I always tell my story like this:
I was born with generalized anxiety disorder: a genetic, textbook case. Because of it, nearly my entire childhood was hell. I was afraid of everything, all the time. And if there was nothing to be afraid of, I was just plain afraid, the venomous feeling spurting through my veins as baseline existence. The crux of the torture lay in the social arena. Despite such anguish, I didn’t know I had a problem. I was born that way; as far as I knew, everyone’s brains functioned like that. I assumed my problems were my own fault. However, thank God, after many a wave of unnecessary cortisol, midnight meltdowns, self-imposed starvation, and excruciating Shabbatons, I was diagnosed. I began to understand. And the diagnosis came with meds, magic pills that freed me from the shackles of pathophysiology and elevated me to a paradisal future. Outside of high school, I was able to reinvent my identity, and surprisingly emerged an outgoing, confident, and amazing young woman.
The Virtues of Retelling
This retelling has several virtues. First, it’s incredibly optimistic. The focus of the narrative is the solution and my current upward trajectory. The story doesn’t attest to current struggles or personal weakness; it doesn’t beg for pity or gush insecurity.
Beyond the optimism, this narrative is a retroactive, hyper-intellectual account of thousands of concrete experiences spanning over a decade and a half. Instead of an artistic venture to create empathy and emotion — instead of depicting memories to transmit the raw human pain of mental illness — I make use of disease labels and hormones. Everything is told from the perspective I have now. People don’t need to know every embarrassing moment and toxic relationship I’ve had. While “opening up“, I hide my old insecurities and bad decisions.
But the quintessential advantage of the narrative is that it completely eliminates blame. According to this story, I didn’t do anything wrong. It was a disease. The same way diabetes is a disease, the same way cancer is a disease. Anxiety, I claim, isn’t an intrinsic attribute but a removable obstacle. I can’t be held responsible for any of my thoughts and words and actions from ages 0 to 17, thank you very much.
I have mountains of shame about the person I was for the vast majority of my life. And I don’t deal with it. I deny it.
Is this a narrative I create for my own comfort? Obviously. Like any story, it says more about the writer than it recounts the past. But it’s also true…I mean, I genuinely believe its implications. My own experiences confirm that mental illness is extrinsic, and psychiatry and mental illness advocacy also address mental illnesses as diseases. Extreme fear is debilitating, so why would anything be my fault?
Bringing Family Into The Narrative
For a while, I contentedly adopted this story with its simplicity, optimism, and spirit of mental illness awareness activism. (Pretty much the three main things you look for in a good story, am I right?)
However, as I overcame my own problems and projected more energy externally, the happy ending of my gift-wrapped narrative became more layered. Maybe I was in a psychologically good place, but, you might remember that I mentioned that my anxiety is genetic; my family remains a crash and burn mental illness wreck site.
My mother has anxiety. Since she suffers from clinically diagnosable fear, she’s too afraid to endow control of her brain to another person, and uses her MD to self-medicate inaccurately, saving the remaining anxiety to fuel the unhealthy stress-reliant life she’s built for herself.
My sister (who we shall call Sarah) suffers from anxiety and insomnia.
My brother (Shlomo) suffers from anxiety, and in the past has experienced major depression, panic attacks, suicide attempts, and hospitalization.
My uncle has schizophrenia.
My cousin suffers from anxiety.
Both my grandmothers are on antidepressants.
My other brother (Moshe) suffers from the dual conditions of being a third child and having three mentally ill siblings.
So Shlomo has always been on the misbehaving and immature side, and, growing up, we all took issue with his disposition and criticized the way my parents raised him. However, about two years ago, things significantly deteriorated. Simple instructions, like stop watching TV or go brush your teeth, would result in cataclysmic meltdowns and shrieking. He would curse at and hit my parents. Soon, he stopped going to school. One night, he tried choking himself with a pillow and was hospitalized soon after.
He was sick. He was crumbling into fear, insomnia, anger, and self-hate–causing tremors that erupted onto the family. Living with him was torture. Moshe and I were trying to live normal, high school lives, but our house shook with shrieking, cursing, and fighting. The family dynamic was stifled with tension and frustration. Moshe and I hated Shlomo for behaving the way he did and were frustrated with our parents for allowing him to deteriorate. When he went to the hospital, our parents left us completely to spend every daylight hour sitting in the waiting room to be let in for two thirty-minute intervals each day. Moshe was only a freshman at the time, and our parents’ attention was stripped from him. We resented Shlomo – both as a person and the source of damage.
At one point, Sarah came home from college for a family vacation. At the airport, Shlomo characteristically refused to cooperate. We all schlepped extra bags so he could carry nothing, but he nonetheless unleashed an enormous meltdown, filled with stomping, yelling, and cursing out my parents. and I commiserated, insulting Shlomo and the negativity he endowed our lives. But Sarah, despite not living at home, told us not to blame him. It’s not this fault, she said. He’s really the one suffering.
At the time, her sanctimonious preaching irritated us, but in hindsight, I’m hard-pressed to counter her statement. If I believe I’m not at fault for my feelings and actions while intensely anxious, how could I have harbored animosity for Shlomo? Maybe I should’ve overcome my frustration and supported him through his difficulties. After all, he is my brother, and I know firsthand the horrors of mental illness.
I experienced a similar dilemma with a classmate I shall call Shimon. Since freshman year, Shimon and I shared many friends and nearly all our classes. To the best of my anxiety-hindered abilities, I reached out to him, tried to become friends. Again and again, he brushed me off and reached out to mutual classmates in my presence. I was irate — and the pain of rejection was magnified by my anxiety disorder. What made it worse, everyone thought of Shimon as practically Hashem. He was smart, nice, athletic, fun, and a devout Jew. Hurt by his rejection, I tried to find something wrong with him to legitimize my resentment. He was a hypocrite, I decided. How could he bear the title of good Jew but be so selfish? How could he go to Yachad Shabbatons but not give someone “uncool” the time of day?
This was, of course, before I was diagnosed. Once I understood the illness and my ability to overcome it, I rethought my frustration with Shimon. After all, my anxiety seriously impaired me socially. Was he really responsible to befriend someone he wouldn’t enjoy being around? Would I have wanted a fake friend anyway? He was never actually mean to me, always polite, at worst a combination of passive aggressiveness and standard teenage boy idiocy. He hurt me, but technically, he didn’t do anything wrong.
Forming My Takeaway Message
So how do we deal with problems like these? How do we balance the injustice of subjecting people to consequences of decisions they could not make and the injustice of having our mental health destroyed? How do we reconcile our woke understanding of mental illness as a legitimate disease with the need to keep ourselves shielded from proliferating shrapnel? In these stories, who’s right and who’s wrong?
First, I find it crucial to unequivocally state: denial is not a solution. For years, lacking a diagnosis, I believed admitting to my issues meant surrendering to weakness. I thought strength meant pushing through. And it was horrible. I learned the importance of being honest about needs and problems, irrespective of whether you’re sick or collateral damage. We’re often told things like “look at the brightside” and “make the best of it”, which are really great advice in lots of situations. A festering psychiatric disease poisoning its vicinity like toxic gas is not one of those situations.
But while venting about these problems, it’s important to remember that mental illness is not a choice. While it’s okay — maybe even necessary — to be angry or frustrated, the anger and frustration must be directed at the situation or the disease, not the person. We live in a society in which the law is trusted to find justice. To right wrongs by punishing the guilty. Such a system instills the fundamental contention that problems have causes; in other words, that there’s always someone to blame. But the truth is that not all crimes have criminals. In the world of mental illness, there are deaths without murderers and jails without wardens and fear without danger. Sometimes the action and its consequences are ridiculously disproportionate, as if blown up under a microscope. Sometimes there’s no action at all to pinpoint as the source of blame; pain and suffering manifest from thin air. So the message of this story isn’t incredibly optimistic and there’s no real solution: sometimes we have to accept negativity unprovoked.
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