Updated: May 6, 2018
“Now living in smiles is better, you say. But we carry the burdens of all of our days” - The Counting Crows, Possibility Days.
Story by Sophie Temperton.
The ways in which mental illness has defined my life.
Mental illness has been a nearly constant companion of mine. It has been with me throughout my teenage years and into adulthood. It has integrated itself into nearly every aspect of my life and has fundamentally changed me. But I have never been mentally ill myself. I have been a bystander to its effects. I have suffered, but through the people I love. I cannot pretend to know what it feels like to be mentally ill. But I know what it feels like to be on the sidelines, to watch helplessly as the illness takes hold of someone's mind.
My life has been shattered by mental illness. Most notably when my older brother took his own life after a decade long struggle with Schizophrenia. But since then it has woven itself back into my life, again and again, permanently stitched into my history through the people I choose and their unseen battles, through failed relationships and emotional abuse, through a family that will forever be grieving and through my own fears that silently dictate my decision making.
There are many people that suffer from mental illness. But they may not always be mentally ill. Perhaps we don't suffer in the same way, but we suffer nonetheless. We function through a tough facade. When someone is sick, really sick, then you learn to put your own emotions on hold to make extra space for theirs. I learnt this as a teenager. My brother was sick and whilst I have incredible parents, there is just not enough emotional capacity in one family for too many things to go wrong at once. So I went from being a quiet, needy child, to being a quiet, independent adult. Perhaps this was always going to be my hormonal timed transformation, but then again, perhaps not.
I should say that I am not unhappy with how I turned out. I like myself quite a lot. I have my flaws, but I have spent the time deciphering my history and addressing the demons that have held me back in the past. So there are no bad feelings toward the people whose lives intertwined with mine, even those who treated me unfairly. Mental illness has taught me patience, compassion and kindness. And it is has given me an inner strength to fight my own battle with my mind, should I ever need to.
Rather than trying to distill the ways in which mental illness has defined my life into one story, I have instead written three short stories about the three people who have changed my life the most.
A Sister’s love.
We didn’t know he heard voices in his head. He shared with us his ambitions, his dreams and his theories. But he didn’t share the voices. They manifested in his actions though. Strange actions that baffled us and ideas we could not make sense of. He was cast out from society and was left with just his family and cat as companions. He was stripped of his independence and was labelled ‘crazy’ by the outside world.
The thing about Schizophrenia is that we unintentionally take away their sense of connection. We make them feel alone by forcing them to fit in with society's idea of normal. We tell them that to live in this world they must be medicated, that they must be stripped of what feels like their identity. I was an immature teenager who didn’t have the emotional maturity to understand these things. I desperately wanted normal, and that meant wanting a brother who could be normal. He felt this of course - he was very emotionally aware of those around him.
I loved him, but I couldn’t give him the love he wanted from me. I couldn’t give him acceptance. I couldn't understand his illness because I struggled so much to see beyond what we are told is normal. As a child who had struggled to fit in, all I wanted as a teenager was to fit into the narrow definition of what society perceives as normal. And so I pushed him away.
I have forgiven myself for never unburdening him of his loneliness, for never telling him he was loved and accepted by me. I wonder what our relationship would be now had he survived. I mourn the relationship we could have had and I mourn the brother I never truly allowed myself to see.
Blinded by love.
I hate the term ‘blinded by love’. It is so cheesy and reeks of every rom-com level cliche about love there is. But I have been there - so utterly blinded by the love I felt for someone - that I could not see all the ways in which they were hurting me. I saw exactly what I wanted to see, particularly in those early days. I mistook severe social anxiety for quirkiness and confidence. I actively ignored constant lies and manipulations. I saw someone who was damaged, yes, but no more damaged than I already felt.
I had fled countries seeking anonymity from my past. Suffocated by guilt and feelings of unworth, it seemed I had finally found someone that could make me feel whole again. He showed me so much love, but also made sure I believed that no one else could love me the way he did. There was a song he used to play that has now been tainted through the painful lens of our relationship - “no one is ever gonna’ love you like I do”.
This was just one manipulation he used to ensure I wouldn’t leave him. He slowly pulled me away from the majority of my friends as it is so much harder to leave someone without people in your corner. He would build up my emotions only to cruelly cut them down. He spun me through a rapid cycle of of love and devotion, followed by brutal acts of emotional abuse. He could change so quickly, so, I was constantly on edge to ensure I did nothing to enrage him. This meant basically never leaving the house as the mere presence of other men could spark a jealous fury that could last days.
In the end he broke me. I lost all parts of myself that I had once cherished. At my worst, I had nowhere to live and no friends left in Melbourne that I could face through my shame. And still I kept going back to my tormentor, seeking out the pain I thought I deserved. I have read that our brains change in the same way throughout falling in love as they do throughout addiction. At this point in my life I felt so much like an addict, compulsively going back to him even though I was well versed in the suffering that would inevitably follow. Finally, when I was on the verge of losing my job as well - my incredible boss at the time - threw me a lifeline. It was a chance to start over and I took it. I left behind the city I had once loved because I could no longer function with my ‘addiction’.
I don’t blame him. He was high functioning but very, very mentally unwell. In fact, I am grateful to him. If I hadn’t found myself so broken at his hands I might never have found the courage to change my life. To finally face my fears and stop running from the emotional trauma of my past. By inflicting so much pain on me, he changed my life in ways he probably doesn’t even realise. I just hope he has found the courage to change his own.
The purest love of all.
I truly believe that the love we feel for our friends is the purest love of all. Our friendships don’t hold up a mirror to ourselves in the way that families and romantic relationships do. This allows that love to be stripped of ego, which makes it pure. We choose our friendships and therefore we seek out like minded people to become our sacred chosen family.
We find people not just because they are similar to us and share our interests but because their friendship can allow us to feel more ourselves. Sometimes you find people that you don’t feel the need to hide any part of yourself from, not even the darkest parts. I have been lucky enough to find a person to share all my thoughts, fears and dreams with, no matter how twisted I believe them to be. My person is the most brilliant, compassionate and courageous I have ever met. She also happens to suffer from mental illness. While this hasn’t defined our relationship, it has definitely strengthened it.
I wonder sometimes what would have happened had our lives taken different paths. Would our friendship have become so significant had we not needed each other so fiercely? Perhaps not, but I am so grateful for this person that allows me to feel like I make sense. This person that allows me to unburden my mind by listening without judgement every time. This person that makes me feel like I am worthy, that I am enough.
Her story is hers to tell. Ours is a story of friendship. It has always been easy to love her, but it is less easy to love a world that continues her suffering. But part of loving someone with mental illness means accepting your place on the sidelines. For all your want to take away their pain, you never can. All you can do is keep showing up and hoping that they do too.
With mental illness there is a fear that colours every interaction. A fear that this could be the last time they show up. A fear of just how broken you may be without them. But loving people means coping with the fear of losing them. As with any other serious illness, mental illness can take the people we love from us at any time. But I have learnt to counter the fear with hope. On the bad days you hope for a good day and on a good day you still hope for more good days.