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Drifting Away
I’m worried I’m losing myself to mental illness
T. Mahdi

My mental illness is part of me. I look at those seven words and I say, “Oh God, how the hell am I going to accept that?”

I go back to last year when it all began. I was 18 and my sister and I had just moved in with our new foster mom, my love, Yolonda.

I realized that I had a problem when I sat in the dark for hours, talked to myself, dissociated (separated from my body) and cut myself. A therapist told me that I was suffering from depersonalization and depression.

Depersonalization means that you can take yourself out of a situation or reality and put yourself, mentally, in a safe place. It sounded like a long word for crazy, but I was glad to have a name for what had been going on for years.

Tracing It Back

The doctor only knew that I’d been in this state of mind since I was 14, which was when I first told someone that my dad sexually abused me. But I’d had some problems with reality since I was a young kid.

When my mom and dad started using drugs, I was crying on the inside while I was calm on the outside. When my dad started to abuse me, I was about 9 years old. My mind went from just imagining basic kid stuff like flying and ice cream to chronic depersonalization. My doctor told me that I felt separate from myself because the abuse overwhelmed my body and mind.

As the years went on, my secret about my dad and about my parents’ drug use stayed inside and it caused a deep separation between the world and my mind. So, to this day, when I sit in school or alone at home, I will drift.

The problem with what I like to call “drift” is that, for a while, I couldn’t seem to stop separating myself. I’d sit in class and all of a sudden I was outside walking with my dad. Meanwhile my other half was saying, “What are you doing?”

Getting Diagnosed

Eventually I went into the hospital. I was depressed, hearing voices and cutting myself. I thought that I would be able to work on my problems for two months and get back to high school and graduate. It was my last year.

But I ended up staying in the hospital for about eight months in all, maybe because I cut myself while I was there and acted out. When I got out I was on medication, but I messed with the dose because it made me feel so sleepy. Also, I wanted to believe that I didn’t need it anymore.

I ended up back in the hospital. I felt that I needed to go back but I also felt that they were patching up a wound that would never heal.

I was diagnosed with schizophrenia and then bipolar disorder. I was upset. I thought, “Why is this happening to me? Was it something I did? Or was my mother just passing on a family trait that had my name on it?” My mother has bipolar. I believe that she breathed her illness into my lungs when I was a baby and I became an angel held down by its wings.

There were some good parts to being in the hospital. For the first time, I felt like I was part of a family that wouldn’t give up on me. The staff helped me realize that I can have an illness or I can be an illness, meaning that I can accept it or it can hold me hostage, taking over my body and mind.

Losing Myself in the Hospital

The groups were really hard. I hated when they told me to be assertive. That made me feel like my way of acting wasn’t good enough for them and that I had no privacy and had to tell them everything.

During those months in the hospital I missed my prom, my graduation and lost all of my friends. It was like I just watched them move on while I sat in the dark with a cloud over my head.

I wanted to apologize to my friends for not saying goodbye. I blamed myself and felt ashamed. I felt I was a failure, a freak! When I saw my old friends, they talked to me like this: “Are…you…OK? Did…you…take …your medication?”

Everything about this illness makes me angry. How can I have something inside of me that I don’t even want to be part of me? How can I accept being treated like a lab rat trying medication after medication? How can I look in the mirror and see how the meds have changed my face and body and accept that these changes will never go away? Why should I even try?

When I remember my old ways, I think, “That person died.” I feel like a person who is broken, lost and incomplete.

Out of Control

Once I got out of the hospital, I started a new day treatment program in the Bronx. It’s not bad. But at first I was hearing voices and having hallucinations a lot of the time. I thought that I was out of the woods, but it was like I took one step forward and my illness took me one step back. My everyday life often felt unbearable and out of control.

“I’m going to the agency for a meeting,” Yolanda told me one afternoon.

I got up off the floor. “When will you be back?”

image by Asaiah Ajibabi

“In an hour or so.”

I didn’t want to be alone but before I could say so Yolonda said, “I’ll be back” and closed the door. Silence. It was peaceful. I was drawing, writing a poem and thinking of my favorite songs. But it was exactly three minutes before something came over me. A voice said, “Do it, why don’t you, but don’t tell.”

I knew what the voice was telling me: it wanted me to cut myself.

I went to my room and picked up the razor. How good it would feel to put it against my skin and cut it. “Do it …you’ll feel better,” the voice said. I broke the blade into little pieces. They were shiny and pointy. I’ll do it just this once. I picked up a piece, closed my eyes and pulled it across my wrist. I was listening to the voice. I was feeling scared, frightened and confused.

The blade wasn’t sharp. I scraped it along my arm again. Still nothing. Maybe God was sending me a message. I stopped myself, said “No!” and threw it in the trash.

The Voices Went Away

I got up to look in Yolanda’s room hoping that she would magically appear, but she was gone. I was alone.

I lay on the floor and cried. I told myself, “You were about to do a stupid thing and you can’t blame the voices. You were the one who was crazy enough to listen to them.”

I stood at the living room window and waited. Just before 4 p.m. a black cab pulled up. Yolonda stepped out floating like an angel. The voices went away.

I wanted to hug her and tell her to never leave me alone again. But I decided not to tell her anything about what happened. What if she put me in the hospital? I fear that everything I do or feel will lead me to the hospital.

One of the worst parts of this illness, or the medications that treat it, is that not only have new bad things become part of me, but some of my good parts seem to have left. Yes, it feels good to let go of some of the pain and self-blame from my abusive past. My sad and upsetting parts seem to be inside of me less. But my funny side, the playful way I interacted with my sister, seems to have disappeared, too.

I get so angry sometimes, thinking, “Just a year ago I was a happy young woman with no marks on her face or arms, who felt she could reach for the stars and bring light to the moon, smile just for the hell of it. She didn’t have to be ashamed of what she was and what she might become. She was pretty and thin, with nice hair. She cried at sad movies and loved her relationship with her sister.”

I know that’s not the whole picture. I was drinking, I was afraid at night, I was cutting myself, I was “drifting,” I was in pain. But at least I could cry at sad movies and laugh! Now I look in the mirror and see my heavy face, my heavy insides, the scars on my arms. It’s too much. Even my thinking is not the same, because of my illness or my meds, I’m not sure which. I feel I’m losing myself.

Often I fear that, because of this illness, I can never dream of finding love. Who’s going to want me now? Who wants a woman who has to take medication just so she doesn’t freak out?

Sometimes I hate this woman I’ve become. I don’t feel I know her. She takes people’s comments without raising her voice when they are hurtful, she cries in the shower, she’s fat, she doesn’t know what’s good for her, and maybe she won’t get to be that artist and writer she wants to be. “You stupid piece of sh-t,” I say when I see her in the mirror. I would pay a million dollars so I wouldn’t have to see her every day.

I am trying to accept the fact that I have a mental illness, but it doesn’t seem fair. When I fell apart I thought it was a normal response to my painful past, but then the doctors said that it was also a problem within me, caused by my own brain. I lost my hope of a normal future.

I had already lost my childhood, my innocence, my control over my sexuality and my body, and my family, especially my mother. I felt inadequate, confused, lonely, anxious, uncertain, angry and burdened.

Right now, I’m doing a little better. I haven’t heard voices or seen things in a good two months. That makes me feel I can triumph over this illness. I still can’t accept that it might not go away.

A Little Hope

Recently I took a trip to Atlantic City with Yolonda, my sister and my foster family. I did things on that trip that I shouldn’t have. I isolated myself and wouldn’t leave the hotel room.

But this time, I was also more collected. When everyone was arguing, I didn’t jump in, just sat and watched. I felt like I didn’t have to be part of something I didn’t want to be a part of. I felt proud of myself for that.

I even had fun. I went to the boardwalk, went swimming , took pictures, had a cheese omelet with bacon and slept in a nice warm bed.

I’m trying to keep up some of the techniques I’ve learned. I don’t yell at my foster sister because she’s not my responsibility. I try not to let people or things get me upset, because my reaction is under my power. I separate myself from negative attention. I try to spend time with myself and clear my mind.

In the shower, where others can’t hear me, I talk to myself because it makes me feel good. It makes me realize that I have a lot to say. For so long I didn’t let myself say things I needed to get out.

Of course, I’m not saying that I’m cured. I’m still on medication. I’m still in treatment. I’m still struggling with wanting to hurt myself. I still find myself lying on the floor, crying. I think the voices and visions will probably come back. My hopelessness is still there, but a little bit of me—the real me—is still there, too. I have the tiniest bit of hope right now that I’m not entirely lost.

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