What Going Mad Feels Like

TW: Mental illness and emotional abuse.
Okay, so before you go any farther I’m going dark and personal on the blog today. If that’s not your scene, no harm, no foul. I don’t mind. Not everyone needs to know about my issues. But, if you want to, if it might help. Do come in as I’m going to talk about a thing. A deeply personal thing. A thing that, even as a chronic oversharer, feels too personal to talk about. But here’s the thing, there’s this really dangerous stereotype. Okay, maybe not a stereotype. But call it what you will: myth, fiction trope, urban legend, cultural delusion, the impact ripples through the two intersecting worlds I know quite well. Those being the greater creative person community and the hazy and often difficult spaces inhabited by the chronically mentally ill.

To be truly creative you must be at least a tiny bit mad.
I suspect those that say this know very little of madness.

Part of me wants to use humor here. It’s what I do, honestly. To hide my pain. To show, at least my friends from the internet, that I am whole and functional and well even if I pay lip service to the fact that I have a whole array of disorders. Disorders, on days when I am feeling my best, seem like surreal dreams that couldn’t possibly be my real life.

Part of me wants to drop a pithy pop culture GIF on you and then scamper away like the clown I make myself out to be. The clown I want you all to see. But, Simon Tam aside, because you just can’t pass up making a Firefly reference, I’m going to be serious here because this is serious business. 


Diagnosed or undiagnosed I have been mentally ill since early to mid childhood. Of course they don’t do diagnoses on little kids. They’re still growing. It’s just a stage they’ll grow out of. Nothing’s wrong with her. Didn’t I read somewhere that all children are basically sociopaths before the age of 5,10, 15? Wherever they place the benchmark for enough emotional maturity that they can look at your behavior through a lens that shows them what’s been there all along. That you are deeply damaged. That you are barely coping. That you are terribly afraid all the time but it’s so normal you don’t mention it and when anyone suggests that some people aren’t always scared you look at them sideways and then go back to reading your book dismissing them as wrong and possibly not real anyway.

When I was six or seven I went through a phase when half the time I was pretty sure that my existence was some fantasy concocted in my mother’s head or a dream. That at any moment the story would end or she would wake up and I wouldn’t exist anymore. My first memory of intrusive thoughts was thinking about how easy it would be to stab my mom. I never told anyone. That’s what crazy people did and besides I loved my mom and would never hurt her.
And then I didn’t think:
What’s wrong with me?
How can I make this stop?

I thought, tell no one. Tell no one and they’ll never know what a bad girl you are to think these kind of thoughts. I kept my mouth shut. It was easier that way. And for a while I didn’t have another one. That is until the time my mother and stepfather left me to sit my newborn baby brother while they went on a date. I was eleven. That this was neglect isn’t a new thought for me. I figured that one out when I was in my twenties and quietly shelved it with the rest of my disquieting thoughts about how my very mentally ill single mom had maybe not been tops when it came to the responsible parenting game. What I am realizing now is that in those hours, I can’t remember how long it was but it felt like all night, I sat on our couch, alternating between desperately trying to get my brother to stop crying and shaking because the thought that if I just held my hand over his mouth long enough. . .

Nothing happened. Nothing ever happened besides a silent war of passive aggressive manipulation against my mother and stepfather. Nothing happened besides me withdrawing into my room and reading. I hid to keep away from the snide comments masked as super funny jokes and the suggestion that every question I asked was stupid. That I needed to do something besides watching the tv all day while feeding my face all while I stared at the flickering screen and anesthetized my feelings with Tail Spin, Rescue Rangers and Gummi Bears  while eating bacon flavored melba rounds, Lorna Doones, and maybe, if I was lucky, a handful of carob chips. Never chocolate, no. That was bad for me. Carob was better. It still tastes like chalk.

I look at the school pictures from fourth and fifth grade and I see the look on my face, how there was no joy there. How there was nothing there at all. How each day at school was a battle between how much I hated being there and my mother’s insistence that I go. Go to be verbally and physically abused by my peers and teachers. And then go home, a smile plastered on my face, telling her that my day was fine. That I had no homework. That I was going to my room now. Going to my room to read and intermittently think about how wonderful it would be if she could just wake up already. Didn’t she know she was having a nightmare?

I wrote stories, even then. All dark things about children that were abandoned, kidnapped or murdered. When asked why I wrote such dark things, I told them I liked scary stuff. It was fun. For a while anyway, the bad thoughts went away. I could be someone else. Anyone else that had the power I so desperately lacked. The power to stop the yelling, the quiet manipulations, the withdrawal of emotion when I was bad, the insistence that everyone remembered things differently from me.

In fifth grade I almost killed myself.

In eighth grade I spent weeks in a state of planning that would only be derailed when I thought about how much my mom would miss me. How I wondered who would take care of my brothers. I banished those thoughts for a while. Made a decision that I was weird and liked it that way. Became a clown with a painted-on smile who was impervious to how everyone at school hated me. How my mother didn’t trust me to do the dishes or be honest about my grades and yet insisted that watching the one and three year old was my “job”

I got into my first abusive romantic relationship that year. He hit me. I hit him back. He called me names and I gave back even worse names. Vile things. Things that I would never have thought might come out of my mouth. It was. . . hilarious. It was heady. I was sure in turns that I was in love and that we were using each other to feel powerful to feed some deep need for attention of any kind. I ended it the day he sliced my hand open with a broken piece of quartz I’d given him telling him it was for “healing”

I became obsessed, maybe I always had been, with not being alone. Ever. With the idea that when I was an adult I would find someone to love me. That if someone loved me I might be okay. I might be real. I might be worth something.

My first real boyfriend was an adult. 22 to my 16. I told myself I was using him to get rid of the inconvenience of my virginity.  My second boyfriend was just as damaged as I was. More so. His abuse had been physical *and* emotional. He won. He also loved me. Made me feel special, needed, wanted. I am trying to remember another time I felt that. I can’t.

He broke up with me at the end of that summer. Said, we “needed a break”.  I was lost. Broken again. This was heartbreak. This was worse than heartbreak, this was intolerable. I could NOT go back to being alone and unloved. I could not.

I had my first short term psychosis (a term I know now) soon after that. It was the first time in my life I’d ever consciously manipulated anyone. And it was fun. It was powerful. It made me feel so real even as I hurt that poor broken boy I loved. Even as I scared off all my friends. Even as I, in moments of lucidity, tried to tell my mother that I wasn’t doing well. That I might need to see a mental health professional. That I might want to be on meds like the rest of my friends.

Words like psycho ex girlfriend were used. Also stalker, obsessed, maybe even dangerous. If I could have convinced my mom I needed to maybe take a short trip to the kid psych ward I would have, but when even the mention of going on antidepressants was met with a dismissive flip of her hand that I was “just a teenager” what was I supposed to say? She loved me. And besides, she’d worked in child psych so she knew what sick kids really looked like and I wasn’t, and couldn’t possibly, be that.

What followed was a three month period of truancy, running away, petty vandalism, and a lot of unprotected sex all in the desperate drive to both run from my mother and run to. . . anything and anyone who would tell me they loved me. This ended when she moved us away. Away from the bad influences that were, in fact, the only real friends I’d ever had. Back to business as usual. Watch my brothers, go to the new school where they all thought I was “scary” and make peace with living in the whitest. most conservative little town possible for a bright, Jewish, seriously ill young woman to wither in.

I missed my friends. I missed my life. I was jealous. Jealous of my friends moving on with their lives and forgetting me. Jealous of the string of other girls the broken boy dated while continuing on in secret with me. Jealous of how all the other girls seemed to know how to perform the roles of normal, healthy, going places teens of the mid to late 1990s. My jealousy knew no bounds. My rage at my mom for ripping me from my friends was limitless.

I almost commited suicide again at 17 when the broken boy left me again and his new girlfriend suggested I should do everyone else a favor and just kill myself. I got as far as the medicine cupboard before I stopped myself.

I moved out, ostensibly with mom’s blessing, as soon as I’d graduated. How I graduated with my apathy about school and homework and attendance is still a mystery. I broke up with the broken boy once and for all. Let him go with as much love as I could. I met another boy. Fell in love and moved in at 18. Got married at 20. Had a daughter at 24 and a son at 29. This was after mom had transplanted herself and my brothers to the west coast.

In my twenties I was diagnosed with:
major depression
PPD that might have been psychosis but I was too scared to talk to anyone about it. I mean, who thinks about killing themselves and their baby constantly, right? They’d take her away. They’d lock me up.
I stayed married though the boy I had once loved was now an angry stranger who inexplicably resented me for all the things I’d supposedly done wrong. Things I couldn’t identify. Things that seemed farcical and so untrue I worried for his mental health. I’m sure you all can see the irony in that statement.
Time passed.
And more time.
And more time.
I took my pills and hoped they were enough.

I told myself since it wasn’t nearly as bad as it used to be that the depression was in remission. In all the time my husband and I have been together, yesterday was the first time I told him how I kind of went crazy when my ex broke up with me. Either it hadn’t come up or it was buried so deep I didn’t even remember it. I am a master at selective forgetfulness. Playing the victim. Directing all conversation to me and my problems. All while pulling the selfsame subtle manipulations I learned at my mother’s knee. To get what I want at all costs.

Except at some point I stopped knowing what I wanted and so I pulled inward. I stopped talking to my husband and kids except when forced to. I stared at the wall. I binge watched all the Star Trek on Netflix and cried when it was over because what would I do now to numb the pain? Finally, I found the writing community and realized how easy it would be to reshape myself as this empathetic funny woman. A woman who apparently had a talent with words.

I wrote a book and told myself it was better than tv and food. That it was a productive way to spend my time all while I became a giant sucking black hole of absolute despair and self loathing. For someone terrified of being alone and unloved I sure did everything I could to alienate my loved ones. To turn my back and pretend like my work was enough for me. That it could sustain me when nothing else could.

Something happened last Spring. I’ve talked about it before. My ADHD diagnosis. What felt at the time like the answer to the question I’ve been asking since I was old enough to know that something, not sure what, wasn’t right. That question being, what is wrong with me? Why am I this way?
Something happened in my personal life exactly a month ago. It’s too personal for the public so I won’t go into what, but I can say that it did something kind of magical all while driving me deeper into despair than I’d even been aware of before this. It broke through my shell of withdrawal and all my feelings rushed in to fill the vacuum. And when I say all the feelings, I mean ALL THE FEELINGS. I would be elated one moment, at peace the next, so anxious I needed to medicate, so depressed I couldn’t get out of bed and then BAM back to happy again. I’d think, okay, I’ve turned the corner on this and then wheel would turn again and again and again. And with each turn the bad thoughts got louder. That the good feelings were nice, but the pain was big, too big. The terror of being abandoned and alone was enormous. It blotted out the sky with it’s size. The intrusive thoughts ran from please don’t let me wake up tomorrow to I could just let the knife slip accidentally-on-purpose to no one loves me, no one has ever loved me, no one will ever love me please let this all be over.

It was bad. It lasted almost a month. It was psychosis. Legitimate short term psychosis. A break with reality. I have become what I always swore I wouldn’t be. A mom so mentally ill that she can’t properly parent her children.

I realize this is probably all quite self indulgent. It could be read as a play for sympathy and attention. It could even be seen as one great big fabrication because, if nothing else, I am a great writer. A person who lies professionally. So why am I showing you all my crazy?

Because I’m sick of hiding behind my smiling avatar and being funny while I’m dead inside. Because for the first time in my entire life I know the shape of my damage and I can see, with perfect clarity, what I have to do to fill in my cracks. It’s not even that much. Because, in a small way, I want to explain why it is I somehow lost half of the Pitchwars revision period.

I’d like to say that I wrote this for all the poor little girls in pain that don’t know how to tell anyone they’re dying inside. That it’s not necessary to become a black hole of pain. But that’s not it, either, though I care about that too.

The thing that triggered this response was what I was saying at the beginning of this treatise: that notion that to be creative one must be a little, or a lot, crazy. It’s not that. True insanity is blank and dark and crowded and painful. There is no room to move let alone think or create. I hear people say, usually when I let slip that I am mentally ill, how that’s normal, how all writers are crazy and I want to punch them in their stupid faces and show them just exactly what really being crazy looks like.

If you’ve made it this far, thanks.
If not, that’s cool too. You owe me nothing. Not your time, attention or anything else. I am, remarkably, feeling calmer and more balanced and at peace than I have in probably my entire life. Lets see if it lasts.


5 thoughts on “What Going Mad Feels Like

  1. I agree with you.
    But I also believe that for those with real issues, the damage and the dark, the pain and the fact that we know that most others don’t understand, couldn’t, wouldn’t want to, the chasm between who we are and who we are, I believe it makes us, or gives us a different depth or ability for writing.
    I also sometimes use “crazy” in the way people do when they generically say you must be a little crazy to be a writer. And I think its a different kind of crazy they’re talking about (even if they think they’re talking about actual issues). No one normally points out that there’s a difference between actual issues and jokingly craziness. Its a distinction that needs to be made.
    But I think both kinds of madness do help the writing, in my own opinion. And maybe its just that its different for me than it is for you and I feel it differently or experience it differently or even maybe process it differently. But I believe being damaged makes for a better writer simply because we’ve experienced something so beyond words and out of touch with everything and everyone, including ourselves.
    I don’t even know if this makes any sense. 😉
    But I think its totally brave of you to speak about things like this. I don’t think I’d have the guts to quite yet. And I also use humor. But please tell me that people in your life understand you and love the hell out of you??? Well, I don’t mean lie, but… you get what I mean.
    Did this make any sense?

    1. It does. And I get where you’re coming from totally. I also agree that who I am and my understanding of life, emotions, and nonstandard ways of disordered thinking do help a lot. So from that perspective, yes, it does help to have that perspective esp. if you’re going to write mentally ill characters. Just when I am at my very worst I am not a functional writer or person in general cause I’m too busy crying and trying talk myself out of having self harm thoughts.

  2. Thank you for sharing, Jessica. I hope you do find a place where you can be at peace with yourself. Your past experiences have shaped you into the person you are today, never doubt your worth as a human being. You are a good writer and I wish you all the best.

  3. Thanks for being so courageous in sharing this very personal and painful story, Jessica. I haven’t dealt with the deep degree of mental illness that you have, but I have some experience. I had PPD, too, with my last child. My mother suffered depression and anxiety disorder for twelve years, with a slow build-up that constituted most of my childhood. A good friend of my daughters who lived with us for a while is currently in a facility learning how to live with bi-polar disorder. And we’ve been dealing for two years now with a son who has substance abuse issues and has almost died twice. As for ADD, everyone in our family of six but me has ADD! So, while I can’t fathom the depth of your pain, I can relate on some levels.

    Writing is a great outlet and your life experiences are a great tool. I’m glad you have that outlet. My heart is with you and I’m hoping you are able to get help (in all the ways that help comes) and eventually find a happier place and a better one for you and your family. We all just do the best that we can with what we are given, and nobody can ask for more than that.

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