It has taken me over fifteen years to learn one crucial thing about myself: I am selfish. I think that anyone with a mental disease is by the very nature of the disease, selfish. It comes with the territory, the ups and downs, the comforts and the horrors. Being mentally ill means that at the end of the day you are required to be selfish, and ultimately this selfishness means loss.
If you think about mental illness in a logical and somewhat perfect trajectory you will see this selfishness. It comes when we know how we are doing, what we are feeling, when we know what is coming next, and those around us don’t or can’t know. It comes when the memories overwhelm us to the point that we can’t speak and it comes when the darkness becomes the comfort that a simple hug can’t.
I think about my triggers, the things that come at me at a moment’s notice, that literally change the course of my hour, my day, my ability to have the most basic of feelings. Triggers are those strange things that surround us and alter the very fabric of our being. They may be the same thing each and every time, or a trigger may be something that has literally never bothered you before but for some reason today lays you low. Those that surround us, those that love and those that are forced to be in our company, can not predict, change or stop the devastating effects of triggers. It is something only someone altered by the trigger can do. It makes us selfish.
Every time things are going okay, those days when life isn’t bad nor is it particularly gleeful, and we are simple humans, those are selfish days. How do we look at those we love as they walk in the door and say, “hey, I am okay today,”? How do we tell them that there are no orchestras painting pictures of sadness and proving we are mental? How do we explain why we aren’t jumping up and down but rather are simply content in being okay? Because as all those with mental illness know, being okay is the goal. It is the end game. It is the thing we aspire to have, to be, to feel.
When we are required to face the music, to look into ourselves and see our feelings in the technicolor madness that only a brain can create, we are selfish. We aren’t looking at the world around us, we aren’t trying to be what the world needs us to be, instead we are simply trying to survive. To survive with a mental illness demands selfishness; it demands that those suffering are completely surrounded by the feelings, the consequences, the very real emotions that are coursing through our blood stream faster than the medications that are supposed to be stopping them.
We have to know when we are depressed and need the darkness to find ourselves in. We have to know when we are high so we can accomplish the things that have been sitting on that list and only the things sitting on the list; going off the list has the consequences that those doctors warned our loved ones about. We have to anticipate what tomorrow will bring, despite the fact that we will get it wrong more times than we will get it right. We have to anticipate the way the river is going the flow or it will be a river of tears instead. We have to know. We have to see. We have to be as selfish as a child.
It is hard for a person without a mental illness to understand what happens if we stop, take a deep breath, and slowly move our eye off the ball. The problems inherit in not tracking each step, each feeling, each memory coming to the surface, are greater than the selfishness that comes naturally with a disease in the brain. It is hard for a person without a mental illness to understand that the destruction that will be created if we stop for one moment and not watch what we are doing has the potential to not only destroy ourselves but all those around us. If we decide that being selfish and the pain that it brings to our loved ones should be replaced with any other thing in this world, than all that we count on will be lost: the straight jackets will come out, the doctors with their prescription pads will line up, and the disappointment that we fear causing will be as true as the disease we stop feeling.
It is a hard notion to understand this need, this requirement, for selfishness. It isn’t fair in a world that has thousands of harsh truths. It isn’t politically correct or what we are taught in grade school. But it is virtually a life and death requirement in a mental illness. If you take your eye off the ball, and the chaos begins, death will always follow.
So I sit everyday and check in with my own brain. I look for the moments that are going to destroy me; the potholes that will destroy the journey that I am on. I take a measurement, while I also systematically try to remember if I have taken the correct medications, done the correct exercises, and spent enough time alone to survive in a world that is always talking. I push my emotions into the slots that they belong and I routinely check to make sure that they are securely locked behind that metal door.
And all the times that I am doing this, I acknowledge that I am not being the communicator that this world seems to think I have to be. I acknowledge that while I am fighting the need to be the monster, I am ignoring the jokes and laughter that others feel. While I am destroying the paths that will lead me to heartache, I forget to look around and see the heartache of others. While I am acknowledging my own truth, there is no one else’s.
Mental illness is a selfish disease. It is a selfish disease because it is the adaptation that we must take in order to survive. It is a selfish disease because the answer isn’t in the walls that surround us, but in the walls that we have built to guard our own selves. It is a selfish disease because part of the journey to the death we intimately know is ours and not to be shared.
We are taught what happens if we share. We are taught by example every time someone looks at us in horror for the very words that were asked of us. We are taught by the derogatory comments that our confusion, our journeys are somewhat less than those who walk in the shadows of the sun. We are taught that our own travels become less important as the years, as the complaints, as the truths are exposed.
So while we selfishly sit in our own brains to protect ourselves from what will come next, we are forced to listen to the songs of those who deem themselves better just because they don’t have a disease that looks like ours. So we become selfish. We are selfish to survive. We are selfish to prevent the next disaster. And we are selfish in our exhaustion from fighting all the battles that we were given, yet never asked for.