IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Was a Pyromaniac

I first started feeling depressed in high school, when I began having distracting urges to light fires.
Publish date:
September 1, 2015
mental illness, mental health, stigma, Pyromania

I engaged in a lot of wholesome behaviors during my first year of college, like sitting in the ­­dark on the kitchen floor and doing absolutely nothing.

If I wanted to shake it up, I’d sit and stare at the matches on the shelf, fighting every destructive impulse in my being. One night, I watched a documentary of Nazi concentration camp footage, because I’m clearly a hit at parties.

That winter, my mental cocktail of anxiety and depression became almost lethal. My mental anguish was so all-encompassing that I couldn’t even begin to understand it, as it is with many others who suffer from mental illness.

The hardest thing I’ve ever done happened that March, when I dragged myself out of bed, across campus, and into the counseling center to seek help. I collapsed on the cozy couches in the office next to an inflatable smiling green dinosaur, all the fight left from me.

At this point my depression was so debilitating that I’d missed a lot of class time, simply because when I tried to pull myself out of bed I just ended up lying all day on the floor.

I first started feeling depressed in high school, when I began having distracting urges to light fires. Once my depression took a turn for the worse, the pyromania would follow; that pattern has appeared several times as I’ve intermittently battled severe depression.

I stumbled onto a pyromania diagnostic recently, and realized that I could answer every item with a resounding “yes.” That shouldn’t have been a surprise to me. Yet I’d never been formally diagnosed when I went to therapy, and to this day I instinctively downplay my mental illnesses to myself and everyone else.

The shame tied into suffering from mental illness exacerbates my need to call myself “bad,” and not “ill.” We are grotesque cartoons in the public eye. Suffering from anxiety and depression are hellacious experiences, but for many, hearing that I have pyromania as well makes me a monster.

Most people I’ve told automatically assume that I’m an arsonist, although I’ve never been one. What I am is someone who has at times felt an overpowering need for the sensory experience of fire. It’s literally been a light in the darkness; what more perfectly heavy-handed metaphor could you need?

There’s no ulterior motive, no alternative, and it doesn’t need to be grand in scale. Small fires got me through it, just enough to make me feel like things would be OK. When I found a friend who was a kindred spirit in this respect, we both relieved stress by lighting the tiniest of fires in the barbecue and staring at them in silence.

Mustering the strength to give another close friend my jar of matches, and every other box of matches in sight, always felt like a weakness. It’s obviously a sign of strength, looking back, but being mentally ill changes your perspective and can feel like a lose-lose situation.

Not seeking help feels like giving up, but so does seeking help. You can get so deep into that pit of despair that suffering becomes comfortable and familiar, and it’s terrifying to give that up.

The stigma of depression and pyromania make me afraid of telling my story, even now, when I’m no longer as ashamed of it. I grappled with the idea of publishing this anonymously, because what would my friends and family say? What would my school, teachers, future bosses think? But more importantly, what would readers think?

I couldn’t stop considering what I would feel like, reading this piece about reducing stigma and shame and then seeing those words, “by anonymous.” I couldn’t live with it. If I shared my story publicly, I had to own it. Nothing else would feel right to me.

I get two reactions when I tell people I’ve been a pyromaniac: “Oh my god, don’t burn my house down” or “Oh yeah man, I was totally a pyro too when I was a teen, set off fireworks like all the time after school.”

Both reactions, frankly, piss me off.

While I do see the beauty in fire and the solace it’s given me, I can’t deny the painful place it’s occupied in my mental landscape over the years. I wasn’t the ecstatic teenager holding his lighter to the can of hairspray. I was the one in my room, paralyzed by craving and fear, playing the video game Little Inferno as an alternative.

I can’t help but wonder if my pyromania upsets people more because I’m a female; from what I’ve seen, you could argue that fire-setting is considered a normal part of being a young man.

The romanticized notion of pyromaniacs compounds this. People seem to think that I simply enjoy this, that I’m just twisted and incurably sick. It's an assumption so common that it’s kept me in the mental health closet.

Despite whatever I know logically, I’ve still absorbed this into my subconscious, and it deeply affects my identity. Letting go of these visceral notions has been a slow process. I’m only just beginning to accept what I should’ve known all along: I am not my mental illnesses.

Everyone has the parts of themselves that they despise, and people with mental illness have to cozy up to that much closer than we’re used to.

I’m still a little afraid of the emotional pull fire has for me, and the impact depression and anxiety have had over my thought patterns. But now that I feel happier and more myself than I have in years, I’m starting to let go of the secrecy.

Recovering from mental illness means accepting that you’re not a monster. It means that you own your status as someone with an illness, not someone who is intrinsically terrible. This is harder than it might sound.

The words you’re reading are part of this, the reconciliation of those dark depths with all of the other many aspects of myself. I’m finally healthy enough to write and publish something like this. It’s made me realize the upshot of dealing with an illness like depression.

Of course I respect anyone who wants to keep their mental illness private, but in my case it never seemed like a good idea. There’s so much daily pressure in keeping this part of me and my experience a secret, but in sharing it I at least might do some good. That seems worth the risks.