“I guess there has to be a moment when you get out of bed and look in the mirror, stare into that mirror, and say, ‘Jesus Christ. When was the last time you ate? When was the last time you showered? Run your fingers through your hair. Oh, you can’t. It’s too greasy. And your fingers smell like cigarettes. Get your shit together.’” – December 19, 2017, 8:18 p.m.
I wanted to write something a bit…happier, yet that’s what I kept coming back to as I scanned the document on my computer saved as “notes from my journals.” And I couldn’t figure out why until I curled up on the couch with one of my favorite writers, Joan Didion.
Even though I was reading an essay from The While Album entitled “Holy Water,” it was a line from Slouching Towards Bethlehem that popped into my head.
“It was the first time I had dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization, the proof that things fall apart.”– Joan Didion
Anyone who has ever read Didion knows that she tells it like it is. Sugarcoating is not in her repertoire, and quite frankly, it’s not in mine either. As she wrote, things fall apart. Sometimes it’s a relationship, sometimes it’s your day, and other times it feels like your entire life has fallen to pieces. You’ve fallen and you can’t get up.
But through the raw and gritty details of my own atomization, maybe I’ll be able to remind you that you can. You can always get back up.
In the very least, maybe I’ll remind myself.
I lived on a commune in the outskirts of Yosemite National Park when I wrote those unfortunate truths about my personal hygiene. I’d returned the week before from a trip to my home base of Los Angeles and Joshua Tree National Park. Needless to say, it didn’t leave my life smelling of the roses I’d picked up from Flamingo’s Flower Downtown.
As I had for the previous three and a half years, I allowed myself to be crippled by heartbreak, and depression had swallowed me whole. I couldn’t breathe, let alone care to wash my hair. What was life with a broken heart? What was life without her? It felt meaningless then, but like the holy water of Didion’s essay, hope flows.
By Christmas Eve of 2017, five days after I couldn’t run my fingers through my hair, I had gotten my shit together and felt life inside of me again. But the heartbreak I endured that December was far from the first I’d dealt with atomization in my life, and it wouldn’t be the last.
But where’s the line between what belongs to me and my mine, and what belongs to the mass consciousness? Is that purely my choice? Google oversharing on social media and the results deem it problematic. Google sharing about mental illness and the results are a bit more on the positive side. But in 1968 when Didion published Slouching Towards Bethlehem, not so much. So are we finally ready, as that mass consciousness, to remove the stigma around mental illness?
What is mental illness anyway?
According to the American Psychiatric Association, “Mental illnesses are health conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking or behavior (or a combination of these). Mental illnesses are associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities.” It also says, followed with a lively exclamation point, that “mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of!” deeming it simply another medical condition.
But that, of course, is just words.
Words, words, words; a great love of my life.
I stare into the mirror now, listening to Alice Coltrane, a song without words, and wish they would come to me. But the truth is, there is no one way to describe what it’s like to live with mental illness, because there is no one mental illness. Sure, there are labels; there are disorders and diagnoses, but my depression is different from her depression, my anxiety is different from his, and their PTSD is different from mine.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Didion also wrote. And sometimes we need to tell our own.
At 5:42 p.m. on March 30, 2019 I tweeted, “Holding things in has always felt like an anvil on my chest and I’d like to breathe a little easier. It’s why I write. And also, if somebody out there relates to what I say, is reminded that they’re not alone, then maybe I’m still here for something.”
You are not alone.