The Uncertainty of Mental Illness

Acknowledging Uncertainty

Collective hours, days, weeks, and months of my family members’ lives have been spent trying to understand and unpack my brother’s inexplicable decisions and lack of reaction to consequence. Alex dropped out of high school, but the classroom doesn’t suit everyone. Alex was discharged from the Army, but they were just drug tested to make an example of his platoon. Alex lost his left leg in a car wreck, but everyone has a false sense of immortality and drives drunk when they’re 22. Alex shot himself in the head and lived, but “god has a plan” for someone who’s survived so much. Alex lives under a bridge, but that fabled rock bottom must be imminent.

Silence falls over the family analysts, downcast eyes resting on a coffee mug handle being pushed back and forth between someone’s thumbs. There isn’t much crying anymore. Those salty reserves were depleted long ago.

Accepting Uncertainty

When I moved to NYC I packed my Diane von Furstenberg, Wellbutrin, and mounting guilt for leaving so much tumult back in Texas. The unidentified seeds of my depression and anxiety sprouted in childhood, their insidious, invisible tendrils choking me through high school and college. Because my mental illnesses were finally able to be identified and medicated, I became able to live some semblance of a normal life.

Alex has not been so fortunate. There has been so much anger bestowed upon my brother due to his inexplicable mental state, including from me. My failure to consider he could not help himself lasted for several years, and it’s only been just recently that I’ve let anger evaporate and acceptance rain down on us both. When I think of my brother, it is with sadness, but it’s mostly with love and mercy. Our genes come from the same pool, and it just so happens that the combination he got created a long-suffering mental state that is either not yet defined in the mental health community or is shrouded in obscurity, yet to be matched and applied to him. It is not his fault.

Embracing Uncertainty

As an orderly person, it is a joy to classify and organize things, physically or mentally. Accepting the uncertainty of my brother’s co-occurrence of mental illness and addiction has been a paramount, unanticipated challenge. For so long family members have been hoping for the proverbial lightbulb to turn on in Alex’s mind, his final pivot toward a healed, “normal” life. Alex inspires me to reconsider normalcy, expectations, and success, because those things look different for every person. For my brother, it’s a sister who accepts and loves him from 1500 miles away. As if we were sitting next to each other, it is a virtual embrace, and for now it’s the best we can do.

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On Mental Illness and Weather

At the moment I write this, buckets of rain are pounding the hot cement in Manhattan. Thunder that sounds like an amplified bowling alley is roaring the background – a rarity and special treat for a Texan who misses the drama and majesty of true thunderstorms. Like most people, I don’t want to go outside and get soaked. Unlike most people, I am delighted to be shut indoors, limited to the offerings of the apartment in which I reside. I am at peace.

Depression makes me a bit of a homebody, somebody who needs to refresh and be alone at home after limited engagements, like an old iPhone battery desperate for a charge after only a few hours of use. When the weather is terrible, my natural inclination is affirmed by circumstance and the pressure to perform is absolved. Unsavory weather limits options for activities, and my self-imposed pressure melts away. It’s okay to be indoors, to be in my feelings. There is no need to explain why I stayed in all day, because most people probably did, too. For an average person it may have been the weather, but for me it is the depression I live with like weights tied to my ankles.

On sunny days I am often gripped with guilt and dread. If I’ve slept too long, I feel guilty. If I don’t have a hyper-productive day that includes an outdoor galivant, I feel like a fraud just waiting to be found out by a daily itinerary inspector who doesn’t exist. I do take pleasure in being outdoors at times. My ideal getaway is a peaceful beach vacation, after all. But, it’s the getting home I look forward to: stripping off sticky or dirty clothes to put on something clean and comfortable, hugging the peaceful golden retrievers I live with, unpacking what I brought home, eating something waste-free and healthful I make with my own hands, cracking a book, settling in to watch a TV show I’ve been eager to see, being near Rick.

If rain is special to me, you may have correctly concluded that winter in New York City is sacred. The dirty snow banks pile up and street corners become mysterious lakes of melted snow, depths unknown. I outwardly commiserate with other New Yorkers about never-ending winter and join the chorus of deep desire for spring and summer. Secretly, this time is when I feel safest, un-judged, and mentally at peace. There is no pressure, only justification in holing up in the warmth and safety of my shoebox that sits under and on top of other shoeboxes filled with other humans doing the same. For them, it may be because of the weather. For me, I can just be, and I don’t have to explain anything.

Why Am I the Bummed Out Baker?

My website name change was unceremonious, which I later realized was a mistake.  While the name makes me laugh and is meant to be a wink to fellow folks with mental illness, worried loved ones have contacted me to see if I’m okay, unsettled by casual references to delectable Greek food and crippling depression in the same sentence.

The Baker Part

I love to cook and bake and have a special interest in plant-based fare. It’s a ritual for me. Pulling a pile of colorful produce out of the refrigerator’s crisper, pouring rice milk into a measuring cup, leveling flour with the straight side of a butter knife – pure, meditative catharsis. In the kitchen, I am left alone with my thoughts and at the end  have something tasty to share and show for it.

The dark side to my new moniker is that I use cooking and baking to busy myself when I am otherwise immobilized by depression.

The Bummed Out Part

Let me back up. I have experienced panic attacks and severe anxiety since I was eight years old, beginning when I skipped second grade and landed in an unfamiliar classroom. I’m talking drenched-in-sweat, sick-to-my-stomach, certain-that-death-or-worse-vomit-is-imminent, cannot-reliably-enjoy-normal-kid-things-like-movie-theaters-and-sleepovers-level anxiety. When I went through puberty I was plagued by depression in addition to the anxiety, exhausting me and causing a contemplative introversion I didn’t have the language to describe, let alone a community to commiserate with. So, not only did the fluorescent lights and linoleum floors in my chem lab make my brain go batty and my stomach feel like I was gonna hurl, I’d then go home at the end of the day, flop onto my bed in my Converse, and stare up at my ceiling in silence, praying no one bothered me lest I had to feign normalcy. My limbs felt like lead, and it wasn’t due to the average athleticism I displayed on the volleyball court several hours a week . Something as simple as polite, topical conversation was enough to overwhelm and exhaust me, do me in and trigger a fit of tears later, in private. Except for music, there was no place I felt understood. It did not help that the latter is often written off as fleeting teenage angst, a stereotype that played down my pain and isolated me further. The 90s and early 2000s composed a precarious chapter for mental health at large – it was so shameful to be sad. I had no affirming mental health community that said “hey, me too”, and so, I suffered. Days turned into weeks turned into months turned into years.

I didn’t cook when I was a teenager, I collaged my ceiling and wrote all over my black walls. It was as if my brain threw up on the inside of the small box I occupied, a room of mirrors, my reflection made up of melodramatic words and dark images. My family members thought it was strange, even a bit funny, but closing myself in my room for hours on end, listening to The Smiths and cutting up my dad’s Communication Arts books was my 2002 version of the same meditative catharsis I seek in the kitchen today.

Seventeen

Me and my brother Duncan in my dark dungeon. High school graduation day, 2006

Okay, I get it. You had a sad-ass adolescence. Where is this going?

I am a writer, and because I no longer work a conventional job I have the distinct and rare luxury of championing the destigmatization of mental illness. I’d like to be a mental health renegade, speaking up for those quietly suffering in a sterilized 9-5 environment while they live with Bipolar Disorder, depression, anxiety, or, loneliest of all, an unidentified mental issue. The pain of moving through life afflicted by mental illness pretending everything is hunky dory is truly inexplicable. Unless you have experienced it, I think it’s nearly impossible to understand. I don’t say this to be exclusive, but folks who do not suffer from mental illness often equate someone else’s crippling mental affliction to the time they felt anxious about their Tinder date with Jeremy, or the appropriate period of time they were devastated about the death of a friend or family member. It’s not the same. One is a normal exorcism of emotion, the other is a chemical imbalance that indefinitely stagnates and traps the sufferer in a hellhole of literal nonsense.

“Have Mercy”  – Uncle Jesse

There is not only a lack of understanding about mental illness, but because it’s effects are often invisible I think there’s a level of disbelief due to lack of physical proof. If the severity is not visual, it can’t be all that bad. Or, it must be a phase. It is still not common knowledge that a person’s mental illness can be as debilitating as someone with a physical disability. It can be.

I’ve dealt with mental illness a long time, and have finally found the courage to speak plainly about my story and what I continue to go through. It was so freeing when I finally decided to tell the truth about my needs. For instance, I recharge best by being alone. It’s critical for my well-being, and it took nearly 30 years to unapologetically assert that simple need. I’ve been power-washing my shame away, satisfied by the revelation of my true self and proud to claim my mental makeup. Community and unguarded communication about what’s going on in our heads is so powerful, and I am here. for. it.

Twenty

Twenty year old baby vegan, the original Bummed Out Baker. Spring, 2009

What does this mean for the site?

Of course I want to talk about thoughtful consumption, community via cooking, sustainability, my love of black clothes, and golden retrievers (duh). But I also want to exploit the platform I have to talk about mental health, something so many suffer from and so few feel safe being open about. As I said before, I have the luxury of not working in a conventional professional setting, which means I can speak freely without as much potential consequence, and I feel a responsibility to do just that. My hope is that, one day, mental illness will be given the same respect and dignity as any other health issue.

So, the point of Bummed Out Baker is not only to normalize a common mental state, but to evangelize the destigmatization of mental illness for myself and everyone who’s still suffering behind an office door, inside a cubicle, the confines of an ignorant social circle, a classroom, or your home. While the name is meant to inform and cultivate empathy, it’s also meant to make someone experiencing depression smile. It took me several years to find humor and help in mental illness, and if I can speed up that process for even one suffering person with some funny truths and a banana bread recipe, my job here is done.