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The question was a simple one, but after fifteen minutes I was still staring at the screen, paralyzed with indecision.
Is there anything else we should know while we select roommates?
The email was from the program coordinator of an upcoming writer’s retreat. We’d been told we would be sleeping two to a room, but I’d put off dealing with that part. Instead I zipped through the easy ones: Was I vegan/vegetarian? An early riser/night owl? Did I have chemical sensitivities?
This was the last call for responses. It was down to the wire.
Is there anything else we should know while we select roommates?
“I know it’s against the rules, but I’m requesting that I be allowed to room alone,” I typed. “Because I have a mental disability, and…”
I already hated the way this looked in print. Okay, so it was true, but so general it came off as squirrely. Why, exactly, would a mental disability equal the need to have a room all to myself? Was I incapable of behaving normally in close quarters? Prone to pyrotechnic displays of madness? Specificity is the soul of narrative, I thought, and tried again:
“Because I’m having recurrent panic attacks, and I’ll desperately need a place I can have them without anyone watching.” DELETE. “Because at night I am often fetal and weeping on the bathmat.” DELETE.
Whatever I said, this was going to fall under the heading “never getting a second chance to make a first impression.” In my original application, I’d mentioned having a disability while refraining from saying exactly what kind. Now that I’d cleared the hurdle of getting in, did I really want to single myself out — before we’d even met in person — as the one whose psychological state was so fragile it had to be specially accommodated? I wanted the program directors to be tuned into my potential to be a rising star, not my capacity for yielding to the gravity of the bathroom floor.
“No special needs,” I wrote at last. “I do go to bed pretty early, though.” I hit send, feeling sorry for my roommate-to-be.
As it transpired, I needn’t have worried about subjecting anyone to a one-woman show called Putting the Depressive into Manic-Depressive. The supercharged atmosphere of the writer’s retreat instantly tipped my neurological scales into manic mode — and, since everybody there was having more or less the same experience, I blended right in.
After a few wildly over-stimulating days capped by sleepless nights, however, I worried that I was on the cusp of triggering an episode of true mania, the kind where I stop seeming super peppy and outgoing, and start scaring my own dog into hiding under the couch at the sound of my voice. I confessed this to one of the other writers. “Oh, I’m bipolar, too,” she said, “All this overstimulation? I’m just barely holding on!” While there wasn’t much to be done about the problem at hand, the mutual admission came as a mutual huge relief. Like children at sleepaway camp trading candy, we offered each other our favorite flavors of tranquilizers out of our respective stashes, giggling in commiseration.
Outing myself before anyone else could out me became my modus operandi the first time I fell in love with another girl. I was thirteen, and I was aware — back in those days before Ellen and sensitivity training — that I might be setting myself up for every kind of trouble, but I didn’t care. Declaring my queerness catapulted me out of my ugly duckling stage. In the reckless exuberance of first love, I hoisted my freak flag high and cultivated a persona of flamboyant nonchalance, ostentatiously giving zero fucks what anybody thought.
The following year, I was institutionalized after a suicide attempt. When I returned to ninth grade, I discovered that my best friends had fabricated a cover story on my behalf: I’d spent the past few months under the care of an aunt, in the exotically distant city of San Francisco. The rumors had coalesced, I seem to recall, around the notion that I’d had an abortion.
I absolutely didn’t see the point in going along with this. Wasn’t it sort of glamorous to be locked up — in a Frances Farmer kind of way? Dismissing a cover story as cowardly, I told any classmate who wanted to know exactly where I’d been and why. I fielded questions about what it was like inside a loony bin the same way I fielded questions about what two girls did in bed: enjoying the shock, enjoying the power to disseminate secret knowledge of a parallel and secret world.
For the remainder of my time in school, I wore my illness like a lopsided crown, not bothering to hide the raggedy lacerations dug into my arms with glass, or my uncontrollable masochistic impulses, or my manias in which I might stand in the backyard for half the night, receiving directives from forces beyond this dimension.
For better or worse, I’m not that honest any more.
Revealing that you’re mentally ill has consequences that you can neither predict nor control. The response from a new acquaintance can be anything from a shockingly insensitive barrage of questions, to a polite, nearly imperceptible backing-away, to — as in the case of the writer at the retreat — hooray, you’re crazy too, I’m not alone!
The only control you’ve got is the way you choose to play the revelation out. In scenarios that hold a possibility of intimacy, you can allow the truth to emerge in manageable pieces; or go the full Monty; or wait for your counterpart to show theirs before you show yours. Much depends on your emotional investment: it’s scarier to risk a bad reaction from someone you really like. Still, in the early stages of intimacy, the risk of rejection cuts both ways. Both parties are wobbling their way toward one another on the tightrope of trust, and there’s always the chance that somebody’s going to go down. I’ve hit the net a bunch of times. But, that can happen regardless of whether or not there’s a page in the DSM-V with your picture on it.
But when the decision is whether or not to tell — or how to tell — an authority figure, or someone with power over your daily life, wobbling on a tightrope towards trust is not necessarily an option. It’s hard to frame the bald fact of mental illness for potential landlords, employers, roommates, or co-workers without fearing the worst. When cornered into doing it, I always end up saying but. I have a mental illness, but.
Sometimes there’s little choice about finesse; it can come down to checking a box. Those medical history forms you fill out in the waiting room of your new doctor/acupuncturist/chiropractor/dentist/podiatrist, for example. Please list any medications you are currently taking, and for what. So there you are, naked under your paper gown, and there is the new gynecologist or dermatologist, glancing at the page. “So, you’re taking x, y and z for psychological reasons,” they say casually. “What’s your diagnosis?”
I match their casual tone, and my heart of hearts, I do derive a kind of complicated pride about being mentally ill — because, like old age, it ain’t for sissies. But I always have to quell a little wave of dread that my presenting physical problem will be dismissed as psychosomatic, or worse, that I’ll be seen as malingering.
And prospective landlords? Forget it. I direct them to my current employer — who is both aware of, and endlessly patient with, my limitations — and skip the part about being on Social Security. Sure, it’s illegal to discriminate, yes, Americans with Disabilities Act, uh-huh, tenant’s rights, Section 8, yadda yadda yadda. I live in a city where looking for an affordable apartment is like looking for a hidden cache of pizza on a sinking lifeboat. Am I going to go for the big reveal and cross my fingers that, from a pool of unknown quantities — some of whom actually do have a savings account — a landlord is going to pick the crazy lady who makes under twenty grand a year? [Note to future prospective landlords google-searching my name: I am actually an awesome tenant though.]
Of course, theoretically a landlord, employer, or the like is supposed to accept one’s disability without inquiring as to its precise nature. But humans are a curious lot. I once admitted to getting Disability checks to a farmer I wanted to work for, because he kept pressing me to explain how I could survive on such low wages if I was only showing up to pick vegetables half the week. What was I thinking? He ran a farm — of course he wouldn’t want a farmhand who wouldn’t be able to keep up with the grueling labor entailed. Honestly, I didn’t blame him for prying.
“I’ve got Crohn’s Disease,” I replied quickly, correctly assuming that if I made it all about shit, he wouldn’t ask any more questions. For all I knew, he’d have been a fount of compassion; for all I knew, he was manic-depressive himself. But I was rice-and-beans broke, and I wasn’t going to risk not being hired.
My open-book policy around mental illness lasted, as I said, through my teen years. This didn’t change even when, at eighteen, I began to have frightening episodes of psychosis. I was very open about it, possibly because I was often so wild-eyed I had no real sense of consequences, not to mention all the LSD I was taking made me extra keyed into the importance of being real.
At that time, I got involved in an ardent but unstructured affair with a certain girl. After a few years of intermittent trysts, she gave me her grandmother’s wedding ring and proposed we get serious, and then shortly after stopped calling me. After some time, she eventually returned for further rounds, but I never asked her to explain exactly why she’d abruptly vanished.
Recently, she and I met again for the first time in nearly two decades. Feeling rather old and wise, we sat on a mountainside, wrapping ourselves in shawls as the fog rolled in, and reviewed the parts of our shared history that we’d been too immature to process at the time. I finally asked why she’d bailed on me, all those years ago — if she even remembered, that was.
“I do remember,” she said immediately. “I was judging you for your mental illness.”
The possibility had never occurred to me.
“My mother raised me to believe that you don’t get sick; you just don’t,” she explained. “At the time, you were very clear that you were mentally ill, that it was a part of who you were. But I thought it was a choice you were making — I thought you could just stop, and I judged you for it.”
I wrapped the shawl tighter around my shoulders. So, I thought, my worst fear really had come true. I’d presented my craziness without qualifiers and the response was, in fact, disgust; it was, in fact, a diminution of respect me; it was, in fact, abandonment.
What would have happened, I mused, if I hadn’t fully let her in on it, and therefore gotten to wear that ring? I felt a pang of regret for the lost opportunity.
But pretending to be sane wouldn’t have made me sane. In fact, the strain of hiding my illness would likely have caused me to break down with even more frequency. How would she have coped with those dysphoric, hallucination-ridden breakdowns — and how would I have dealt with her uneducated reactions? No, I thought: probably it was better for both of us that she’d called it quits.
I braced myself, then, to feel the sting of unfiltered reality. But the sting didn’t come. The truth was I accepted her previous lack of understanding. I accepted the consequences that had come as a direct result of having been honestly, messily, flagrantly, delusion-spoutingly, crockery-smashingly not sane. Never one to trust a good feeling, I groped around for sorrow and felt, instead, a deep sense of inner peace. It finally dawned on me: what I was feeling was self-acceptance.
Now, at last, I understood. I will never be able to influence another person’s response to the announcement that I do in fact have a mental illness. But in the end, there’s only one person upon whose acceptance I truly rely.