At the age of 30, I was diagnosed with Multiple Personality Disorder. MPD is “a condition wherein a person’s identity is fragmented into two or more distinct personality states.” The diagnosis was actually a blessing, as well as a curse. The blessing? It clarified, identified, and explained bewildering behaviors, irrational fears, and confounding symptoms that I’d experienced my entire life. It set things in order. Now things made sense. I made sense, and I begin to see myself as I never had before.
But, the curse seemed to overshadow the blessing. It came in the form of a stigma, a stain, that labeled me not quite right, not smart enough, unreliable. Weak. The diagnosis made it official: I was mentally ill. Like a real life Sybil, it was my life, and it was real.
So, how does it feel when more than one identity is present and alternately controlling your body?
It’s confusing and embarrassing. I quite often have the sensation of being disconnected and out of control. I know myself to be intelligent and logical, but often others see me as flighty and unpredictable.
I experience constant memory lapses that are impossible to explain. I’m accused of actions of which I have no knowledge, of making promises that I failed to keep, or being places I know I’ve never been. So when I sometimes appear to be dishonest or deceitful, there’s no way I can defend myself.
Don’t Call Me Lucy
A good friend started calling me Lucy, for the famously ‘dingy’ Lucille Ball character. My friend wasn’t trying to hurt me, and although I worked hard to disguise my pain, the characterization did hurt. It made me feel silly, as if I wasn’t to be taken seriously, and it contributed to my plummeting self-esteem.
Most of my childhood and much of my young adult life was either a blur or was missing entirely. When those misplaced memories began flooding back, I understood why they’d been buried. My childhood had been nightmarish; filled with unending years of sexual abuse. There was physical and psychological abuse, too. All of it started very early in childhood and continued into young adulthood.
I learned that my disconnected identities, which I eventually named “The Troops,” were conceived as a means of coping with those long years of abuse.
For the most part, The Troops acted as allies and protectors. They served an important purpose when I was a child. But in time, they morphed, creating for me a shadowed, fragmented and curiously anamorphic existence. They acted out, most of the time like mischievous kids, but sometimes in destructive anger.
As a result, I had experienced a constant state of hopelessness, gloom and despair. My days were filled with an abject depression that affected my ability to work, sleep, eat, or find any enjoyment in life.
It’s Happening to Someone You Know
My immediate reaction to these new and startling revelations was sheer panic and disbelief. I realized that I needed to educate myself, to learn all that I could in order to cope with this bewildering disease. And very soon, I saw the need to educate others, to fight the prejudice that attached itself to the term ‘mental illness,’ and had therefore attached itself to me.
I was surprised to learn how pervasive, yet how greatly maligned mental illness is. The idea that a person, thru no fault of his own, could be suffering with a disease that affects his mind, seems inconceivable to most people. A physical ailment, which might be seen and understood, generates compassion. Mental illness, veiled and mysterious, is perceived as a weakness or a defect in character.
The numbers of those affected by mental health conditions are staggering. A headline appearing a 2014 issue of Newsweek Magazine declared, “Nearly 1 in 5 Americans Suffer From Mental Illness Each Year.” The author of the article, Victoria Bekiempis, elaborated saying, “Every year, about 42.5 million American adults (or 18.2 percent of the total adult population in the United States) suffers from some mental illness, enduring conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia…”
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), nearly 9.3 million American adults experience mental illness so serious that it impedes their ability to work, and severely limits their day-to-day activities.
A tragic and all too frequent consequence of mental illness is suicide. Emory University statistics found that, “Every year in the U.S., 864,950 people attempt suicide, which means 1 person attempts suicide every 38 seconds.”
Every 38 seconds.
Emory further reports that on average, 94 people die from suicide every day. That number is shown to be even higher by other studies. The American Society for Suicide Prevention states that suicide is the 10th leading cause of death.
The Best and Brightest
Research taught me that I was not alone. More significantly, I learned that I was in very good company. Some of the world’s most gifted, intelligent, widely loved and respected individuals, from all walks of life, have mental illnesses.
Susan Gregg-Schroeder, coordinator of Mental Health Ministries provides a detailed list of famous people, writers, statesmen, and scientists past and present, who struggle, or have struggled with mental health issues. Included are:
- Isaac Newton
- Ludwig von Beethoven
- Abraham Lincoln
- Vincent van Gogh
- Winston Churchill
- Virginia Woolf
- Jane Pauley
- Linda Hamilton
- Charles Dickens
- Dick Clark
- Ernest Hemingway
Robin Williams was known to many as a seemingly carefree and happy comedian. His suicide in 2014 shocked the world. The level of ignorance surrounding depression was made apparent in comments by the Fox News host Shepherd Smith, who, only hours after Williams’ death, called him “a coward” for killing himself and leaving his children to grieve. The recent suicide of Chris Cornel, the powerhouse voice of Soundgarden, is said to have “stunned his family and his diehard fans.”
Mask the Darkest Days
I am always saddened when I hear of any suicide, but I never see it as an act of cowardice. It’s never hard to imagine why, and I am never stunned. When I hear that someone has taken their own life, I think back to those darkest times in my life, when even my close friends and family saw only the happy, playful face I presented to them. I was masterful at hiding my overwhelming sadness, and camouflaging any symptoms that could betray my condition. I avoided eye contact, because eyes have been known to reveal secrets. And I had so many secrets.
Like Robin Williams and Chris Cornell, I performed. I laughed a lot, entertained friends and sang with my band for as long as I was able. When I no longer was able to pretend, I slit my wrists, swallowed handfuls of pills and even gagged on ammonia in an effort to end the pain. In the midst of an attempt, I’d think of my children, who were still quite young. I’d agonize, and pray for forgiveness. But the despair was so strong that it crushed reason, logic and hope.
Healing and Strength
There were numerous hospitalizations; some with my consent, and others by court order. Gradually coming to terms with my childhood, I was able to chart a course for survival. It was a long arduous journey with many setbacks along the way. But I was fortunate. I had help. Dedicated medical professionals helped me begin to heal and find my voice.
I’m no longer silent when words like crazy, nuts, or lunatic are flippantly and ignorantly tossed about. I understand now that enduring and surviving that unfathomable struggle with the mind indicates strength rather than weakness. I still struggle with mental illness and the struggle is real. But I don’t allow the stain of prejudice to touch me, and I’ve gained the courage to speak out when I see its contagion insidiously inching towards others.
Just as labeling someone retarded, fat, or the n-word is not acceptable, labeling someone crazy, cowardly, or weak because they struggle with mental illness is more than politically incorrect. It’s just wrong.