“Well look who it is, Nutso’s back.”
The unusually scruffy voice of seven-year-old Leon* croaked out as I re-entered the group therapy room. I was truly embarrassed by the sudden panic attack that had earned me a trip to the nurse, but Leon’s little remark reminded me that we had all come to the hospital because of our unpredictable, uncontrollable, and unavoidable behaviors. I stuck my tongue out at the boy and lowered my trembling body back into my seat. “Oh, brother.” Leon groaned as he rolled his eyes and slouched down into his chair.
“Leon! You have problems too but we don’t sit around making fun of you for them!” barked the therapist.
“Alright, alright already Mrs. Michelle-Obama-look-alike!” he shouted back at her. They held a scathing glare for a split second before Leon shut his mouth and folded his arms. Her face cracked into a proud smile before turning to the dark-haired girl in the rear of the room.
“Go on, Veruca*”
As Veruca plunged back into her tales of domestic misfortune, I couldn’t help but have myself a little laugh at Leon’s antics. Out of all of the patients in the youth unit, Leon was one of my favorites. He was a little boy who behaved like a crotchety old man, and dressed like one too, save for a pair of winter gloves with glowing skeleton hands on them that he wore nearly every day. I kept waiting for him to bark ‘Get off my lawn! ‘ but it was it just as comical to hear him say things like ‘Aww, can it kid!’ and, ‘I’m getting old just listening to you!’
Still, as entertaining as Leon’s shockingly grumpy comments were, I could tell just by watching him fidget through Veruca’s speech that he was struggling to restrain the nastiness that made him such a grouch. It was a sensation that we all knew very well around here. Though therapy and counseling usually could work wonders on a kid struggling with a mental illness, even the best talkers lacked the ability to obliterate the nasty root of the disease. Frustrating as it is to think about, this little gem of knowledge can deliver a whole lot of comfort.
When I first became sick I thought I just had an attitude problem. Or rather, my dad thought I had an attitude problem and I believed him, wanting the strange feelings to just be a “phase”, and to easily get over them with a little advice and a lesson learned. But we both became increasingly frustrated as the sneaky symptoms of manic depressive disorder began to seep into my day-to-day life.
I was either too tired or too hyper to do anything productive. I could shut myself away in my room for hours, avoiding all contact with humanity, and the next day be talking my dad’s ear off about every little whim that entered my mind. I’d get a huge burst of energy that could motivate me to undertake a major project, only to realize in a day or two that I felt too hopeless and overwhelmed to even think about it. I was a wreck.
And my dad was mad. But the more he yelled at me about needing an “attitude adjustment” the more I realized that I wanted one. I fiercely wanted things to go back to how they were and I stayed up for hours at night soul-searching for some little wisp of wisdom that could pull me out of the slump. My desperate attempts to return to normal would turn out fruitless every time, and that’s when I literally began to lose my mind.
After several cases of friends or family finding me shaking on the floor of a bathroom or bedroom, unable to speak apart from shrieking, unable to move apart from convulsions, and unable to remember any events leading up to or after these episodes, did we realize that these uncharacteristic behaviors needed professional attention.
It breaks my heart to think about the number of people who are struggling with illnesses like these. Mental illness, as I shall articulately say, is a complete dick. There are not many things in this world that are as irksome as trying to overcome a physical malady in your brain. Try as you may, but no amounts of happy thoughts, lifetime movies, or even talk therapy are going to have enough power on their own to alter a malfunctioning organ. Because the brain is just that. An organ.
Sometimes no matter how hard a person can want something, can work for something, can believe in something, that organ might just release a slew of chemicals and electricity that is enough drive that person to the edge. Not many people appreciate the power that their brains can exercise on them. They think that it is theirs to control, but don’t realize that like any organ, it can act without your permission , and it can make you sick.
Those struggling with mental illness (or any illness for that matter) know that you must go to great lengths to try to hide the grotesque symptoms of a disease. It takes constant vigilance just to fulfill basic human expectations without letting yourself slip into a fit of tears and terror. It is exhausting. So to those of you who know anyone living through this type of battle, please be patient with them. And if the warrior in this battle is you, please be patient with yourself. Because every little thing you can get yourself through is a victory.
I don’t care if the only thing you can manage to do one day is get out of your bed. If I were you, I would celebrate that magnificent feat like I just won the Tour de France. Hell, have yourself a cookie or something because I’m sure for even the healthiest people in the world, getting out of bed can be the hardest task of the day and you managed to do it successfully, while battling invisible brain monsters! It really is something to be proud of!
We all need to be proud of those who are up against these monsters. Because it’s hard enough to deal with a rogue organ that’s making you act out, without having voices inside your head or in your environment telling you that you’re not good enough. I can say firsthand that the people struggling with these illnesses want their symptoms to go away ten times more than anyone could imagine, and as long as we keep on trucking, we can get there. I know little Leon doesn’t want the world to think he’s a grumpy 90-year-old man trapped in a seven-year-old’s body. I know Veruca hates the way she goes off on fits of rage at insignificant little things. And I know I hate my mood being determined by my chemistry rather than my surroundings. But when you focus on the little victories rather than the uncontrollable disturbances within your body, life can become much more bearable.
After group therapy that morning I noticed Leon getting progressively more peevish as the day went on. It was easy to see that he was just as frustrated by his grouchiness as everyone else was. But I did notice something that seemed to ease his troubles a bit.
“Leon, did you get that top hat you asked for for Christmas?” I remember the therapist asking.
“Yeah, I did get a mighty fine hat and some new bowties too! It’s even easier now to be the best dressed boy in this group of bozos.”
The nurse shook her head and laughed. “Leon, you’re always going to be the best dressed out of this group, top hat or not.” Leon rolled his eyes. “Your parents must really think you’ve been a good boy if they got you such a nice hat.” She said.
“I needed a nice hat!” He exclaimed. “I needed a nice hat so I could go home and show my wife what a wonderful gentleman I am now! After she sees how good I look in that hat we’re going to make out!”
“Now Leon, you know that’s an inappropriate thing for a young boy to be talking about!”
“What can I say? We’re in love.”
“Well she must be some wife to be able to put up with all your sass over here, Mr. Leon.”
“Oh she sure is one hell of a dame. I must not be that much of a creep if I can get a broad like her to love me.”
The nurse gave up on trying to police his language and just laughed with us at Leon’s outrageous story. Leon began laughing too, and for a moment all we could feel was this seven-year-old’s happiness that he had been able to find himself a “wife” who could put up with him. It seems like a ridiculous thing to rejoice in, but sometimes the littlest things can send a wave of hope, and you just have to keep riding those waves until they take you to recovery.
*Actual names have been changed to protect patient’s privacy.