I’ve been living with the wrong mental health diagnosis for approximately a decade. Which is an unsettling realization to have, but also explains a lot of things, like why my previous attempts at medication didn’t work very well1, and why many other people with my diagnosis didn’t seem to have quite the same problems I did.
Getting to that point of diagnosis drift, though, took a lot of work, because the mental health system in this country is really, really broken, as many people who have come into contact with it are well aware.
So is the health system in general, as I can attest because I’m a person with Health Problems who has no insurance, along with nearly 50 million other people; and having health insurance is no guarantee of mental health coverage, despite mental health parity laws.
Having been crazy for an extremely long time, long before I was diagnosed with the wrong diagnosis, I’m familiar with the full gamut of mental health services in this country. From access to regular weekly therapy and comfortable hospitals2 to fighting every step of the way because you have no insurance and you live in a region where access to mental health services is pretty limited.
For about the last six years, I hadn’t been in treatment at all, because it was too expensive. It meant that I spent a lot of time hiding under my bed, refusing to leave my house, being convinced that the entire world hated me and was conspiring against me, and having fits of uncontrollable rage that resulted in broken furniture and holes in my walls.
That's what I was doing when I wasn’t, of course, deciding that I needed to stay up every night for a week to organize and tag every single photo in my collection, which is currently pushing 10,000, or deciding that I needed to learn absolutely everything about 14th-century Chinese textiles.
I spent a lot of time dysfunctional. Self-medication, for me, was hyperfocusing on tasks, being horribly cruel to my friends and baking a lot. The neighbors love it when I’m having an episode because it means they get an unending supply of bread, cookies, cakes and pies. My friends are pretty persistent people, so they kept loving me even when I was being a giant dick. Thanks, friends.
About a year ago, I decided that, you know, maybe it was time to get back on this horse and access some damn mental health services already. This may have been spurred by a request for an appearance I knew I couldn’t honor because I was well aware that the morning of, I’d come up with a good reason not to go and then curl up on the living room floor and go to sleep. Or maybe it was just time.
So I started calling for help. Many practices weren’t accepting new patients, period, no way no how. Others refused to take uninsured patients3. The community health clinic wanted me to meet with a social worker before scheduling an appointment. And, and, and...it went on. I say this all in a paragraph, but it took weeks, months, to work my way through this list, to force myself to call and give my little spiel: “Hi, I have a serious mental health condition, will someone please help me?”
I gave up. But then, a couple of months ago, I hit a tipping point. I was tired of being nonfunctional all the time. I was tired of being an asshole to everyone around me. I was tired of having panic attacks every time a new email arrived, having to lie on the floor because I got dizzy and felt like vomiting every time my browser changed from “Gmail-Inbox” to “Gmail-Inbox (1).”
I was tired of alternately not sleeping and spending 20 hours a day insensate, not even noticing when people were banging on my door. So I called the community clinic again and I persisted and the social worker and I played phone tag and I finally met with her and got an appointment and then things started to happen, like, you know, medication that actually helps me, and therapy4. And things are getting better.
I feel more ... level. I feel functional. I feel like I can make plans. I feel like when a measuring cup accidentally gets stuck in the utensil drawer, I’m not actually going to go into a spiral of rage, slamming drawers, stomping around, and finally slamming myself into the floor to sob for 30 minutes.
I feel like things are shifting; I’ve gone from thinking nothing would ever work to believing that things, they’re gonna change. I'm also sleeping again, which is pretty rad. High-five for sleep, am I right?
I get pretty pissy about glamorization of mental illness, which takes a lot of forms. As a creative professional, I often encounter the idea, for example, that mental illness makes people creative. In fact, I was struggling to work over the last few months, was doubting my ability to continue working, and getting on medication has helped me focus and tighten my work.
Or I encounter depictions of mental illness that seem to suggest we spend a lot of time lying around on furniture looking bereft, or being high-functioning and living the high life in fancy shoes before going home to sit in the bathtub, drink wine and be sad.
For once I'd like to see an article about how hard it is to get treatment and sometimes even if you have health insurance it doesn't cover it and some people with mental illness actually don't do a lot of drugs and don't zig zag through seemingly glamorous party lives.
This one’s for you, loveisntbrains, and there’s more where this came from, because I have a lot of thoughts about how hard I had to fight to get treatment, how many people with mental illness can’t access treatment because they can’t hammer away until they get an appointment, how people claim medication is “the easy way out5.”
How mentally ill people in the United States are criminalized, forced into homelessness, and murdered by police. How some of us don’t do a lot of drugs and zig zag through seemingly glamorous party lives. How the experience of mental illness is extremely variable.
My experience of mental illness has been boring, and it’s been terrifying, but it definitely hasn’t been glamorous.
1. Well, one medication worked very well at convincing me my skin was filled with water balloons that needed to be popped, and I bet you can guess how that worked out, and another worked fantastically at making me spin off into the stratosphere, not sleeping for almost a month and hyperfocusing on, of all things, virology. I know a lot about Marburg Virus now, though!
2. Oh, student health plan, how I miss you.
3. They call us “cash patients,” but I prefer “uninsured patients” because it’s more accurate.
4. Which I am about to go to, I am cleverly avoiding my therapy homework by writing this piece!
5. Tell that to my liver. Go on. I dare you.