The Silent War Of Mental Health

By Alan Jude Ryland


When Miss Portee asks us to share what scares us the most, it seems like an innocent enough exercise for thirteen-year-olds who are feeling the Halloween holiday spirit. She fixes her eyes on each of us individually, points an almost accusing finger, and prompts us to speak. Crystal says she’s afraid spiders. Joe says he still hasn’t gotten over the sight of the old woman in the bath during one of the moodiest sequences from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The other students begin to sound off: Snakes, car accidents, heights… all of these (and more) sound like utterly rational fears. When she points to me, my mind blanks for a moment. Do I share? I do, knowing the silence that will follow. I tell her I’m afraid of going insane.

The fear is not so easily defined––because depression is insidious, bending reality, courting anxiety and feelings of worthlessness to superb effect. I recall sitting in my chair after I shared my fear with the room, felt the gazes of my classmates boring into the back of my skull.  I could sense their judgment. They did not know, they could not possibly know, how it felt to give voice to that sense of powerlessness. Speaking of it had birthed it into the space. For a moment, even among peers who bullied me regularly, I didn’t feel so at a loss, so alone. My peace of mind was worth far more than their stares.

Am I being melodramatic? I did wonder that, ask myself that, sometimes several times a day. I scarcely had the language to articulate my struggle, the feeling that I was drowning on dry land. What I did lack––and I always knew this––was anyone to talk to. 

My requests to see a therapist were widely considered an imposition. School guidance counselors regarded me with suspicion; my meetings with them were guarded, even adversarial. I did begin seeing my first therapist not long afterward, but I learned rather quickly that there would be no secrets between us. It wasn’t that he didn’t respect doctor-patient confidentiality: It was that my mother didn’t. I’d prepare myself mentally for the confessional on the walks back home from the bus stop after my sessions.

Some days, I wake up and barter with my subconscious: If you don’t want to kill yourself, you’ll need to sacrifice today’s peace of mind. So I would. But there would be days when the urge to kill myself was delicious, even intoxicating, and I’d settle for hurting myself, banging my head against walls, cutting myself, anything, really, to quell that voice which so often whispers its dreadful nothings in my ear.

I once described it the following way during visiting hours at the psychiatric ward. I was, as you can imagine, the patient:

“Do you feel fine?” my friend asks. She’s been great, has seen me just about everyday, and I couldn’t have asked for better comfort or support.

“Yes,” I reply. “I do. Except for… the usual, but I deal with it.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don't want to kill myself,” I tell her. “ I don't want to die. I feel safe in here. And even when I leave... I don't want to die. But there's that... it's sort of a broken record in my brain. I hear it all the time, sometimes I go weeks without it.”

She pauses, as if searching for the proper words. It’s only when she responds with “I don’t hear it” and I answer her with an almost incredulous “You don’t?” that I realize that I must have said what I said with more conviction than she expected. I have, much like that day in Miss Portee’s class before the Halloween weekend, spoken my truth. She seems gobsmacked.

“I don’t, she says again. Then, with a certain measured cadence: “It’s not normal.”

“It’s not?”

It’s not.

It’s not.

I fit the profile, some doctors have mentioned over the years, for drug and alcohol abuse. It’s true: Depression and substance abuse feed each other. I have my fair share of stories, but I find myself fixated on one specific period rather than all the painful, often embarrassing details. I find myself recalling the enablers I used to hang out with, including one friend who would regularly secure me every nature of substance which came her way. I never paid a dime for anything she provided––she was good that way. For a time, it seemed my vices indeed lacked limits. When we parted ways, she and I, it was under the shadow of heavy recriminations. Our time together was not worthless, but it taught me that I did not like myself when I was in her company, and that was a good start.

Do I like myself? That’s a question at once startling and complex. Do not ask me that. Or dare. I might have a different answer for you depending on the day. I’ll mull it over, have a serious, consequential sit-down with myself before I answer you. The process should only take a couple of seconds, but I’ve mastered the rather macabre art of fooling other people into thinking I am fine, when I am anything but. I am not well. I have an illness. I am also learning the art of transparency––it suits me, though maintaining it, committing to it, is an effort. There’s no point in lying.

At my best, I am highly functional. I have a great job and I work for people who respect me and value my mental health. Still, I struggle to get out of bed in the mornings and yes, I’ve had several unfortunate days when it was easier to work from the relative safety of my own bed than to face the noise of the city and the people outside. On these days, I try to work diligently, at my own pace, and repeatedly remind myself that there are people who care, people who would feel a terrible agony if I threw myself out of the world successfully.

I’ve learned that being around other people is often the best remedy, because isolation can kill. It is during periods of extended isolation that I battle to keep my feet firmly rooted in the concrete of a subway platform. It is only when I have survived these episodes that I try to count all the times I’ve successfully beaten this sickeningly insidious beast and reclaimed my life. That’s taken much of my time, much of my patience, and plenty of practice. I speak of these moments openly, because there is profundity in vulnerability and freedom in advocacy. In waging the silent war, I’ve learned not to abdicate the thunder of my own voice.