FTIAT: The Far Side of Sanity and Back Again: An Evolution in Thank You
Kathy (reinventing the event horizon) drew me to her blog with her clear, evocative descriptions of life with mental illness. A few of the very first entries I read were difficult for me to finish, but the illumination provided by her words made continuing onward so much more than worthwhile.
I’m constantly amazed by the richness of Kathy’s life. Through her descriptions of her beginnings as part of an organized crime family, her knack for creating beauty from bric-a-brac, and her descriptions of traveling for humanitarian efforts, she paints a picture of a life both well and adventurously lived.
Her painting isn’t only metaphorical. About her art she writes that it “is mixed media and reflective of my creative efforts to transform potential trash into art–how I’ve long felt about my past–that my life trashed by mental illness could, indeed, be recreated into something lovely and meaningful.”
Indeed. Reading Kathy’s blog, it’s easy to believe that anything and everything is possible with arms opened wide to embrace possibility.
Recommended post: Canines in Conical Hats: Lucy Does Vietnam
The Far Side of Sanity and Back Again: An Evolution in Thank You
Sometimes gratitude takes time to develop. Sometimes it’s a process.
For me, being thankful is something I’ve matured into. In me, the feeling has aged, like cheese, fine wine, a decent sourdough—pungent, rich and layered with flavor.
In fact, I fought mental illness for years before I felt anything remotely resembling gratitude—for either the illness itself or my eventual recovery. Mostly I hated it.
Actually, I lost my mind gradually, but by my late twenties, I was caught up completely in the throes of it—hospitalized twice in as many months. And as my 28th birthday approached, I gave up all pretense of sanity and simply let go. I’d white-knuckled reality for a number of months if not years, until finally my fingers slipped, and I was lost to free fall.
At first I merely brought dead branches into my apartment and decorated the walls with them—not only loving their sculptural quality but also believing I was receiving special messages from them. Twigs wreathed the room in forest, a sacramental fact, reality stripped of ordinary distraction.
However, in addition to this, I felt compelled to tear up the carpet in my rental apartment’s living room, to strip the floor clean and access the concrete beneath—a more solid surface on which to stand.
So in March of 1990, I stayed up one Wednesday night, utility-knifed my carpet into carry-able strips, stood a ladder beside the dumpster in my parking lot, climbed rung upon rung, and deposited my former floor within.
A rug literally ripped out from under me, I was hospitalized the next day at a state psychiatric facility, where I walked the halls and fingered the walls for weeks, as all around me sentences bloomed into branches, a dazzling display of crazy.
Antipsychotic medication made me restless, so during that admission and the many more that followed, I paced almost incessantly. I walked hospital halls endlessly, feeling the walls with my palms, an effort to comfort myself, to calm the cacophony that worsened every evening.
One nurse was kind and would sometimes walk with me, attempting to reassure me and lessen the aloneness, as I tried to quiet the chatter in my head, the echo of children’s voices, reciting senseless, sing-song rhymes.
But mostly I walked alone, alternately fighting and forgetting, as psychosis whiplashed me between extremes of nothingness and nowhere.
This whiplashing made me acutely aware of my own nothingness, the fact that at the center of me, a huge hole swallowed and indeed devoured all I thought I knew about myself and the world around me.
I saw myself stripped of all substance, of all that seemed solid and predictable in the face of free-fall. I was naked and drowning—bare to the glare of what others called crazy.
If I was indeed out of touch with reality, as the doctors told me, what did that mean? And if I couldn’t trust my own mind, what could I trust?
Inevitably, this possibility that I couldn’t or shouldn’t trust myself terrified me. And I displaced this terror in all directions, becoming terrified of everything and at the same time terrified of nothing. I couldn’t articulate exactly what I feared. I was only and always overcome with dread. I knew something was terribly wrong.
So in the end, it was terror that made me walk those hospital halls alone–alone in the most existential sense–exiled not only from the rest of the world by mental illness, but exiled by mental illness from myself.
This is the terror of mental illness—a terror I fought for more than 10 years and 25 psychiatric hospitalizations.
Indeed, I was ill for a very long time, and recovery was slow.
Just like it took time to lose my mind, it took time to find it again, as well. I emerged gradually from the ruin of my psyche. Having forgotten what sanity looked like, I barely recognized its image in the mirror. Backward and upside down at first, it slowly righted itself, turning me around to face the world again.
And it took longer still for gratitude to develop. Who in their right mind would be thankful for an ugly, painful past—and how could I trust the seeming insanity of that—thankful for both the process of unbecoming and the evolution that remade me in the end. How was I to straddle that divide?
Indeed, I am now grateful, not only for the recovery I still struggle to maintain, but for the illness, as well—grateful mostly for the empathy I learned. I finally appreciate the pain I endured, knowing that suffering has taught me sensitivity toward others, a caring I might not have developed otherwise.
So my message then is this.
Gratitude, like mental illness, isn’t easy. It doesn’t happen all at once, at least not for most of us. Gratitude is gradual. It emerges over the course of months and years—and sometimes even lifetimes.
Sure, it’s easy to be thankful for the seeming good that happens—but thankful for the bad is another animal altogether. So be patient. Pace yourself.
And during the month of May, Mental Health Awareness Month, please remember the struggles faced by folks with mental illness. Please, donate to NAMI, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. Share stories like mine with those you love, and encourage others to talk, write, and blog about their battles. Let those who live with mental illness (and their families) know they’re not alone.
The world is still a staggeringly beautiful place, and those of us who struggle with psychiatric illness make it a richer place to live and love. We hope big hopes. We dream ever more enduring dreams.
Recovery is possible. And for that, I am exceedingly thankful.
Kathy McCullough is a writer and artist who has lived in places as far away as Vietnam and unlikely as post-earthquake Haiti. Her partner Sara is an international aid worker. Kathy is currently writing a memoir about growing up in an organized crime family. She blogs at www.reinventingtheeventhorizon.wordpress.com.