them and write them. Writing has been my saving grace….and meds…and family and friends…and laughter.
    Thank you so much for speaking about your struggles and triumphs. You’re helping out more people than you know.

  • Lisbeth Coiman

    Thank you, Kimberly.

    Coming out is a choice. The stigma is present and the risks are real. There is no legislation that protects us from unjustified termination of employment, or for refusing to employ people with mental disabilities. I understand perfectly well if somebody decides to remain silent about her/his condition. Some of us weight the pros and cons and take the leap. We then become the voice of mental disabilities. The very brave become advocates. I just tell my story, the way life has happened to me. Having said that, the more of us who are there challenging fossilized myths surrounding the mentally ill, the wider we open the doors for others to come out.

    Thanks for appreciating my story.

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