🎧What You Wanted to Say in that Five-Minute News Segment
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May 13, 2022: The day I first wanted to announce that I was cured of serious mental illness.
All four windows of the Uber were open. Though it was mid-May and barely 8 a.m., the temperature was already in the nineties. The car’s air conditioning was broken. The Uber driver apologized several times. I kept telling him it didn’t matter. He had no idea how little it mattered.
That I was even sitting in the backseat of an Uber on my way to a TV studio to make an appearance on a morning talk show to discuss my debut memoir was never supposed to happen. I was supposed to continue to live as someone with a serious mental illness should. According to my psychiatrist, I was never supposed to hold a full-time job or have a long-term relationship. I was supposed to battle manic highs and depressive lows and slowly deteriorate and finally die ten years earlier than my life expectancy, likely from suicide.
But there I was. The neighborhood was familiar: the large city high school; the Starbucks on Western Avenue; the modest, two-story houses that lined the side streets. Familiar though I’d only spent time there once when I was in a partial hospitalization program.
Halfway down the block, the Uber slowed. On the left was the TV studio, a modern building with a massive parking lot. Ironically, on the right, directly across the street from the studio, was a nondescript, yellowish brick building, inside which was the partial hospitalization program (PHP) I’d once been in.
If it had been years ago, at about that time of the morning, I’d enter that PHP and sit with the other patients in a frigidly cold room, learning cognitive and dialectical skills to “manage” my mental illness. The air conditioner would jitter and hum, jitter and hum. The word recovery would never be mentioned.
I’d sit outside during our lunch break and eat my tuna sandwich, staring at the TV studio across the street. Cars would enter and exit the gated parking lot. I’d imagine the anchorwoman and man seated at the news desk—hair perfect, their makeup TV-ready under bright lights.
At the gate to the TV studio parking lot, the Uber driver pressed a buzzer and when asked, told them my name. The gate opened. It seemed impossible that the gate should open. I was supposed to continue to cycle in and out of partial hospitalization programs like the one across the street. I was supposed to remain someone for whom reality was detached—something distant and fragile. Someone who swung between moods and self-medicated and didn’t eat or sleep for days at a time. Someone at the mercy of depression, anxiety, confusion, exhaustion, obsessions, hyperactivity, compulsions, insomnia, and panic. Someone isolated from family and friends. Someone chronically suicidal. Someone who believed that this therapist or that psychiatrist or that psychologist would finally save me if only (if only!) we could find the right diagnosis and concoction of medications and I did the right amount of exercise (what number of sun salutations leads to emotional stability?) and eat right (what is the right number of milligrams of omega-3s and vitamin D and whatever else was being touted as the key to mental health?), I’d “manage” my symptoms.
When the Uber reached the building, I thanked the driver and got out. The lobby was cool but not cold. I checked in with security at the front. The producer met me in the lobby and took me to the green room, which was actually brown. She said an intern would be by in a few minutes and left me in the cramped, timeworn room.
The snacks on the side table seemed ostentatious. Were there people who felt zero nervousness about appearing on television and could blithely nibble an oats ‘n honey granola bar before going on TV? Seemed there was.
From my bag, I pulled out my notes, the ones my publicist had coached me through so that I could promote my memoir. It recounted my twenty-five years in the mental health system, including the months spent in the PHP across the street. The New York Times called it a “fiery manifesto of a memoir.” It wasn’t a hopeful memoir because it exposed the flaws behind psychiatric diagnoses, a truth a lot of people didn’t want to admit or simply would rather not know because they thought—much the way I once did—that the diagnoses we receive are scientifically valid and objectively reliable, which they’re not. The book also ended with no mention of my recovery or anyone else’s.
Sitting there in the green-brown room, I thought about going off-script during the interview. What if, instead of talking about the flaws in the mental health system (I’d done a lot of that), I spoke about mental health recovery? What if, in the glare of the white lights, I mentioned how I’ve healed? Not remission. Full recovery. What if I said I’m cured?
Psychiatrists, researchers, and public policy administrators wouldn’t have liked it if I used the word cured. Obviously, there’s no cure for mental illness, no antidote. Cured implies the condition has been eradicated, and many would say that’s impossible; psychiatric conditions are forever. Mental illness can be chronic but not for everyone—though that was something the media didn’t talk about and most people didn’t know.
A young man knocked twice on the open door. The intern. He introduced himself and said it was time.
As I walked beside him, a pressure started to build in my chest. Soon it was accompanied by a harrowing buzzing on my cheeks. He asked me a question. I answered though I barely noticed what I was saying. The pressure was so intense I felt like I couldn’t find my breath. My face went numb. My lips seemed not to exist.
My mind started on repeat: I can’t do this; I have to get out of here.
We entered the studio. On one side was a stage set made to look like a living room. On a video monitor was a man juggling and then a reporter interviewing him. They were broadcasting a segment filmed outside the studio and would soon cut to my interview.
I tried to breathe in and out, mostly out because people having panic attacks are getting too much air and deep breathing makes it worse. My knees felt like they were going to give as we passed another setup with a green screen and a camera.
That’s when it clicked, an understanding I couldn’t have had years earlier when I was sick. Back then I wouldn’t have told myself that I was having a normal response to an abnormal situation. As any evolutionary psychiatrist or psychologist will tell you, our primal brains aren’t prepared for us to sit in front of a camera with lights in our eyes and address tens of thousands of people. From my brain’s perspective, what I was about to do was akin to putting myself in mortal danger. What if I said the wrong thing? What if I made someone angry and was (figuratively) kicked out of the clan and left without resources and food and left to die? That wasn’t what was happening, but my brain was responding the way it’s programmed to in the face of a perceived threat.
My breath seemed to catch and find itself—or me—and even out. My legs steadied.
We reached the center of the studio and the news desk. The anchorwoman and man were lit up by spotlights. The intern showed me to my stool. I hopped on.
The anchorwoman smiled at me. She and the anchorman were as flawless as I’d imagined. They said hello and looked back at their notes.
Maybe cured was the wrong word. I could get sick again, but only if I abandoned all I’d learned and disrupted the life I’d meticulously created. Mental illness occurs when—due to many compounding factors—our emotions, thoughts, and behaviors run amok and become so intense and unwieldy that they create dysfunction. When people don’t receive the right treatment or don’t have a safe place and the support they need to heal, that dysfunction can rage for so long that it creates a cycle of dysfunction and disability so ferocious it could be impossible to escape. It would take a lot for me to end up there again.
To the camera’s left, a man cued us that we were on the air. The anchorwoman and man introduced me.
I wanted to tell them everything about how we heal from mental illness and that the media needs to talk more about it. I wanted to share how difficult it was for me and how many mistakes I made and how incredible it is and how lucky I feel every single day. But I couldn’t—not yet.
Enjoying ‘Cured’? Read the prequel, ‘Pathological’ (HarperCollins):
Continue to Chapter 2.