Understanding mental health: my experience

June 29, 2021 1:58 PM

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A drawing of the author, who has long blonde hair, glasses, and a beard. Photo courtesy of the author.

A drawing of the author, who has long blonde hair, glasses, and a beard. Photo courtesy of the author.

One chilly day in middle school, I decided to run away. I had had a bad day, 6th grade was like that. I dealt by going down to the cemetery to ride my bike. I packed myself granola bars and water in a backpack and took my bike out. I climbed the tall trees and fell, letting my knuckles and knees get scraped by the bark.

This day had been particularly hard. I just felt so overwhelmed and stuck, I needed to get out. I crossed the busy street, wheeled my bike inside the tall gates. There’s a sign on the front saying the hours, but I never bothered to look, and it’s not like I had a watch anyway.

I went over to my favorite tree and climbed, I don’t know how long. Sitting there in the branches always made me feel better. I ate my granola bar up there. I sat there and looked at the water, trying to get a glimpse of the snapping turtles, but I didn’t see any. The water was calm.

By the time I was done, I went back to leave, and the gate was closed. 

I was convinced I would be trapped in the cemetery forever. All I remember is feeling like the world was closing in on me. I could hear my heartbeat in my ears and nothing else, my vision went blurry. I felt like I couldn’t catch my breath. I had never felt anything like this before, and it was overwhelming.

The groundskeeper found me in what must have been 5 minutes or less, opened the gate, and warned me harshly to keep track of time. And I have. Until this very second writing this.

Sometimes I wonder if it was this one experience that has impacted me to this day. I think about it when I force my family to be 3 hours early to the airport or refuse to go inside a store if there’s no one else inside. I check the closing hours of every place I go to, it’s almost become a habit once it gets dark.

I rushed home, I wanted to tell my parents everything. When I got there, the door was locked. The car was gone. I rang the bell, and no one answered. There was no one home. I sat on the front steps for a long time. I’d never felt more alone.

By the time they got home, the story had become less intense, the feelings had subsided. What had been a terrifying moment for me became something smaller and less so, and the version I told my parents reflected that. I doubt anyone remembers this experience besides me, which would make sense since it was my experience.

Looking back, I can see other points throughout my childhood that were preemptive to a mental illness diagnosis when I was older. There were those moments of freaking out over what to do or what to say dating back to elementary school. 

When I was in kindergarten, I sat in the back of the class. Every day, one kid was chosen to go to a poster and tell us what the weather was going to be like. There were two ways to stand at the poster, one facing me, and the other facing away from me. I noticed that almost every kid stood facing away from me.

There are times now that I spiral, and think back to that memory from kindergarten. I know for a fact that no one ever meant it as a personal affront, and I’m positive no one else noticed it but me. 

As time goes on, the way other people look at me matters more. When I tell them about my mental health, it’s easy to make assumptions based on previous experience or media portrayals. When I try to be as honest as I can be, it has hurt me in the past. There’s one cookie cutter version of a mentally ill person that exists in many people’s imaginations, but the reality is so much more complicated.

A lot of times, people don’t really understand the full scope of mental illness and the impact that it can have. I’ve had so many experiences where I try to explain what I have going on, and it just doesn’t click.

I remember trying to explain to one of the German exchange students exactly what disorder I had, but I didn’t know the German equivalent. I tried to explain what it was, but found that it is so much more complex than a short diagnosis can possibly convey.

The thing is that there’s no real education, and as a result, so many people are ignorant, misinformed, or simply do not understand. The media doesn’t do a good job either, in the way that certain things are portrayed. There seem to be some things that are socially acceptable, and things that aren’t. In order to preach true acceptance of all those who struggle with mental illness, there needs to be radical acceptance, regardless of symptoms. So many times, the ugly parts of mental illness are hidden, which only makes those who are struggling have it harder. The truth is, it’s not pretty. And that’s okay.

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