I believe it was R.D. Laing who famously said that you can’t expect health from a mentally ill individual trying to adapt to a sick society. I think this quote can even be applied to mental health itself: If the system is unhealthy, you can’t expect any of the patients to adapt.
Such is the cost to our mental health. The term mental health actually in all honesty evokes ideas of sickness and disease and contamination, oppression and power structures and domination, suppression and repression and depression: In other words, nothing good is ever evoked for me when I think about the term “mental health.” I think of people shooting out their brains and people getting raped by therapists; I think of misery and suffering that goes so deep no mental health expert could do anything but resent you scornfully as she prescribes you medication to regulate your serotonin or dopamine.
This is what I think of when I walk inside my local behavioral health facility. I think of all of these things, and more. I’ve been conditioned to, you see? And it’s troubling for me, and disturbing for me, and it always brings back memories of when I tried to educate mentally ill people about literature and philosophy and art, though mostly literature, which included poetry and literary criticism. This was actually a gasp for breath: I’d been told for a long time that my English degree wasn’t going to get me anywhere, but I was resourceful, hence how I could outsmart the system and get a job as a peer mentor teaching literature to people with conditions like myself.
But rest assured, this did not work. I suffocated.
And my mental health was struck.
There were good days and bad days. There were certainly good days, of course. Days when people engaged. But as the days went by, the staff, which included the Director and the Lead Peer Mentor, got more and more hostile and/or dismissive to my cause, which was many things, such as bringing literacy and reason, language and communication, to a marginalized and perhaps even uneducated population. The clients became less and less interested. In fact, the day after I left, my endeavors were so outrageous and ridiculous and unwanted that the clients went back to playing games like Candy Land: Implying they had no desire to challenge themselves and the staff had no desire to uncripple these people.
So, everyone was getting sick of me.
I remember one confrontation with the Director. So many things were said, so many words were exchanged, and it left a bad taste in my mouth at the very least. I still remember the impression I received clearly. I tried to advocate for more services like the one I was offering, and the Director was insulted at this advocating, and assumed that I was trying to make the program what I wanted it to be, which wasn’t true: I just wanted more opportunities for education for the mentally ill. Granted, education hadn’t been able to get me a stable job, but I sure as hell knew that it at least gave me a conceptual and emotional framework with which to view the world and critique it necessarily. Other things were said, but it was clear that I was seen as a nuisance to the direction of the program, which was restrictive to the mental health population, in that education wasn’t a priority, but playing Candy Land and dumbing down the patients was.
Meanwhile, I kept hoping to get certified to be a peer mentor, which fell through in the end because the program was never offered. I was never certified, with my perfected stamp of approval. I served for over six months, volunteering, hoping it would bring stable employment for me, and this never happened despite my best efforts, and it all ended in tragedy.
It ended in tragedy when the Lead Peer Mentor, a person who went in for the kill the day before I quit, attacked me in front of the director. I was accused of being bigoted, pretentious, and pompous. I was accused of being no better than a pompous professor. I find this ironic because this is exactly what I tried not to do, because I knew how much it hurt to have professors talk down to you; I experienced this all through college, time and time again, and I was trying to bring necessary challenges to the class to strengthen reasoning skills and the like. I was also accused of being calloused and cruel. In retrospect, and while I will sound paranoid, I think that this was an elaborate scheme to find a way to dismiss me from the program without “firing” me.
The conversation (if you can call it that) took a toll on my mental health. There were many disappointments: I wasn’t going to be a peer mentor, I wasn’t going to get paid for my efforts and my work, I wasn’t going to see my dreams of literacy for the mentally ill come to fruition, I wasn’t going to make a difference, etc. And so I called the Director the day after and I told him I wasn’t okay, that I needed time to process the intense encounter, meaning I was quitting.
I find it interesting that the effectiveness of rhetoric that I was trying to teach was finally used against me. I don’t know why the Lead Peer Mentor was so pissed off at me, in all honesty, and why I was accused of such nasty things. The worst part was that this happened in front of my boss. Actually, the worst part was that I was never compensated for this effort. Actually, the worst part was that my dreams were crushed. Maybe I wasn’t that humble, but I thought I was humble enough to bring a gift that I’d been given to the world, and to people I felt needed it and deserved it. But clearly my work wasn’t valued, and I was consequently devalued and thrown away like a bad poem.
I wish I could remember more of what was said, verbatim, but I just remember the impression because it happened so long ago: but the impression is fresh, and it still hurts. I remember the disinterested nature of the classes I taught. I remember the way in which the poetry we were reading, such as elegant poems by Gertrude Stein, were considered irritating by the Lead Peer Mentor. I remember the way in which the Director kept promising I’d be able to teach a class to pay the bills soon enough, and then eventually, how that never happened.
How the Director got away clean. I was made out to be the bad guy, but I didn’t escape like a bandit.
Indeed, this was a destructive experience. I remember and try to keep in mind that I must have made a difference somewhere. Indeed, doesn’t moral choice come at a cost, a personal price? Indeed, it does. Mine has always been career security. I’m a rogue writer, a literal bohemian. I could be a good teacher, but I’m not qualified with my Bachelor’s degree and even if I was, I couldn’t handle the stress of teaching full time at an institution, or I could be a good peer support specialist, if I had the license but am unfortunately too discouraged to continue down that route now, or I could be an outreach worker for homeless youth but I can’t get the job at corrupt bureaucracies, and in all honesty, yeah: There’s literally no job for me, except to write, but it doesn’t pay. Maybe that’s why I’m so stressed all the time, why my mental health is bad: I live in an apathetic society, and my attempts to change things for the better are always blocked.
Though I shouldn’t say always. There are good things happening in my life. But in terms of being able to sustain myself: They are. And that bothers me because my efforts are literally meaningless. Rest assured, I don’t equate my work, such as writing and outreach work with The Legacy Initiative, a non-profit, with money. I don’t need money to value my work. But why does my work, which comes from harder effort because of my mental illness, not amount to fucking shit? Or, to amend: Why does it feel like it is valueless?
I want to finish off this story on some kind of assertion, some kind of conclusion, and not just let this paper be a rant about how my skills are not being utilized effectively and how I am not being compensated for my efforts. So I’ll finish the story at this behavioral health facility. But indeed, keep in mind that it is all related: People with a mental condition are not accommodated fairly, even in places that should know mental health. That’s why I say I see disease everywhere, perhaps not just in the mental health field, if I want to broaden the scope of my discourse and point. My mental illness is used as a smear campaign against my good qualities. Which is why I spend so much time writing. If I didn’t have a way to communicate my experiences, I would go mad, berserk. It would be loony for sure (though rest assured, non-violent: Gandhi and Martin Luther King knew best). I’d become a laughing stock like Diogenes. And you want to know what really hurts? Society has devalued me because I am outside the system. That’s why I didn’t get the job as a peer mentor, why my writing isn’t compensated, why I can never seem to get a job helping the homeless. My mental illness is a mark, through which I am more in tune with the disease around me.
So then, to finish the story: It’s related in that society has successfully, for now at least and have done this literally for years, sabotaged any chance I have at supporting myself and making a difference and improving my mental health all in one go: And this story I mention is a crude example of how that happened and happens. I burnt out before I was even certified to be on the job as a peer specialist. I was a letdown to the population I was trying to serve: the poetry was boring. The literature was unimportant, or a million miles away, unreachable.
And it comes down to the basic fact: I’m not good enough.
And it’s because of my mind: It’s just not good enough.
Mental health is mental death.