People say things about mental illness and I become transparent. Everyone can see through me. Sometimes it becomes hard to keep it together.
Imposter syndrome is well-documented, but I suppose if I were to come up with a working definition for myself, I would say: An inability to believe any success I have achieved is actual success because, clearly, I don’t belong in this room / standing next to / in the same conversation with these other people who are, again clearly, smarter, more talented, and naturally more deserving of their very real success than I am. Me, I’m just faking it, hanging onto coattails, along for the ride.
Add a mental health diagnosis to imposter syndrome, mix in years of absorbing all sorts of stigma, and I kind of never want to leave my house or go online again.
A few weeks ago, I was at a thing, and the initial conversation revolved around some in-my-mind overly invasive questions about mental health issues during work physicals, and a few offhand comments were made, kind of an effort to distinguish between one-time, situational experiences of mental illness and some sort of more drastic, pervasive experience that might involve multiple psychiatric hospitalizations (never mind that there’s often a steep learning curve on learning to live with recurring mental illness and it can take a while to find sustained healing, but maybe once a person has found it they deserve a chance to pursue a career). The conversation caught me off guard so I couldn’t shake it, and I sat around with rot in my stomach but without really knowing why. I suppose I hadn’t fully processed. I felt sour and hot. Eventually the conversation bent round to me maybe doing a talk or reading at the university in Bonn for The History Worker, my new book of poetry from Black Lawrence Press, and I felt excited about that, I thought about all the things I write about in the book and the themes I could expound upon, from science fiction fantasies and colonization, to why people leave their countries of origin, by way of how my intellect was formed in great part by absorbing random bits of history as a child, not to mention how I could make slightly fragmented English-language poetry more accessible to a native German-speaking audience. I had ideas!
But then came more waves of sourness and heat, mixed with a bit of sorrow for good measure, because, remember, the conversation had been in the here and now with people I knew, not some abstract internet monstrosity, and I ended up thinking: Nope, seriously, giving a talk, that’s not for you. You don’t belong to the circle of people who should be allowed to give talks. You’re not good enough. You’re full of failure. You’re sick. You don’t measure up. They’ll figure you out. Please understand that I spoke to myself in the second person singular because my inner monologue was one long accusation. It always is at times like this.
All that, swirling around, up in my head, in a muck. Career, professionalism, ability, mental illness. I don’t want anyone to think I can’t do things, but I know I have certain limitations. However, I often think I can’t / shouldn’t do things that I probably can / should do.
You know, little things like book promotion.
I want to be invisible. It’s hard to put yourself out there and be invisible at the same time. Why do I want to be invisible? I don’t want anyone to see me break. I’m pretty strong, proven indefatigable in fact, and I’m probably not going to break, but ::::::::multiple psychiatric hospitalizations::::::: has a way of fluttering in and out of my ears, reminding me that in the eyes of at least some of the world, well, I’m pretty much branded. (This article is a few years old, but I doubt all that much has changed and it discusses some of the very real challenges those with mental illness face when seeking employment. On the other hand, here is an amusing take on why companies should hire people with mental illness. It rings true to me.)
I had a good but furtive cry after leaving the thing, but ultimately felt comforted by reminding myself that I have a great haircut. This sort of comfort can be sorted into three not necessarily mutually exclusive categories: 1) it’s the little things that really matter; 2) there’s a very particular kind of straining for anything to make me feel better going on here; and 3) yes, I am slightly vain.
Fast forward to the days after a poor excuse for a human being fired on a concert crowd in Las Vegas. I know it’s a firm rule never to read comments sections, and that Paul Ryan is despicable and I should expect nothing else from him but an assertion that what we really need to do to stop mass shootings is to concentrate on mental health treatment, but, wha??, pay no attention to the Republicans behind the curtain who have been working furiously to strip benefits from the mentally ill. I want to crawl out of my skin reading all of this, but I find it difficult to look away from severe train wrecks, even ones that cause me emotional distress.
I kid you not, I read through a comment thread where people were talking about “walking manic depression” being the likeliest culprit in many mass shootings, but, I also kid you not, when I googled that term I found only results advocating exercise as self-care for bipolar disorder. So I guess lay people are now inventing diagnoses and/or terms.
(You can read about US gun culture and toxic masculinity here. I guess we might call this an alternative diagnosis.)
It is one thing to be something, to live as I am, and altogether another thing to be something in someone else’s mind. Still another thing on top of all that to know or even merely suspect the thing I am in another’s mind.
Dangerous, possibly. In the worst case, in possession of some sort of switch that can magically flip on at a moment’s notice, turning me into a crazed, violent mass murderer. In the least case, probably just incapable. But I am capable, especially when I get to order my work in such a way so that I can work with/in my few limitations, but that’s another can of worms, best saved for another day.
So here I am, all over again, after yet another mass shooting, full of doubt, juggling who I am in all the others’ minds: a friend; a random person sitting next to me on the bus, if they only knew; all those people typing comments furiously into their smartphones; an audience member at a lecture.
Suffice it to say, imposter syndrome is taking on certain zombie qualities in my life.
Here I am, pretending to be normal (whatever that means), to be intellectual, to be smart enough to deliver a PowerPoint presentation about an overarching theme in my book of poems, but feeling outside of normal, (again, whatever that is), bearing full frontal witness to the weird, uncomfortable fact that way too many people out there think of themselves as some sort of hobby mental health professionals, in both large and small ways.
That’s a weird fucking hobby.
That is all.