There’s no romance to mental illness. Whether you’re suffering from psychosis or schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or depression, the realities of mental ill-health often mean a life disrupted by isolation, harrowing symptoms, hospitalizations, discrimination and despair. At a time when the government seems hell-bent on slashing away at the budgets of mental health services across the country and working overtime to stigmatize the mentally disabled by creating barriers to benefits through dehumanizing work programs, it’s important to remember this: There’s no romance to mental illness. There’s juice to the story but no joy.
I was diagnosed with psychosis at the age of 18, and most of my adult life has been spent in and out of psychiatric units. Over the years that diagnosis has shifted toward schizophrenia, then anxiety disorder, and finally bipolar disorder. I was told that I suffered from bipolar disorder during a period of severe mental strain. I had just come out as gay to my strict Muslim family, who swiftly disowned me, and my relationship with my long-term partner had disintegrated. When the consultant psychiatrist told me the news, I laughed.
“Why are you laughing?” he asked.
“If I don’t laugh now,” I said, “I’ll start crying, and I don’t have the luxury to feel sorry for myself.”
I come from a close-knit family, and they were my primary caregivers. Whenever I was unwell, my parents or my older sister would pick up the phone and call my care worker. My older sister in particular was a powerful source of comfort and support. She would call me every day to lift my spirits and make me laugh when things looked grim. But beyond these vital elements, she made my quality of life considerably better by helping me out around the house, encouraging me to apply for university and helping me fill out job applications. The irony, of course, is that it was my sister, who was also my closest friend, who outed me to the rest of my family.
When my psychiatrist diagnosed me with bipolar disorder, my local mental health team, which had always been an integral part of my recovery process, discharged me because the cuts to their budget were so deep that they had to place me in the care of my general practitioner.
I laughed and laughed at this bad luck, and when the laughter subsided, I sat down in front of my clapped-out computer and started writing a short story. At the time I had been working on a collection of short fiction called Fairytales for Lost Children, and my only response to my grim circumstances was to continue writing this book. The pieces were primarily about the Somali gay and lesbian experience filtered through the lens of my own life as a gay Somali. When I started writing these stories, I was still in the closet, and with each story that I wrote my confidence and sense of pride grew until I gradually came into my own. I had hoped that by writing this collection I would not only affirm my own identity but offer hope to other gay and lesbian youth who were going through similar difficulties. By the time I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, however, I found myself writing fiction in order to save my life.
During that period I would experience euphoric highs punctuated by crippling lows. Since there was no support system in place, I would diligently write through each manic episode, and the creative impulse to thread each story, to keep the structure flowing as best as I could, kept me going.
Every time I felt the impulse to throw myself off my balcony, every time I found myself lying on the kitchen floor in a depressed stupor, I would think of the sentences that needed to be rephrased, the paragraphs that needed a particular cadence or rhythm, and I would get back to my computer and comb those kinks out. The obsession with detail, the palpable passion and sadness on each page, was fueled by my desire to transform destructive emotions like mania into something purposive, even beautiful.
There may not be any romance to mental illness, but who needs romance when the preferable route is agency? The prevailing conversation around mental health issues is agency and the lack thereof on the part of the mentally ill. But what do you do if you’re a paid-up member of the mentally ill populace in question? Do you curl up into a ball and give up? No, you look for solutions. Ultimately, it’s about keeping despair at bay, and sometimes simple things like running, taking up a hobby, doing charity work, painting or, in my case, writing can be a galvanizing part of the recovery process. Keeping the brain and the body active can give life a semblance of pleasure and hope. This is what writing has done for me. I took every traumatic element of my condition and channeled it into something useful. Because I was writing from a position of vulnerability, my powers of empathy were heightened, and I approached my characters’ narrative arcs with a sense of humanity that I could not have mustered had I not experienced similar struggles myself.
Today I write from a place of optimism. I’m out of the woods, health-wise, but I remain pragmatic and know that this could easily change. If my health deteriorates, I will continue to do what I’ve always done when faced with disaster. I will keep writing. I will keep feeding the fire.