Two years ago a group of young changemakers, including myself, came together for a discussion. We decided that we would all come dressed as our worst fears. There was one person dressed as a bat, another as a spider; one came as the idea of losing love. I came dressed as the fear of losing my mind. As someone with chronic mental illness, it’s not a fear that feels far away – it’s not a distant possibility that one day I’ll get dementia. It feels very real, very possible, and very close. And I wanted to talk about that here today, because it’s a part of my mental health experience that I haven’t seen reflected in many places.
I think many people with experience of mental health issues, or big emotions, can relate to the feeling that it’s never going to get better. In times of depression, grief, and heartache our ability to truly envision a future and see the fullness of life becomes warped. It’s a terrible phenomenon that unfortunately has taken many lives. I’ve experienced it myself many times and it is terrifying. But the feeling of going crazy, the fear of it, is something different for me. In intense moments it takes the same inability to see things getting changing and redirects them towards a feeling of a loss of self and loss of reality.
As a mentally ill person, despite owning the idea of being ‘mad’ with great pride, I feel I am constantly running from the idea of being seen as crazy. Which is almost certainly related to the stigma around certain symptoms – namely the less pretty ones, mania, psychosis, irritability, flight of ideas etc; the stigma around the idea of being ‘crazy’. My mental health difficulties are a huge part of my identity – by my own choosing – and yet I still feel a need to mask how they really are lest I lose control over the narrative of my own mental illness. So that’s a part of this fear, it’s not really a fear of losing my mind, but a fear of being seen as crazy and losing autonomy and connection because of it. A deep fear of being misunderstood and unseen.
Yet the real, gnawing fear for me is internal. It is a fear that one day I will become irreversibly changed; I will lose all knowledge of our shared reality and slip entirely into a different one; I will enter an episode and never come out; I will lose myself. It’s ridiculous really, because we are constantly irreversibly changed, and our idea of self is constantly changing. Most likely the fear is rooted in internalised ableism compounded by my experiences of madness.
As Carrie Fisher once said ‘once you’ve lost your mind you don’t know it’s missing’ (that wording may not be right, but that’s the gist). So really the end result that I’m so scared of would actually just be a different way of being. Nothing inherently better or worse about it for me. So what am I really afraid of? Other people’s judgments. A lack of autonomy and care. And perhaps ‘going crazy’ and then reemerging, as would most likely happen in all the scenarios I imagine. Because I have actually lost myself before – when I was drinking I lost sight of who I was. That process of reemerging is deeply, deeply painful so maybe that’s what I’m afraid of. And finally, when I am not in the intense whirlwind of feeling like I’m going crazy, I think what I fear the most is being in that whirlwind again.
Let me attempt to illustrate why the whirlwind is so terrifying. You see, in that place I am two versions of myself at the same time – trapped in a paradox being ripped apart with searing force. One version of myself is the whirlwind. It is the tornado, screaming and tearing through life. The other version of myself stands in the eye of the storm, trying to avoid its path, screaming pointlessly into the spiral to remember who we really are while losing touch with who I am at the same time. Mostly all I can hear is the version that becomes the tornado, but there comes these background thoughts, senses and moments where the version of myself that sees life more clearly breaks through.
And really it is the background knowledge that something is not right, that there will be consequences, that I am hurting – it is that reminder of who I am that makes me so afraid and so hurt. I know somehow that something is wrong, but I can’t stop it. This paradox creates the fear of going crazy, because I’m trying to figure out what’s real, trying to be less angry, trying to do the right thing and still getting it wrong. The moments when the whirlwind drowns out all sense of self are actually more peaceful, in a strange way.
It’s really a pointless fear. I can do all I can to protect myself and those around me and nothing more. The idea of being judged is useless to me; the internal ableism is something for me to face. But still this fear raises its head every now and then. This year at drama school I became convinced I was ‘disappeared’ – not that I had disappeared, that I was disappeared. I was so far away from myself and yet able to drift through my life and I feared that it would be that way forever. It wasn’t. Most things don’t last forever and that is wonderful. Essentially, if you’re a mentally ill person who shares this fear – hi, you’re not alone! And if you’re not and this sounds to you like I’ve already gone crazy, who knows – our realities are only relative anyway. I choose to set free this fear today and face my future with love and action instead. Sending love and support to you all today xxx