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.
Lisbeth 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.