Mental Health: The Social Toll of Invisible Illness

Please know before I get on Bummed Out Bailey to write I always prioritize working with my family and psychiatrist to stabilize myself. I wouldn’t be on here if I hadn’t first confirmed my safety. 

TW: suicidal ideation

In July I suffered my most severe breakdown in more than ten years while home in Texas. There were unreasonable fears skipping through my mind like a CD player with low-quality ESP, horrific scenarios I played out in my head over and over. They all resulted in the deaths of me and my loved ones and untold suffering at my brother’s hands. These narratives repeated themselves so many times in my head that I began to believe them. I couldn’t help it and couldn’t turn it off.* Then, something moved in right next to me, mashing down the mattress on the other side of my bed. Self hatred. I’d seen glimpses of self hatred come and go most of my life, but it was usually more like a shadowy figure passing in front of a window at night, temporarily blocking out the glow of the streetlamp. Unsettling, but recoverable. After a while I came to expect it’s brief appearances, and my body stayed in a constant state of fight or flight tension. I have monster knots in my shoulders and back that make massage therapists click their tongues in disbelief. Sixty minutes isn’t enough to sort this out.

Unless you’re one of the four people who’ve seen me at my lowest, the remarkable tension in my back is the only outward proof of my mental illness. Because I don’t have a cast on, people who have not experienced or seen firsthand the manifestations of mental illness think I just need to get over it and pull myself up by the bootstraps. Suck it up. But, when I am immobilized, I want to die. I have no will to live and believe Rick, my parents, sisters, and brothers lives would be better without me. In my mind I am a drain financially, emotionally, everything. How exhausting must it be to deal with me?

I was meant to go to Texas for the first time since July this weekend for a dear friend’s wedding. The day before Rick and I were meant to leave, something descended upon me. I sat slumped on the bedroom floor, back against the bed, my bleary eyes and hand resting on Apollo. Rick came in and studied the back of my head.

“I canceled all my meetings today,” I said, moving my hand down Apollo’s neck and back, repeat. I’d had two meetings scheduled – one with my thesis partner and the other with my advisor. Important. Infrequent.

Rick came to sit down next to me and I couldn’t look at him. He’s been working so hard on his tech start up, pouring into it his heart, soul, money, intelligence, and time and now this. Me. He had a clump of meetings to take and his wife was a a heap on the floor, tugging at her oversized “A Woman’s Place is in the House and the Senate” sweatshirt.

“That’s not good, Bailey. Your thesis is your main job. If the mere idea of going home is sending you into this headspace, we don’t have to go.”

“No, I just need to sleep.” I folded up my glasses and crawled back into bed, pulling the sea foam comforter over my head. Three hours later, I heard Rick slink back into the room.

“Do you feel better?”

“No.” My eyes stayed closed and my head pounded.

“Is there a certain time you want me to wake you up?”

“I don’t know, six?” Dinner time. How normal.

“Okay. I want to talk about this trip when you wake up.”

I cracked an eye open. “What about it?”

“I don’t think we should go.”

“I feel better.” I closed my eyes again and rolled over.

Neither one of us believed me.

There was no way I was going to entertain missing such an important wedding, my high school best friend’s little sister’s, who I’d known since she was single-digit age. When I finally shuffled out of our room, I found Rick sitting in his chair, waiting, like a one-person intervention.

“After your July trip, it took you months to get back on track, mentally. Your family will understand.”

“[Our niece] is huge now, and I haven’t even met [our new nephew]. There’s no way I’m missing [friend]’s wedding, either. I can’t postpone a wedding until I feel better.”

“It’s too risky. You couldn’t even get out of bed today, Bailey. Best case scenario is we go and have a great time. Worst case is you get there, have a colossal meltdown, we take an emergency flight back to New York, and then deal with the repercussions for two months like last time.”

“I’m supposed to see Alex, too,” I muttered. It would’ve been the first time in two years. “He’s got these cats…” I trailed off. “But I guess either way that’s definitely off the table now.”

In July, one of the many things I was convinced of is that Alex was going to break into my parents’ house and kill all of us in our sleep. We’d all been through so much already, why would it stop now? We’re really going to go out with a bang. A literal bang. “I just don’t know what to do.”

“Do you wanna call your parents? Do you wanna call Duncan?”

“I don’t know, I don’t really wanna bother them. They’re going to be disappointed.”

“They more than anyone else understand, especially after your parents witnessed the breakdown in person last summer. Let’s call Keith.”

I pressed my lips to the side, eyes on my lap. “Okay.”

For the next hour we discussed the pros, cons, and potential scenarios of me coming home for the weekend first with me and Rick, then my parents, me, and Rick, then Duncan, me, and Rick, and finally just me and Rick again. We turned the issue over in our hands for so long, talked it to death. My parents sit around wondering if Alex is about to die everyday, and Duncan has a baby. Who has time for my repetitive mental issues? I cannot pull myself up by the bootstraps. I cannot suck it up. But I cannot stand to put my loved one through this again. I needed to stay in New York, and I hated myself for it. The shadow had sidled past the window, in through the backdoor, and plopped down next to me on the dirty couch. Nobody has time for this, it whispered. Everything would be so much easier without you. They’ll be sad at first, yeah, but they’ll get over it. Your suffering makes everyone else suffer.

I knew then, when these self harm thoughts began flooding the paths in my brain like the tunnels of an ant hill in peril, that I couldn’t go. We weren’t at my parents’ house, we weren’t in Dallas, we weren’t on a plane, it wasn’t even the day meant for departure, but it was like I was already preheating for another meltdown.

As suspected, my family understood. But, the worst part was calling my best friend to tell her I couldn’t come.

“I have bad news,” I said.

“You’re in New York and you’re not coming,” she panned.

I explained myself the best I could. She said the right things, but her tone indicated otherwise. She seemed impatient, maybe even angry. Worst of all, she seemed unsurprised. “They say 10% of people who RSVP to your wedding don’t end up coming. I really hoped you’d be here, but I did wonder…”

“We’ve had the flights booked for months and every intention of being there. I wanted to be there to support [sister], but I especially wanted to be there to support you.” I looked over at my half-packed suitcase, hanging vibrant dresses, and three pairs of stilettos. Three pairs for one night – just in case.

I apologized again, knowing it was futile. I hated myself for failing my best friend, and felt helpless knowing that someone can easily believe my excuses to be bullshit. I don’t blame anyone for thinking that way, especially with how the language surrounding mental illness has been diluted by misuse and hyperbole from people who do not actually suffer from mental illness. No wonder people just think it’s bullshit excuses, because there are people who are using what is extremely valid to some as a way to cop out of responsibility. Unaffected people throwing around “I have anxiety” and “I’m depressed” like a frisbee harms people who are truly afflicted, further harming the harmed.

No one “had anxiety” or “was depressed” when I couldn’t walk through the door of my elementary school in 5th grade. There wasn’t a lot of knowledge and language to identify these things in a child, let alone conversations among peers. When my parents witnessed my breakdown firsthand in July, they finally witnessed their 30 year-old adult child experiencing what I’ve experienced since I was nine. It’s crippling. And, when you miss unmovable, important life events like a funeral or, in this case, a wedding, it’s devastating.

It’s the night of the wedding as I write, and there’s nowhere I’d rather be but on the dance floor with the bride, cocktail in hand. Instead, I’m still sitting here on the dirty couch with an unwanted seat mate.

*Read more about what happened in July here.

Written Saturday, February 22, 2020.

Wednesday posts cover something that’s top of mind for me that week and are written in a short period of time. This means that editing is not strong. While it’s not my best work, it is my best, unfiltered thought.

More on Bummed Out Bailey:
Mental Health: Valentine’s Posts Are a No From Me Dog
Mental Health: Productivity
Mental Health: Tired of Me

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