Queer Pain and Queer (Self)Destruction
An Honest Perspective on Mental Illness and Addiction
Recently, I made several realizations about myself. Vulnerable, scary realizations that I want to have known but am also scared for people to know. I am afraid it will change how people will see me, yet it feels necessary to share. Perhaps through my experiences, my pain, I can help someone through theirs. I could wait for National Coming Out Day, but I’m too queer for that. (Yes, yes I KNOW queerness is not a competition. Please don’t bite my head off, it’s tongue-in-cheek). So here it goes. One: I am mentally ill. Two: I am an addict. These are two facts I have always known about myself, but I’ve always perceived them at an arm’s length – adjectives, descriptors of behavior. I always thought, yes, I deal with mental illness that flares up from time to time. Yes, I have addictive behaviors. But no, I am not someone who is mentally ill or an addict. Those identities are too close, too vulnerable, and ultimately, too shameful. However, if I don’t acknowledge them as aspects of who I am, I can’t see how deeply they affect me, or how tied with my queer experience, it has led to a particular kind of queer pain and self-destruction.
I was diagnosed with clinical depression and a generalized anxiety disorder at the age of seventeen. After not being able to sleep well for months, a constant feeling of pain in the pit of my stomach, and a horrific panic attack, I finally convinced my mother to take me to the doctor. I walked out of the visit with a prescription to Wellbutrin and something to help me sleep. In the car, my mother and I agreed not to tell my father about the anti-depressant. He was always leery of any substance that could alter how you feel, and thus alter your soul. Only god should be able to do that. When we told him the doctor had given me something to help me sleep, he, the man who probably genetically passed down these illnesses to me, stated warily I don’t trust those things. It took me months to tell him about the antidepressants. My pain could not be fixed by their prayer, and eventually I started cognitive behavioral therapy – as a side note, I recommend CBT to everybody. It is incredible and truly saved (and continues to save) my life. My journey with initially uncovering my mental illness and eventually coming out is deep and painful, and a story I will share another day. My initial diagnosis was that it was something temporary, a hiccup that 6 weeks of meds would help me get over. 4 years of CBT, a stint in the mental ward, and a suicide attempt later, I came to realize mental illness would be something I would be carrying with me for the rest of my life.
Hiding my mental illness was never something I wanted to, or felt the need to do. When comfortable enough around someone and the topic comes up, I openly discuss my journey, my struggles, and how I’ve gotten to where I am today (which is to say: still alive). Despite this openness, I always saw mental illness as something I dealt with, but not a deep aspect of who I am. Perhaps I had the hopes that someday I could get over it and just function like a normal (neurotypical) person for once, even though I simultaneously knew depression and anxiety would be things I dealt with for the rest of my life. I am unsure why this distinction felt important – perhaps I felt as though I was more in control of myself if I am just dealing with a problem versus a chronic illness. If I am mentally ill, then it is a part of me. It is ingrained into the grooves of my brain and there is fear and uncertainty there, and that unpredictability and lack of control is terrifying to me. If I am mentally ill, it may win some day. This thought rests heavy in my heart. Heavy and hard and true. It dips into the pit of my stomach and presses down on my chest until I pause, breathe deep, and choose to keep going. Instead of looking at the endless miles of life ahead of me, I look down, and take one step at a time. I can’t control the road in front of me, but I can control my next step, so I keep on going, step by step.
Life is overwhelming sometimes, but I will keep fighting like hell to stay alive despite having a heart that feels too much. I have galaxies in my chest and the universe in my belly and my body cannot contain the vast penetrating emotions I feel. Some days, my seams are popping and I risk falling apart. The only way to describe existing like this is exhausting. I am constantly tired and the world demands too much of me. I have my toolbelt of coping mechanisms to help me keep going, to recharge my battery so I can face another day. Face another week. Keep marching one step at a time until before I know it, I am in an upswing and the world is beautiful and light once again. Since I feel so deeply and intensely, carrying an unnameable hurt behind my ribcage, I have dedicated my life to kindness and gentleness. The world, with its sharp edges and hard surfaces, damages those who are easily bruised. Damages those who are tender and refuse to harden to the pain of life. I refuse to be another abrasive surface. The balm to my aching soul is love, so all I want to do is pour out love love love. I want kindness and gentleness to radiate around me, to extend a softness into the world that is not seen frequently enough, because when I am soft to others, I also create a space of softness for myself.
Yet sometimes I am unable to extend this energy to the world. When I swing low, I do not have the energy to put anything out; I retreat inward and attempt to take the small steps I need to take until I get better again. It is in these spaces that I crave the gentleness and kindness I normally give out to the world, but I often don’t receive it. More accurately, I should say, I am unable to receive it. In those spaces, I am unable to reach out. I know I have resources and people who love me, and try as I may, as of right now I am simply unable to reach out. How do I articulate the weight and depth of emotion pressing on my soul? How can anyone help lift that? Perhaps it is my ardent refusal to be a burden to anybody, to be nothing but supportive because I know what it feels like to not be supported. In the early stages of my mental illness when I reached out to my parents and my church leaders crying for help, it was dismissed. I needed to lay my cares on god, that’s all. It wasn’t working, but I must have been not trying hard enough. Not holy enough. It is also difficult for me to reach out due to the pride I carry in being the strong one; I cannot be weak for anyone. I am also afraid that I am all too much for people. How can I even lay that burden on someone? It’s not fair to them. They didn’t ask for it. They may not have the energy for it, and in my weakest points, I cannot stand that rejection.
I am usually able to make my way out of these lows. I do deep breathing, I ground myself, I read over my list of things that make life beautiful and my list of things I believe as fundamental truths about the world. I write poetry, listen to music, and drug myself to sleep. Usually, when I wake up, things are more bearable. I continue to do tender self-care – I take a shower, make a meal from scratch, read, go for a walk. I write more poetry. If I am feeling particularly brave, I call a friend just to chat for a bit. The path out of my lows is not always as simple and beautiful as that; self-care requires energy that sometimes I can’t even muster. Sometimes, the addict in me turns to escape. Run away from all of the feelings, even if for just a moment. I like doing drugs – various drugs enhance experiences in a variety of beautiful ways. However, there’s a difference between doing drugs with friends to loosen up, chat, and enjoy the evening versus getting high in a desperate attempt to light up my pleasure centers and numb the pain. And sometimes I just want to keep going and going, blast myself out of this galaxy, blast myself out of existence, but sadly with drugs, you always return.
After those last few sentences, I am sure it comes to no one’s surprise that I have realized I am an addict. However, if you know who I am, you might be surprised. I keep it well contained, as I have a crippling sense of responsibility and thrive in stability. A high functioning addict. A nighttime and weekend addict. My sense of responsibility and commitment to stability keeps me in check, and for that, I am grateful. I am not the type of addict who doesn’t know how to stop. Sometimes I have a hard time stopping, but I know my limits and know I need to return to normalcy so I can function in the daytime and maintain my life. However, with addiction, it’s not just drugs. I get addicted to hobbies, people, concepts, and habits. I obsess and can’t stop thinking about something, or all I want to do is that one thing and nothing else. It consumes me. Again, I am not consumed to the point where the stability in my life is threatened, but the behavior is still there. Thus, I am an addict.
My addiction and mental illness are inextricably connected, as it is with most people who experience both things. Life is so incredibly difficult for me, I strive to hold on to all things light, beautiful, and fill me with a sense of peace. I also strive to find anything that can pull me from my deep oozing dread, which leads to addictive behavior. If I can find one thing that puts a spark in me, I become obsessed. Sometimes I latch onto a healthy behavior, and other times, not so healthy. Sometimes even actively destructive. (Who even decides what is a healthy behavior and what isn’t? Wonders the person who toes the line of a K-hole every other Friday night because they took it a little too far). Boy am I a sucker for a good self-destructive habit – there’s something cathartic about destroying my body in various ways like my mental illness destroys my soul.
The thing is, I am hesitant to even be so honest. I don’t want people to worry about me. I don’t want sympathetic stares and “Are you okay?” even though some days I also so desperately crave that. I find my catharsis in self-destructive behaviors, but I don’t want people to become aware of my damage and hurt because they witness my self-destructive behaviors. I want them to see me in my normal behavior, see through my walls and ask me if I’m okay then. I so desperately want to be seen and held, yet I simultaneously refuse to be seen or held. If I don’t feel completely safe around someone, I will never be honest. I will never let them in. I will lie and keep on going, desperate to be helped but refusing almost all help because there are so few people I actually feel safe around. And even fewer people I would feel comfortable burdening with my pain. I firmly believe this complex stems from queer trauma. Those who I thought loved me the most rejected me when I revealed my true self. So I protect my truest, most vulnerable self at all costs. If my family and my god whom I thought loved me entirely, completely, and deeply turned their backs when I opened up my most vulnerable self, how can I trust anyone? This thought pattern I know is a lie – I am surrounded by friends and chosen family who love me completely, but there’s a part of me so scared of fully opening up because I have been betrayed so deeply. Here rests the kernel of truth, the most painful spot. Here is where mental illness grows into queer pain and an inability to reach out for help, which leads to queer self destruction. I know this is something I can overcome, but I will probably spend the rest of my life figuring out how.
The scariest realization I had throughout all of this thinking is, as I mentioned earlier, the fact that I may not win my battle with mental illness. I am mentally ill, and perhaps one day it will overtake me. Perhaps one day, I will not have the strength to overcome the intensity of the bad or the simple exhaustion of living. I so desperately hope I die of old age. I so desperately hope I keep on living, but it is also so exhausting. I am motivated to keep fighting by my commitment to doing no harm. Another motivator is holding onto the wonderful beauty of life, the crazy happenstance of existence. However, I may not win. I feel freed in accepting this fact, not weighed down by the length of the road ahead of me. Please, do not fret; I still have plenty of energy to fight yet. Decades hopefully, especially with continued treatment. And maybe I will overcome and die of old age, but if I am going to be completely honest, it may also be the case that someday life will be all too much. However, I’ll keep fighting my hardest to hold onto life, to experience every glorious second and extend as much love and joy and kindness to this world as I can until then.
Many writings on mental illness end with some neat resolution, like “it gets better” or “never give up!” and I struggle to stop writing until I come up with a neat resolution myself. But I can’t, because at least right now, I’m not certain of that happy ending. It feels too neat for the reality of life. Instead, I’ll make my motto “fight like hell, there’s no turning back”.
To all my queers, mentally ill folks, and addicts: fight like hell, there’s no turning back.