Note: I'm going to be doing a series of posts about my life and my struggles with mental illness over the next few months. Though the people I talk about are real and everything I recount in these posts actually happened, I have changed the names and identifying characteristics of everyone who I write about out to protect their privacy.
Clara was a fairytale character transposed into real life: blond, sprite-like, with the body of a broken down music box dancer. I met her on an online fetish forum in 2008, and for a few months last year, she lived with me. Clara kept a necklace of several interlocking gears that was made for her by her ex-girlfriend in San Francisco: an affectionate reminder of what she believed she was: a windup toy. Like with many of my friendships and relationships, this one began when she read my fiction, in this case a short story I had posted to the site. She said she'd been a member of the forums since she was thirteen: for five years, then, as she claimed she was eighteen. She was both astonishingly earnest about her troubled past and equally naive. I liked her because we had so many diagnoses in common, and it made me feel like she could relate to me. The time we knew each other consisted of the better part of a quasi-psychotic and emotionally dissociative phase in my life that corresponds to some of the sickest and most disabled I've ever been. It was, actually, Clara herself (among others) who had suggested I apply for Disability in the first place.
I've told this story many times before, but never in writing. Clara was, literally, a delusional drug addict who wound up costing me a lot of money. Money, that universal solvent of human ties, was in fact what ultimately ended our friendship. I have been quite harsh and critical of her behind closed doors in the company of close friends, perhaps unduly so, but that's not what I want to write about here. Rather, I've come to realize, Clara's struggles are a reflection of my own. It's those struggles that I want to talk about tonight, and I can think of no better way to view them.
People with a severe diagnosed mental illness generally fall into one of two categories, but in reality they're one in the same. There are those who are ashamed of it and try to hide it, and those who do the opposite and celebrate it. To the extent that she was aware of her own illness, Clara was the latter, while I was the former. As I've come to learn, both methods are little more than a severe form of denial. We were, at the time we knew each other, both fractured people: openly dissociating, psychotic, at times psychotically babbling incoherently. The popular image of the mentally ill is the lunatic schizophrenic, but the reality is often more subtle. Clara wasn't incoherent. Her system may not have been on the level with everyone else's, but it made sense to her, and to those who were willing to learn it. I too had a system of my own. Like Clara, I had devised an ingenious method of escape: a fully-fledged virtual fantasy world of my own design. I suspect that a lot of people do this, ill or not. It's just that few of us are ever allowed to take it as far as Clara and I did. These places, and the thoughts, feelings, and people that inhabit them can lay undisturbed for years, even decades. It is, in principle, a highly effective substitute for reality. The catch is of course that sooner or later these sanctuaries, however elaborate or simple, do eventually collide with reality. If and when that happens, it can be truly terrifying for everyone involved.
Last summer (the summer of 2010), I was out of my goddamn mind. I'd walk to Prescott Park in downtown Portsmouth having visible animated coversations out loud with my alter egos. Though no one ever seemed to notice, I spent a good many nights after the play let out in the outdoor theater bawling my eyes out as I hung over the railing that sat atop the seawall on the Piscataqua River. Each night my dream world broke a little bit more, and each night I was dragged kicking and screaming one step closer into the real world. I'm quite impressed I was never arrested.
I live about a mile and a half from the park. I'd taken to going on long walks just to try and sort everything out. It was as good a coping strategy as any. From April to December of 2010 I spent literally half my waking hours either in the park, on the attached recreation areas of Peirce or Four Tree Island, or in transit to any of those places. My fiancée hardly saw me, and she lived with me the whole time, too. In contrast, Clara's strategy of choice seemed to be prescription painkillers and benzodiazepines. As a result, she spent a lot of time sleeping. Both our efforts were equally time-consuming. But, in our own way, in the waking moments we had together, Clara and I were supportive of one another in a way that few others could be. I trusted her to understand what I was going through in a way that I didn't really trust anyone else. Most people have no idea what to do when someone else disagrees with their reality on such a profound level. In the case of politics and religion, they become obsessed with correcting the other person, and with everything else the stimulus simply never makes it much past the input channel. Which is why I can't truly fault Clara for her flaws -- they were my flaws too. My only advantage over her was that I was aware my delusions weren't real.
Slowly, things seemed piece themselves back together over the summer, and this brings me to the lesson Clara taught me. The truth of the matter is, which I learned over the course of that summer, is that there is no escape from reality, not even through death. We exist or we don't. I pick up a magazine or see a self-help book, and I see this all around me. My life is equally painful and scary now as it was last year. The only difference is that I've slowly come to accept it.
At the time, I called my massive walking/running/meditating/generally-acting-like-a-crazy-person routine self-improvement. And maybe I learned some skills. But the pursuit of self-improvement is ultimately no different than Clara's and my delusions, or her drug use. I never started to get better until I accepted my weaknesses. It's a life-long struggle that never ends.
But the reward for all the effort is a chance at real peace, something I really don't think Clara ever knew. what else are muscle cars, gym memberships, and expensive jewelry? Clara would make me drive her to the drug store on a nearly daily basis so she could buy new brands of blond hair dye. Hers is only an extreme case. Our desire for escape is only the reflection of our deep dissatisfaction with the way things are.
I try very hard day by day to accept this. It's neither easy nor glamorous. But, it ended my dissociations and
ended my dependence on fantasy, and let me focus on what was in front of me: a woman who deeply loves me and for whom I feel an equally deep love, the thrill of watching the sun set over Portsmouth and the Piscataqua, and even just the freedom that comes with being unburdened with keeping track of it all in my head. In the end I discovered that that's all I need. We have the world, and each other, as fucked up as it is. Why would we want anything else?