Will Thompson: “I am mentally ill, and that is O.K.”
Content Warning: Reference to Suicide
I’ll never forget a novel my English teacher, Ms. Seelig, had us read my sophomore year of high school. “Tears of a Tiger” is a young adult novel about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The main character ultimately takes his own life over the survivor’s guilt of a drunk driving car crash that killed his best friend. The final pages show the aftermath, the main character’s mother and sister discovering his body, the blood dripping from the ceiling. These powerfully haunting images, that have me tearing up as I write this, are the only reason I am still alive today.
It was over seven years ago that those images – and the thought that I couldn’t do that to my mother, my sister – gave me the strength to remove my loaded rifle from a fatal position and ask to go get help.
The therapist I saw that day, one of many I’d have over the better part of the next decade, diagnosed me with Chronic Major Depression, a label that’s fallen out of favor with the current DSM-5*. I think it was an apt description at the time, and let’s be clear: a diagnosis is just a best guess with the given knowledge at describing or explaining a cluster of symptoms.
I was feeling very burned out at that time. I had grown utterly disaffected with my education, but earlier in my life I had committed to being present and active at all times in school. This commitment came after a moment in my 1st grade days when my school held a grand end-of-the-year ceremony and presented awards to students with perfect attendance. I was not one of those students. That day I committed to being one all the way through graduation. Starting the next day, though, because of the thought of what that would entail, I was physically ill to the point of vomiting.
Burnout Disorder (BOS) is not a recognized disease in the DSM-5, and neither is Complex PTSD, which I believe is a best description of my symptoms. However both are recognized by the ICD-11**. My current psychiatrist thinks I’ve got some form of bipolar disorder (BPD), but didn’t wanna get into a specific type. That’s a fine enough diagnosis. It pairs well with my second therapist’s diagnosis of Mild OCD and “some kind of mood disorder.”
I like it when mental health professionals throw their hands up and say, “It’s something in this general area.” To me it’s a recognition that a diagnosis is just a best guess with the given knowledge at explaining or describing a cluster of symptoms. No one knows your symptoms as well as you do. The best mental health professionals then are those who can prompt everything possible out of you without their own biases coloring your reporting of symptoms.
All of that is super technical, however.
Let’s get back to the basics.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and Mental Health America has designated the theme of 2022 – “Back to the Basics.”
The basics for me are that I am in a constant state of war with my own mind. It’s a war that is as stimulating as it is difficult, for my brain is no slouch. It is constantly coming up with new ways to get me, new strategies to use, and yes, new forms it manifests itself as. My mental health is my own, personal Stalingrad.
Those are the basics. So how do we proceed now that the field is laid bare?
Before we can fix the mental health crisis in this country, or fix any individual’s mental health for that matter, we need to acknowledge there is a crisis, there are people struggling and that is O.K. It’s O.K. to be struggling. It’s O.K. to rest if you’re feeling overwhelmed by your own mind. It’s O.K. to make progress or to regress and get to a different point in your own personal struggle and then struggle there. In short it is O.K. to be. However you must be, it is O.K. to be.
I am planning a concert at Broadway Square in downtown Fargo, N.D. to mark Mental Health Awareness Month and help raise some of that awareness.
Originally I was planning three events, but there were challenges and I grew frustrated because I wasn’t able to get all of them fully, completely planned. I grow frustrated with myself most every day. But I have to take a step back to the basics when I get frustrated. I ask myself, “What have I accomplished today?” Today’s answer is, “I wrote this guest blog post!”
That might seem basic, because it is.
Before we can do some of the cool mental health policy things – universal and equitable access to mental health resources and support staff, early intervention standards and practices, safe injection sites and creation of inclusive and accepting workforce environments – before all that, we must return to the basics.
The pandemic has affected all of us in ways we are only beginning to understand. So we need to go back to the basics. We need to affirm that mental health is important. And the first step is talking about it publicly. We need to “Ice the Stigma,” as one of my best friends named a fundraiser once.
I made a public commitment my senior year of high school to always be open and transparent about my mental health so as to help end the stigmatization. It was during the final event of the Senior Retreat, which was a sharing circle of sorts. No one seemed to be sharing anything deep or real as we got a few people into the exercise. I decided to get up and share something real. I talked about how less than six months before I had tried to kill myself, and how my friends were key in my recovery. That public admission spurred others to talk about their struggles, some of which were eerily similar to mine.
Ever since then I’ve tried my best to be as open as possible about my struggles. Whether it be suffering from addiction issues in college or just how I’m feeling crummy on a particular day, I want to assure people that it’s O.K. to struggle. It’s O.K. to not have the answers, it’s O.K. to rest and recover.
So whatever hat you envision me wearing best, whether it be addiction, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), borderline personality disorder (BPD), behavioral observation scale (BOS) or complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD), the basics are that I am mentally ill, and that is O.K.
Will Thompson is a Fargo, N.D. native, a mental health advocate and a board operator/producer at a local radio station. He also is a candidate in the June 2022 election for the Fargo City Commission.
* DSM-5 is a manual that contains the most up-do-date criteria for diagnosing mental disorders, along with extensive descriptive text, providing a common language for clinicians to communicate about their patients. – Psychiatry.org
** ICD-11 – International Classification of Diseases, 11th Revision, by the World Health Organization
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