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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

In a time when we’re openly debating the ways in which our societal systems are broken, I’d like to put forth the following joke:

“I’ve started seeing a therapist, so I can stop being bullied by my psychiatrist."

If you don’t get the joke, congratulations. You don’t want to get it, and I sincerely hope you never do. If you have a suspicion that you might get the joke, let me say that medication made my life better. It is not your fault you need medication. You did not fail. Take the medication. There are great doctors, who genuinely care. Please reach out. That said, it is going to take a long time to get there.

When my depression lifted, I had the confidence to start over at school

When you are a patient in the mental-health system, there is a fundamental imbalance in the power dynamic. In many ways it is a performance. Patients must look like they need enough help, the doctors need to believe you, but not believe you need so much help that they take away your belt and shoelaces.

Doctors will say things to you like, “I don’t find that your delusions are grand enough.” First of all … ouch! I’m already in a psych ward, my self-esteem didn’t really need to be taken down a peg. Secondly, that is not a judgment of my pain or ability to function, it is a judgment of my intelligence.

As long as someone controls my access to medication, I find I must measure my performance in milligrams. I take a deep breath, look into my doctor’s eyes and think, “How much pain do they need me to be in today?” Everything said has a weight to it. Literally. It is measured out in milligrams added or taken away. It is the difference between being put into withdrawal, being able to hold down a job or just function.

If you have a mental illness, you are a master of seeming okay. Your whole way of survival is to not draw attention to yourself. You hide in plain sight. Frankly, if you look like you can maintain your mental health, doctors don’t want to help, because it looks like you can maintain. If you ever can’t maintain it, you’re either too afraid to go in or too delusional to go in the first place. It’s a catch 22: If you know you’re crazy, you’re too sane to be crazy.

The first few times I had to detox from one medication to another, I didn’t know how to do it properly. Nobody told me how, I didn’t know what to ask and I was too ashamed to try. I was going cold turkey and that is dangerous. I also did it alone because saying, “I’m having tremors from detoxing, but it’s okay, it’s from prescribed medication” is hard to explain to a regular person.

One night I was in so much pain that I barely remember taking myself to the hospital. Most mental-health wings have regular office hours (I try not to have a mental collapse after 5 p.m. on weekends or holidays, but where else was I supposed to go?), so the hospital’s emergency-room staff didn’t really know what they could do for me. Except for one doctor. Luckily, she knew what to do and what to advise. She was on the same medication and had the language and the knowledge to make a difference that others couldn’t. She saved my life.

There is strong evidence that Michelangelo, Poe, Fitzgerald, van Gogh, Dickinson and Tolstoy all suffered from bipolar disorder. War and Peace is great, but the page count on that thing is clearly a manic cry for help. Many of these artists wrote about mental illness in their journals and in their work. They were all talking about the same thing but used their own vernacular. The point of art, is to relate to each other, and to try expand/deepen the way we understand/ talk about the human experience. Van Gogh changed our perception of the night sky, and Sylvia Plath articulated the tragic beauty of sadness. But when you make poetry clinical, a lot of nuance is lost in translation

The DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) is a tome full of clinical definitions, written by people who likely never experienced the thing they were trying to define, in a language based on what doctors think we should feel. As a patient, these definitions of mental health result in a nightmare game show, where I don’t know what I have to say to make a doctor believe me, but if I don’t guess the exact phrase or password, I go home a loser. I can’t count how often I’ve left a doctor’s office thinking, “Maybe if I’d used a different adjective, they would’ve helped me.”

If you suffer from mental illness and are functioning well, please become a doctor and change the language, become a teacher and change the perception, become a politician and make access to help easier. Often real change is about bringing a new perspective to an old conversation. If you have a mental illness, it does not relegate your opinion to the shadows. You have the opportunity to contribute in a way that is desperately needed. Be your own advocate. You are bridging the language barrier. Your perspective can literally redefine the human experience for someone.

The truth is, we, “the other” of society, have every right to be terrified. We see how mental illness is portrayed in the media. We are scared of being shot by police during a “routine health check.” We see the lack of empathy. Then people wonder why we don’t ask for help.

Jokes are never funny when you have to explain them.

Andrew Lizotte lives in Toronto.

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