On Mental Health Stigma
One thing I shared with my wife Rachel about a year into our relationship was the time I suffered a nervous breakdown in graduate school. It would be an important moment in any relationship because I shared the time in my life when I was most vulnerable and at my weakest point. Did I technically suffer a nervous breakdown? I’m not sure, all I remember is the turning point came when I drove home late one night, collapsed on my kitchen floor and started crying uncontrollably. Up to that point, I had developed a quasi-schizophrenic outlook on life and could no longer bear the weight of the world-view I constructed. In psychological terms, my conscious self could no longer handle the subconscious content coming forth.
In some ways I blame the state of Texas. In other ways, I blame myself. I guess going from the state of Washington to graduate school in a college town north of Dallas was too much culture shock for me. It didn’t help I had social anxiety issues that surfaced during my early college years, later resulting in depression. By the time I got to Texas, I just wasn’t able to adapt to a new school, new friends, and a totally new Texas way of life.
During that time period in my life I remember keeping a journal. I remember writing about new meanings of different colors and numbers, or at least new ways I interpreted them. For example, I remember sometimes wearing red shirts to signify I was wounded or bleeding. I felt my soul was bleeding or perhaps that I was a wounded angel. I remember writing about how I felt like people were out to get me. Usually this feeling coincided for some reason with when I drove on the highway or drove late at night. I remember the strange feeling I got after attending a church for several months that myself and another trumpet player attended. Not long after sending a bizarre letter to the church saying I could no longer attend, the other trumpet player got cancer and ended up passing away within a year or so.
Other things that happened I don’t remember well because I think I burned the journal out of shame. It was a period in my life (I was 24 years old at the time) when my brain tried to find a shortcut or figure out how life worked. When it all became too much for me to handle, I stopped. I vowed to never go down that path again. I never told anybody my thoughts because I knew they sounded crazy. I was living an intense schizophrenic reality as a sort of life experiment, and that could only last so long.
One unfortunate side effect from that period and a feeling I have probably buried is the shame and guilt that went along with all of the “crazy” thoughts I had. Due to that guilt, I repressed or tried to forget much of that time period in my life. I have never had problems with mental illness or schizophrenia since that time despite bouts of depression, but I bet there are issues and feelings that are still affecting me today in ways that I’m not conscious of. In terms of the treatment I received while in graduate school, I just remember counseling and anti-depressant medication. I don’t even remember bringing up any of my thoughts to anyone else because I knew how crazy it would make me seem. There was also the shame.
Upon hearing my story about this turbulent time in my life, I recall Rachel being concerned that I could possibly have a similar response in the future to a new situation. I reassured her I was more mature and knew better than to put myself in that situation again. After all, I’d moved to Chicago and Spain — life situations that were all together more tenuous than moving to Texas, and I had no issues.
It was nice that we could bond over our experiences with anti-depressants since Rachel had gone through similar problems with depression while in school. Rachel and I also initially bonded over my interest in dreams and famous Swiss psychologist Carl Jung. When we first started dating I was reading a lot of books about Jung, dreams, and his ideas of the subconscious. One of our first long conversations we had at a bar was a conversation about dreams and all the different meanings of symbols. It intrigued her and she was interested in figuring some things out about her own subconscious.
In the beginning, I remember I could help her a little and talk about things she dreamed about. But over time, I stopped reading books about Jung and the subconscious. Life started demanding more from me and I didn’t have time. When Rachel kept asking me about her dreams and what things meant, it became harder to answer or give her insight. I wanted to be able to, but it was above my expertise.