Most people don’t know much about mental illness. It doesn’t affect them and it doesn’t touch them. It is a hazy perception of really drastic depressions that involve blacken rooms and weird music. It is a shopping spree or a killing spree. It is required to be simple because it can not be understood. I spend the majority of my writing hours trying desperately to get people to see the truth about mental illness; but I fail many more times than I succeed.
In my world of mental illness, one of the ways I have found to describe these diseases is to invoke an image of a puzzle. Not a giant puzzle but a puzzle with billions of pieces. Pieces that fit, but pieces that are scattered throughout life. There are no corner pieces to work off of, there are no color coordinated pieces that bring a shape to life. It is simply small, oftentimes lost pieces that should solve whatever problem a mentally ill person may have but instead causes more confusion and more frustration each and every day. A mentally ill person may be able to connect two pieces one day, and while that will give them a burst of inspiration for the next hour, soon the defeatist attitude always return. The pieces are too wide spread, they take up too much room, and give no hints to a ultimate goal.
We can go to doctors, who very kindly give us dangerous drugs, often without explaining the determents that come along with playing with someone’s brain. We can go to therapists and try and talk enough about a subject that a picture begins to form only for our hour to be up. We can even rely on those we love to tell us when we are being particularly “sick” but often the love one’s solution is not sustainable and not often that helpful.
So we live our lives surrounded by these billion pieces, trying to find the right combination to bring them together and ultimately we fail over and over. But each piece represents something that must be looked at, it must be held. It must be considered. Each piece represents an emotion, an action, a reaction, a desire, a despair, a complication. And while you can know that the puzzle does form a whole piece, it is simply impossible to continually try to get those pieces together day in and day out. No one has that much understanding. No one has that much ability to see the full picture. No one has that much space to work out what each individual piece represents and what it means for their own selves. It’s a game that can’t be won. And while the loss is just a couple of the billion pieces, it can’t be finished either. So you don’t win and you don’t lose. You just keep seeing the billions of pieces laid out before you.
If you think there is a solution to a mental illness, you haven’t tried to put the puzzle together. If you think there are answers in the two connected pieces you found one day, you haven’t seen the other billion pieces that don’t fit at all. If you think going to a specialist is going to show you the way to creating a picture that will look somewhat recognizable then you haven’t seen the billion of other pieces fly by, randomly, all day and all night. Do the pieces connect? Yes. Will a mentally ill person ever finish the puzzle? No. They haven’t even seen all the pieces still waiting for them. Are you supposed to solve a puzzle? Every damn time.
Personally, I can see pieces that are red in anger. I can see pieces that are blue in calmness. I can hold pieces that begin to give some shape only to realize just like my favorite murder mystery, I don’t have enough clues to get any answers. My puzzle not only lives inside of me, but exists in all areas that I do. It comes with me when I am having good days and it sits on me when I have bad days. One would hope that you could see more of the picture on the good days, but this puzzle doesn’t reveal itself. It shrouds itself in mystery by never giving a clue to the picture it is supposed to form. So you are subjected to the understanding that you don’t have any of the pictures – not the ones that tell you where you are going, not the ones that could tell you what to expect, not the ones that could tell you the solution that will give you the definition of who and what you are. All you have are snippets that could be an indicator of who and what you are or they could simply be the background only there to give you hope or a reason to believe that you could be on the right path.
The pieces are tricky because if you try and look too closely, you may begin to believe that you know what the picture is supposed to be. The pieces reveal small, bitty, hints at what could be the most beautiful life you have ever known or the life that only one with a mental illness will understand. The pieces could represent a beginning but they won’t ever represent an ending. It is a constant and frustrating mix of who you might be and who you will never be. And still the puzzle pieces demand that you spend time on them to find the solution to a problem no one has ever solved.
So if we are confronted everyday with this unsolvable puzzle, what is there to do? The obvious answer is to keep trying to connect the pieces until you see something that you can work with, that you can maybe not solve but at least recognize. You should probably continue to allow those that surround you to see the pieces and possibly give you a hint at what you are looking at. But what works best for me is to simply hold a piece of the puzzle in my hand long enough that a similar looking piece will come along.
I don’t like to trot out all my puzzle pieces for general consumption but I will give you a simple one to at least show you what I am talking about. I held onto one piece of my puzzle for four years until I found the connecting piece. You see, I had this horrible pain in the back of my right leg. The pain was so horrible that I couldn’t sit down, I couldn’t drive. I took narcotics, anti-inflammatory medicines. I went to no less than three different doctors. I had nerve screenings, MRIs, reflex tests, and even physical therapy, but nothing reduced the pain. Everyone had a theory, everyone had a new pill to give me. But nothing helped. It caused me to become agoraphobic. It caused me to have such anxiety that I began to have nightmares. The pain became so great that I literally could do nothing but lie around watching as my children left my side, my house became unclean, and friends so frustrated at my inability to move to leave for greener pastures.
But I kept that puzzle piece in my hand. I didn’t let go of it, even as other pieces filled my vision. I held on tight because I knew that as long as it was in my hands there was another piece that would fit with it. And then one day, out of the complete blue, there was that second piece I was waiting for. I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know why it didn’t present itself sooner. All I knew is that one day I was in misery and three days later I was finally freed. Although it is not important to this story, the puzzle piece I was missing was yoga. The act of doing ten minutes of yoga, twice a day, completely dissolved all my pain, got me off all those medications. And although I am still paying the medical bills for this crisis, holding that original piece for so long allowed the connecting piece to finally find me. I doubt I found it; I am pretty sure it found me.
Life is a puzzle; we have all heard of version of this. Our lives are made up of thousands, millions, billions, of pieces that make up who we are, the lives that we lead and the hopes we have that someday it will all make sense. We are forced to hold pieces for days, years, decades waiting for the other piece that will help us to finally see a picture that will make sense. We are forced to live with the knowledge that there is no picture that will ever emerge that will define us or help us.
Maybe this is the definition of mental illness itself – a billion pieces that form no recognizable picture to finish and find peace within. But we can hold onto one piece. We can hope to find the next piece in the picture. And maybe one day, we can find enough pieces that will give us a moment to rest in perfect safety.