I don’t know what to write. And not just for this post — anymore.
It’s one of the most terrifying things I’ve had to admit in years, and it comes on the heels of a worse confession: I am unhappy. Not dissatisfied for an afternoon. Not vacationing in a grump, soon to return to an optimistic home mood. Not bummed for tidy reasons a, b, and (you guessed it) c.
This is the unhappiness that taps your shoulder like a bratty cousin who won’t stop until you explode, WHAT IS IT. WHAT DO YOU WANT. This unhappiness worms its way into your bones until, appropriately, you feel a crawling, grimy sensation from the inside out. But actually, more accurately, this unhappiness is no metaphor; poetics and comparisons offend it. Try to drown it out by blaring your creativity, and it reaches over — quietly, authoritatively — to turn down the dial. Feel good about the words you’ve used to describe it, and while it doesn’t exactly call you names, insult your mother, or accuse you of sounding like a soaps-and-candles copywriter suffering Red Bull withdrawal, it does ask questions.
How is it that you know which words to string together to pleasing effect? Who are you to judge quality and relatability? Isn’t writing something of a pipe-dream at this point? Doesn’t it feel roughly as mature as spending insurance money on My Little Ponies? Aren’t your creative reservoirs drained now? Hasn’t there been enough evidence now that writing is a waste of your diminishing energy? Wouldn’t now be a good time to stare into space, hyperaware of the ellipses between your thoughts? Aren’t you ready for a nap by now? Who are you now — now that you’re not a writer anymore?
My unhappiness came about gradually but inexorably as I medicated the symptoms of my schizoaffective disorder. For those who aren’t familiar, schizoaffective is the teaming up of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder; and this team has resided in my head from the time I was a little girl, hearing phantom carnivals and seeing the sky turn into a conveyor belt and often feeling a bone-chill more appropriate to tenants of a haunted house.
The disorder faced an arsenal of medication, each new prescription wounding some gnarly aspect of it until, at long last, every last psychotic manifestation was squashed and the one-time jostling of my mood had settled down. This new space I existed in looked more like a cure than anything I’d experienced since the lithium, neurofeedback, and mountain marijuana of my early twenties.
But either the cure had overreached, wiping out details of my personality that it mistook for symptoms, or so much of what I had considered personality was actually illness. Either way, the disease was gone and so was basically everything I considered germane to my identity. Which is how I word it to force some objectivity, but here is how it felt: the disease was gone, and so was I.
Not that my life apart from mental illness had exactly been a rainbow glitter castle with unicorn-horn spires. Feeling insecure with the lack of stability in my day job of ghostwriting, I had been looking for a 9–to-5 to no avail. I was poor. Whatever money I made was absorbed by pressing debts in the first weeks of the month; by the latter weeks, I was paying for McDonald’s coffee with quarters. I was worried about needing to move for work if/when the right work surfaced. And the ramifications of that. Getting my daughter enrolled in a new school. Being far away from my son, who lives with his father.
And if ever I ran out of these especially pertinent what-ifs to worry about, I could always worry about that bright but short-lived day when the sun would explode. Because there’s one thing medicating away the majority of my symptoms had taught me: some mental obsessions run deeper than disease. Some bad habits of thought — constantly worrying, waiting for the bottom to drop out whenever things feel fine — are tacklable with lots of therapy and grit, perhaps, but not with dopamine blockers.
I had so many poor habits of thought. So many “life things” stacked against me. Such an uphill battle before I would ever get ahead, whatever that meant. And separately, I was watching my personality evaporate within the stern heat generated by risperdal and lithium. But I wasn’t ready to admit it was all catching to with me; I had promised myself years ago I would always be sufficient for whatever came my way, and that equaled a heels-dug-in sort of happiness. At my delusional, homeless craziest, I’d never put my hands up, and it felt like that’s exactly what I’d be doing if I admitted it:
I wasn’t happy.
I was in the library to rent a book on the keto diet. Having read about a handful of cases in which it drastically improved schizophrenia, I thought, What the hell. Actually I’ve never thought what the hell in my life. I thought, Here’s a sparkly fresh cure I gotta try because it might eliminate the no-self lows of medication and the cerebral chaos of life off the meds, which would better position me to find a job, get my daughter successfully transferred to her new school, magic-mend the situation with my son, start putting aside some money in savings for the kids’ college, unexpected expenses, and retirement — and to do it all without landing myself on the receiving end of a sedative drip.
So, this was no casual trip to the library. This was fix-the-broken-world book browsing.
It was while I was in there that it occurred to me to pick up some funny, or at least snarky, book of essays. Catch a little entertainment while caulking my brains’ plethora of cracks. It was then that I thought, I don’t really like reading humor. It achieves nothing. Why should I read it now?
And it was then that the sentence appeared on my thought screen, fully formed and undeniable. Becauuuuzzzah . . . I’m not happy.
Maybe there was something about being in the library, where you’re expected to remain composed and decorous despite your personal epiphanies, but for some reason, in that moment, I was able to accept it. And accordingly, everything attached to it.
I wasn’t happy. Newfangled keto dreams aside, I had no idea how to cure myself. I didn’t know if there was a cure. I didn’t know if I’d be able to muster the energy, stick-to-itiveness, and mental calm it would take to get through the rest of the summer; my reserves of all those things felt depleted. I doubted if the off-brand band-aids in my defense depot were enough to stop existing fissures from getting longer and deeper. I was overwhelmed. Lost. And goddamnit, at the moment, I didn’t have the fortitude to concern myself with big fixes. I just wanted a book of lighthearted humorous essays. C’mon Sloane Crosley. It was time for a little wound licking. It was time to distract myself for the hell of distracting myself.
There may be something in the human repertoire more powerful than honesty, but if so, I’m not familiar with it. It would be an exaggeration to say that all I needed to do was admit the damage I’d suffered, but it did make a difference.
As soon as I confessed to myself that I was hurt — and not on the mend — the constant roaring in my head quieted down a little. And although I had been undergoing some form of treatment for schizoaffective disorder since 2017, and had first dabbled in therapy and medication when I was seventeen years old, it felt as though I had just realized something was wrong.
I think that, up to this point, a large part of me had always regarded mental illness as both a challenge and an interesting-enough facet of my character but not as a PROBLEM. I think if I’d ever stopped to admit it was a problem — the serious sort, without a predestined cure I just had to tap into — I also would’ve had to face the scary possibility that I was outfoxed by my own genes.
For years and years, I had been so focused on overcoming the challenge of the way I was born that I hadn’t been honest about what that “challenge” entailed. I had needed to triumph so hard — for my kids, for the future, for the yoga and yogurt lifestyle of wellness — that I hadn’t let myself feel the fear, hopelessness, and even anger that existed just below the surface.
Admitting I was unhappy — and afraid and overwhelmed and sometimes royally pissed off at my brain’s proclivity to spaz out when bathed in dopamine — gave me a much-needed minute to breathe. The bratty cousin who’d been tapping my shoulder let up. Said, “I just wanted you to quit pretending you didn’t see me.”
I still felt largely uninspired when it came to writing, and more than mildly terrified about that personality sinkhole. I still had to keep Amazon’s stand-up station blaring in my car to stave off the sucking emptiness that seemed to be nourished by vehicular quiet. I still felt roughly as frangible as tissue-paper papier-mâché.
Strangely enough, given all that, it felt as though I’d in some way progressed. I was no closer to answers, and perhaps further from a plan of action than I’d been at the start of the day, but I’d been honest (possibly for the first time) about what I was up against. Did acknowledging how very much was outside of my control allow me to finally see, with some confidence, what I could control? Did loosening up my intense grip on results allow me to focus on, again, what I could control? Did all this focus on my true realm of control effectively shrink the world so that its scope became less intimidating?
Maybe. Probably. I don’t know.
I do know that I’m no longer answering my fears with apothegms borrowed from motivational posters. And even if I can’t trust that my unhappiness is certainly conquerable, I can trust myself to be honest now.
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