Writing Away the Stigma: ‘Do you have a plan to kill yourself?’
Nine people shared stories of their mental illness in Pittsburgh in May as part of a Creative Nonfiction Magazine project to fight the shame and embarrassment that often accompany the illness, which is estimated to affect one in five Americans each year. The Tribune-Review printed excerpts from some of the essays May 31 and has published full versions of six of them online.
The psychiatrist started, “Your mom has told me you’ve been crying a lot,” and continued to relay what my mother had reported to him.
“Yeah…” I trailed off into the corners of the room, while trying not to make eye contact. I felt as though I might start crying and then break down, and then they would know how sad I was. I felt guilty for not being able to tell him what was wrong, ashamed because something was wrong with me that I couldn’t fix, and now I was at fault for upsetting the people around me by being abnormally sad.
At this point in my life, I had only heard about the world’s crazies, lunatics, and psychos from the adults on basic cable. My books didn’t really talk about insanity too much, unless the story was describing a “mad” character whose personality was more rebellious than a product of illness. Plus, any writers worth their salt shared one thing in each of their biographies: a baptism by fire in the same font of madness. Like they say, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.
When I was younger, the morning TV news said that last night, an escaped mental patient hid behind one of the trees near the road at the edge of the state hospital grounds, a mile and a half from our house. The escapee waited out of view until a single car came barreling down Hillside Drive. Then, he leapt out into the oncoming high-beams. On other occasions, when a mentally-ill patient escaped from the state hospital, the emergency notifications from the local news would interrupt our regularly scheduled program to inform us of the ongoing search. We children were taught to treat this information in the same fashion as if we had heard that an armed and homicidal serial killer was on the lam. We were taught to incite the same panic within ourselves if we were left in the car.
Lay on the horn if anyone comes up to the car. Keep the doors locked. Don’t talk to anyone. And, never let anybody in.
The strangers, the psychiatric staff—the ones in the white coats and ID badges clipped to their front pockets: I knew they could lock me up and never let me out and no one would come to get me. I knew enough to keep my mouth shut. I saw leathery and chalky straight-jackets with the sleeves crisscrossed in front and buckled-down in the back. I saw padded cells and isolation rooms from TV shows and movies: powerless, screaming faces being treated like criminals for being unable to control their emotions.
That was mental health care.
The psychobabble man shifted, with his choreographed cock-of-the-head listening gesture, and then he started asking the questions you can readily find on any mood chart.
Finally he asked me, “And do you think about hurting yourself? Do you have a plan to kill yourself?”
I panicked. I lied.
How could he know? No one was home when I tried. I mean, how could he possibly know how bad it had gotten? When he was satisfied with my answers, he called my mother into the office with us; he explained that I had reported that: she’s not suicidal, just depressed, keep an eye on her.
When I was home alone one night in the late winter, shortly after I had turned 13, my depression started talking back to me. I found myself crying and having an anxiety attack, crumpled on the cloudy blue shag rug in my bedroom. The next thing I knew was that I was sitting on the floor of my closet, clutching the glass rosary from the top of my dresser. I had started hearing voices. Now, mind you, they weren’t distinct voices telling me to do anything—it was more like a muted din of several whispery, gossipy voices talking about me and it didn’t sound good. It was my first auditory hallucination.
When the voices finally evaporated, I pulled myself up from the small planks of cedar, put down the rosary, took a seat at my desk, and then started writing a suicide note in blue gel pen on a lined, loose-leaf page of notebook paper. In the letter I apologized to the people that I loved: mostly friends and their siblings. I didn’t know how to get rid of the pain. And I was sorry. I loved them. I couldn’t stop crying and I was sorry. I continued the letter and apologized to them each by name.
And then, I just stopped.
I actually said, “Screw it,” and stomped over to the bathroom directly across from my bedroom, tore up the note, and flushed it down the toilet. I watched each shred of a robin’s egg blue inked, college-ruled paper swirl down the bowl. I waited until the toilet re-siphoned the tank and was quiet again. I gave it a second flush to be sure the letter was gone for good.
The water turned up clear.
Heather Kresge, 27, lives on the North Side. She has been diagnosed with recurrent major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder and ADHD.