Mental Health Awareness Month

I’m talking to Travis a lot on the phone. We had a good talk yesterday, and one of the things he told me was that May is Mental Health Awareness Month. They’re apparently making a big thing out of it in the place he’s at. Travis says it’s mostly ok there, his roommate’s ok, the food’s ok…and he’s doing ok. He doesn’t sound super enthusiastic, but who sounds super enthusiastic about anything these days?

He tells me that a lot of things that should be happening at the place he’s at aren’t happening due to the virus and the quarantine and social distancing. It’s hard to have a big group therapy session when everyone has to be 6’ from everybody else. So they have small groups, usually just 3 people, which he says is both good and bad. It’s good because it gives each person more time to talk, but it’s real bad if nobody has anything to say and they have to sit there waiting for someone to say something. The thing Travis says he likes about the groups is that he gets to feel he’s with other people who are going through what he’s going through. He says he’s never had a friend with bipolar disorder and always felt real alone, being the only person with it in a world of ‘sane’ people. He says that you really need to have bipolar disorder to understand it. He knows me and Keaton are doing our best to get a handle on it, but I see what he means. It must be real lonely and generally suck to be the only person around with something other people don’t understand.

Travis does make it clear that the people at the facility he’s at now are a lot better off than the people he was in the hospital with. The way he explains it, the hospital is where they basically lock up people who are a danger to themselves or people who are seriously psychotic…like the dude who told me and Keaton that he was a prophet the last time we visited Travis at Huntington. The hospital – or the loony bin, as Travis keeps calling it – isn’t really a place to get better. They can stabilize you, Travis explained, or at least try to stabilize you, but there’s no one on staff to work on therapy with you. For that you need your own therapist outside…or a place like the one Travis is at for the time being. (And, even though he’s in a residential facility, he’s still talking to his regular therapist. He says talking to her on the phone is bullshit, but it’s the best anyone can do these days.)

One thing they can do for him where he’s staying now is work on getting his medication right. He says he’s in a ‘controlled environment’ and he really likes the psychiatrist they have on staff. Travis thinks he might be able to get him back on a combination of ‘meds’ (that’s the word he always uses for ‘medications’) that will work for him. Travis told me that he thinks they might be getting close: he’s not feeling as desperately depressed as he was feeling last year (although he does admit that this virus business is getting him down…but I told him that it’s getting all of us down, so maybe he’s not just depressed because of his disorder), and he hasn’t had a manic episode in a while. That’s good. From what Travis has told me about his illness, the mania sounds scarier than the depression.

I’ve learned a lot since that first visit to Travis in the hospital back in September. I really didn’t know anything about bipolar disorder, except when people used the word ‘bipolar’ to mean someone who did something kinda crazy. It kinda meant the same thing as ‘cray-cray’. I never used the expression (Travis jokes that I’d have invented ‘bipolarass’ as a word lol), and now I realize just how offensive it is to use. Bipolar disorder is a real illness, one nobody would want to have…and you can’t make fun of people for having it, or encourage people to make fun of it by using the word to talk shit.

Knowing Travis and being there for some of his lowest points has made me understand that mental illness really is an illness, just like a physical one. If you hear someone has cancer, you’re sympathetic to their problem…if you hear someone has bipolar disorder, a lot of people think that means that there’s something that ‘ain’t right’ about the bipolar person, that they’re somehow not normal…when they’re really just normal people who have a sickness. People just don’t offer the mentally ill the same kind of sympathy that they offer people who are physically ill. It sucks, but it’s true.

Looking back, I think I knew someone in college who must have had bipolar disorder. We weren’t super friendly or anything like that, but he was in both Shakespeare classes with me and lived down the hall from us sophomore year. He was a nice enough guy most of the time…but sometimes he’d start acting…well…crazy. A couple times in one of the Shakespeare classes he’d get up and start talking a mile a minute; even the professor couldn’t stop him. We were all rolling our eyes and shit and figuring the dude was fucked in the head…but the reality was probably that he had a real mental health problem and we should have been more sympathetic to him.

But I only figured out that he probably had bipolar disorder after talking about it so much with Travis. Maybe you need a friend who’s got mental health issues to begin to understand the problem. Travis was in the hospital just like someone with cancer or someone getting Tommy John surgery would be in the hospital. Y’all know from what I’ve written about me and Keaton’s visits to Travis at Huntington Hospital that you can’t visit someone in the psych ward like you can visit someone in a medical ward and bring them flowers and stuffed animals and shit…but even that’s a problem. I mean…why not? Visitors in the hospital do patients a lot of good, and maybe it would have helped Travis if more of the Parrots had been able to visit him besides just me and Keaton. I don’t know…maybe Travis didn’t want anyone else to see him in that place…but that place might not have been so bad if he didn’t have to be alone all day long. And maybe if he had some flowers or shit to cheer up his room. (I never got to see his room, but, judging from how the rest of the psych ward looked, it must have been pretty bleak.)

Travis uses the word ‘stigma’ to describe how mental health patients are treated in our country; I can totally see what he means. And we need to get away from that stigma.

I’ve got a friend struggling with bipolar disorder. Y’all may have friends like that. You may even have people with mental health issues in your life who haven’t shared their problems with you because of that stigma Travis mentioned. Nobody wants anyone to think that they’re fucked in the head…so a lot of people try and cover it up. I’m not saying that you have to tell everyone you meet ‘hello, my name is Travis and I have bipolar disorder’…or spread it all over Facebook and shit like that. But you shouldn’t feel that you have to hide your mental illness from people because you feel there’s something bad or that they’re gonna think you’re hopelessly fucked in the head.

You shouldn’t have to feel that way, but I reckon a lot of people still do. There are even people who don’t even believe that people with things like bipolar disorder have a real problem. Travis says that when he was a teenager and having trouble in school his grandmother told him to pull himself together. His mamaw actually said that. Like he didn’t have a real problem and was faking or something. But mental illness is a real thing, just as real as physical illness…and we should treat people the same, whatever the nature of their health problems may be.

Travis even made a really good point. Mental illnesses take place in the brain. But the brain’s an organ as much as the heart or the lungs or even your elbow ligament. That means that mental health issues are a factor of a body that’s not functioning properly as much as is cancer or heart disease…or even blowing out your elbow playing ball. So, Travis wants to know, where’s the difference?

This is how I try to look at it now: I have a buddy with an illness. And I do my best to be sympathetic and support him as he tries to live with something that can be managed if you get the right combination of meds and therapy together…but for which they haven’t found a cure yet. I probably wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t have a friend with bipolar disorder playing in leftfield behind me, but you can learn a lot from your friends.

So, if you get the chance, be supportive of anyone you know who might have mental health issues…and don’t treat them like there’s a stigma attached to their illness. Or that they’re crazy or bad or totally fucked in the head. And, maybe more important, if you hear people talking about people with mental health issues like that…try to explain to them that mentally ill people deserve our sympathy and respect.

And, if that doesn’t work, kick their asses on behalf of the mentally ill lol.

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