Welcome to the Club!

WELCOME TO THE CLUB!

I’ve always wanted to be part of a really exclusive club. The intriguing kind, with an ever-changing secret password. I want to be in a club where outsiders can never really tell who’s in the club, because all the members are unique and seemingly unrelated. I want to communicate with fellow members in a type of short-hand that makes others think that we can read each other’s minds. I don’t care what it is, just put me in it. The secret society in ‘Eyes Wide Shut’? Sure! An organization that has late night meetings in a room only accessible once you choose the right book in the bookcase? Sign me up! Is the Illuminati real? Is Beyonce in it? I WANT IN!

Thankfully, a few years ago, I realized my wish had already come true. After a late-night chat with some of my favorite artist friends, filled with intimate reveals and laughter-inducing life stories, it became very obvious that every single one of us had at least one mental illness, and I realized that I already WAS part of a very cool, secret club- the Mental Illness Club! And, it was FILLED with people I loved, admired and adored, not to mention so many others I don’t even know! Perhaps you are a member of the mentally ill club, or your friends are, or your co-workers are, or your mom is (I know I sure think MY mom is!) We’re out there folks, lurking in the shadows, making really dope art in the limelight, or currently, even running the country! (FYI, not all members of the club are awesome, but rules are rules and if you pay your dues, you get to stay in it… sigh) I like to think of those of us who are mentally ill like the aliens in ‘Men in Black’…just walking around looking normal, until you rearrange the color-coded highlighters on our desks and our faces instantly contort like Tony Shalhoub when he gets shot with that ray gun because WHY THE HELL WOULD YOU DO THAT!? Perhaps you’re not mentally ill, or don’t have friends who are, in which case, I offer you my sincere condolences…your life must be very very boring.

Personally, I am bipolar 2 (a diluted, more generic version of bipolar 1), ripe with manic highs and yucky lows. Nevertheless, I argue that as a group, we bipolar people are incredibly well rounded and dynamic. We can be charming, larger than life, intense, creative, insightful, and yet still painfully human, with a great deal of vulnerability and the never-ending ability to embarrass ourselves… like I did one time when I was 9 and I REALLY had to go to the bathroom, but my friend and I were locked out of my house, so I was forced to shit on the ground in the backyard and then take a shovel and feed said shit to my neighbor’s annoying dog. OR like I did AGAIN just now when I told you that story! Now, I know what you’re thinking, “Wait… WHAT?! Ok, I get that you were locked out of your house and really had to go to the bathroom so you were forced to shit outside… but WHY did you have to then feed it to your neighbor’s dog? BECAUSE I’M MENTALLY ILL MOTHA-FUGGAS, and those are the breaks! For the record, I’ve matured since I was 9 and you would NEVER catch me shoveling my own feces into a dog’s mouth any more. (I’d probably titrate it into a small dehydrated pill form and sneak it into the dog’s wet food while he wasn’t looking, thank you very much!) I digress.

Prior to writing this, it was heavy on my heart to speak publicly about mental illness. I wanted to help flood the zeitgeist with anecdotes and information and experiences in an attempt to perhaps tip the scales when it comes to how much the subject is so quickly swept aside. And yet, I didn’t know what to write. Was I supposed to just share my story? I kept thinking, “Nobody wants to read that! No one even knows who I am. Who cares?” (Admittedly, I might have been in a depressive phase) Later, I thought, “Are you kidding me? I’m GINGER GONZAGA, I was once in a non-union eHarmony commercial that ran for TWO YEARS! I HAVE to share my story. It’s powerful and interesting and I am the only one who can be brave and save everyone who’s struggling by sharing it!” (And on THAT day, I MIGHT have been a little manic.) Somewhere in between, however, I realized that I DID need to share my story, and not because it’s anything special, but rather, because statistically, it’s not. Sure, my story is unique, at least unique to me, but with nearly 1 if 5 Americans suffering from a mental illness, the only thing that makes my story special, is perhaps, my willingness to share it. With so much unnecessary shame, stigma, and confusion surrounding mental illness, I am willing to be judged so that perhaps eventually, others will feel less judged. So here goes nothing!

For me, my manic depression started when I was 16 and studying at UC Berkeley. I completely stopped needing sleep for about three weeks and IT. WAS. FUN! Now, when I say, fun, I mean fun for a SUPER dorky 16-year-old. I listened to almost all of the Watergate tapes in the Berkeley library in about three days. I started reading and walking, AND taking notes at the same time, which I only gave up after about the fourth time I was almost hit by a car. Plus, with all of the extra time on my hands due to my reduced need for sleep, I ALSO became an explorer! I started taking LONG walks through Berkeley and San Francisco late at night, observing the homeless, checking out the night time culture, really getting the lay of the land! And, WHILE I was strolling through the city at dangerously early morning hours, I figured that I might as well work on my singing and dancing at the same time! Why not? I could be killing 3 birds with one stone! Walking, dancing, and singing. Did I mention that I wasn’t TRAINED in dancing or singing? Didn’t matter! By the time I got home from each walk I had taught myself how to do both! (or so I thought). You know those cool black dudes who do back up dancing for Bruno Mars, while playing an instrument at the same time? That was me! Except I wasn’t a cool and black dude, and there was no stage. I was a 16-year-old who looked like Blanket Jackson and it was 2AM on Haight –Ashbury. In hindsight, I realize that the only thing that kept me from any danger was the fact that I WAS the goddamned danger! I was the crazy, weird dancing and singing person! Who KNOWS what drug people thought I was on. No one was going to attack me late at night, they probably thought I’d bite back and give them rabies if provoked! And who knows, I might have. It was a weird time full of questionable choices and curious gut reactions.

Towards the end of what I like to call my “Berkeley Rumspringa” I found myself in the dorm cafeteria, finally a little tired, with my friend Jay. He told me a VERY mediocre joke, and it SLAYED me. It sent me in to a 10-minute laughing fit that I noticed drew several quizzical looks, but nothing felt better and I had no desire to stop. Everything just felt so fast and so fun and so awesome … until it wasn’t. Very soon after, I found myself on the floor of my dorm room constantly googling ways to kill myself. To make matters worse, the stupid internet kept failing, and since a faulty internet in college is a freaking tragedy, THAT made me want to kill myself even MORE! My body was heavy and immobile, and when it wasn’t, my mind was conducting me to fling it against the wall, or hit myself in the chest. And this very fast or very sad way of life is how I continued to exist for a VERY LONG TIME.

There was no doubt in my mind that I was bipolar. I mean, I WAS taking psych classes after all, but unlike a leg break or a wrist sprain, when someone has an issue with their brain, addressing it is overwhelming, tricky and requires so much. Plus, when one’s brain is so flooded, sometimes simply functioning logically from point A (I have a problem) to point B ( find a way to get some help), isn’t something that even comes to mind. When it finally did for me, however, like many of Americans, getting assistance and help wasn’t an option. Right out of college, paying bills with random jobs, I didn’t have the means for regular insurance, let alone something fancy like mental health insurance. (I personally didn’t see a therapist until well over 10 years after my first manic episode.) Sadly, mental health services continue to be a privilege and not a right- a devastating fact that leaves many in dangerous, heartbreaking, desperate situations that prevent them from being able to reach their full potential. Yes, treatment for the intricacies of one’s brain are much more complex than simply treating a break or a sprain, but hopefully soon, acknowledging them will be just as benign, and the treatment for them will be justly accessible. “Ah crap my wrist is broken, I need to go to the doctor,” will be equivalent to saying, “ah rats, turns out spontaneously crying in my car isn’t normal, I gotta go check in with a therapist.” I am cautiously hopeful that this will happen, but it will only happen with the more we know, the more we seek to know, and the more we share.

That night that all of my friends were chatting about various personal issues, one of them said one of my favorite sentences ever. He said “Here, I’ll go first.” It’s such a kind, and trusting way to preface divulging a great deal of personal information, that ensures that the listener will have the right to feel safe when she does the same. So, if anyone is having trouble telling themselves that it’s 100% ok to be mentally ill, that it’s ok to undoubtedly struggle and be on a constant search to find what treatments work right for you… allow me to go first. I’m Ginger Gonzaga. I’m bipolar 2. I also have PTSD, anxiety, OCD and about 20 years of eating disorders that come and go. Do I feel shame right now for saying that? Hell no, bitches! I feel like I just dropped the mic! I feel like Eminem in ‘8 Mile’! I feel like I just brilliantly free-styled in front of a bunch of cool rappers about how I grew up in a trailer park, with a crazy mom, and my arms are like spaghetti, before anyone could use that information against me in their rap battle retort! I’m freakin EMINEM! And perhaps you are too! If so, welcome to the club! And if you don’t know if you, or a loved one is in it, FIND OUT! Does your child seem unnecessarily angry and mean? He might be depressed. Does your co-worker come off rude in social situations? She might be having a panic attack. Did you like ‘The Emoji Movie’? YOU MIGHT NOT BE OK! Mental illness is complex and delicate and sometimes it’s hard to even know you’re a member, but I WILL say this- if you catch yourself shitting in your backyard and feeding your feces to your neighbor’s dog, you might not just be in the club, you might be a motha fuggin VIP!