A Response to Marya Hornbacher’s Research Project

Kitt O’Malley put me onto a research project by Marya Hornbacher who is writing a book that “will profile the lives of people who have a mental illness or who work in the field, and she’s trying to develop a deeper understanding of how the public views mental illness.” I couldn’t resist throwing in my own two cents. Because I have a long track record of never being included in such studies, I thought I would share my answers to her questionnaire here for your consideration and discussion:

Has mental illness affected you personally? If so, how?

Yes, I live with bipolar disorder, PTSD, and ADD. I lived in quiet torment for many years, occasionally bubbling over in rages that left my wife emotionally overwhelmed. This left me with feelings of deep guilt, but I didn’t do anything at first because I had been told that suffering was part of life and I should just buck up and endure it. When I finally did seek help, I was diagnosed with major depression and put on Prozac. Because I was “cured” the next day, I sought no further insights into my diagnosis until I came to the brink of committing suicide at age 47.

My conditions have wrecked my life largely because I did not act earlier on them nor was I encouraged to do so. More than the mental illness, the ideas that somehow what I was going through was normal (even though I knew deep down that it was not) kept me from seeking treatment that would have stabilized me and enabled me to live a productive life.

Do you think the effects of mental illness on society are being addressed? Why or why not?

It is a chaotic mess. On one hand we have better diagnosis and treatments for medication than we ever have; but the media keeps playing the stigma card, politicians cut money for programs that could help us, and our friends and families treat us as if our illness is a figment of our imagination. (Yes, dammit! It IS all in my head. That’s where the brain is!)

If we are drug addicts, there are more programs for us than if we are simply mentally ill. Therapists manipulate us to suit their personal agendas, psychiatrists don’t listen, ministers are clueless, and police shoot us dead in the street. It is a horrible world that can only exacerbate our symptoms.

Is there enough social and medical support for people with mental illness? If not, what would you change? 

No. And society is trending towards giving us less and less.

The term “high functioning” is one of the ugliest in the psychologist’s language because it is too often use to deny treatment to people who aren’t quite ready to undertake a life for themselves.

When we were released from the mental hospitals, we were promised community mental health care. Where is it?

Whenever there is a mass shooting by someone who might or might not be mentally ill, the media takes a sudden interest in us, but not in our problems. They discuss how to control us — by bringing back mental institutions, for example — but hardly ever how to help us. When there are budgetary cutbacks, money set aside for us is the first to go.

What would I do? I would fulfill the promise of community mental health clinics, secure housing for everyone, and help people find meaningful employment as suits their skills and intellect.

How do you feel when discussing or reading about mental illness? 

I can’t watch the news because of the way they twist the responsibility for violent crime towards us. I despair because even though the facts show that we are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violent crime, they mark every time one of us commits a crime or, when they have no clue, blame it on our mental illness. Certain media outlets even go so far as to claim that my condition is nothing more than a gambit by psychiatrists to get money out of insurance companies!

Getting people to see us as human beings in such an environment is nigh impossible because people have Jason, Freddie Krueger, and Pinhead in their minds when they think of the word “insane”. It affects what they support and sometimes there are those among us who think that the problem of violent mentally ill people is greater than it actually is.

It is far too tempting to crawl into a hole and weather out the storm. This maelstrom, however, never ends.

Do you associate mental illness with violence? Why or why not?

I associate mental illness with pain and rage rather than violence.

I know very few violent mentally ill people from my support groups. It is true that some of us have tempers, but we tend to be aware of them and channel our rages. Instead of hitting people, we break things or yell at the top of our lungs or eat ourselves into a adipose fury or burn inside until we have consumed the life in ourselves and become depressed.

On the other hand, I am very distrustful of the so-called sane. They kill us at slight provocation, imprison us, and talk about forcibly incarcerating us even when we have not committed a crime. I’ve heard people propose all of these things. Who wants to live with neurotypicals when they talk like that?

How would you respond if a group home for people with mental illness attained a building permit in your neighborhood?

I’d go over and get to know them. We have something in common!

Incidentally, I had the pleasure of hearing Marya Hornbacher speak and talking to her afterwards. I am a fan of her brilliant memoir Madness: A Bipolar Life. So I did something I rarely do when I meet a famous person: I gushed. She, naturally, liked the compliments and we chatted amicably.

I wrote this at the time:

A conversation with Marya Hornbacher tied my retreating to the cold vaults of my personal torture chamber to my post-traumatic stress disorder. She had a friend who did the same, she told me. I didn’t fire off into spectacular manias for the most part because I was terrified of the shakings-up that the fictions in my head wreaked. I am trying to understand these. PTSD stemming from abuse as a child — in my case by my parents and my brother who is older than me by six years (a massive difference when you are a child) — cracks joy just as it is beginning to rise. So no happy manias for me, only anger and desperate over-spendings followed by self-imprisonment where my symptoms were only seen by my wife and the people who dueled with me on the Internet.



Joel is the founder of DBSA South Orange County. He received a degree in Anthropology from Pomona College, one of Forbes Magazine's ten top undergraduate schools. His manic adventures include traveling to former Yugoslavia during the 1992 war, believing he was the Creator of a messed up Universe, road rages, and running up $40,000 in credit card bills. He lives with his wife, dog, and cat in Trabuco Canyon, California.