See Me: Fighting The Invisibility Of Mental Illness

By Danielle Vintschger

CN: discussion of self-harm

I was eight years old, sitting in the garden next to our driveway when I first became invisible. My body faded away, leaving only a tiny hand holding a trowel with shaking fingers as I raised it above my left wrist and struck. The cut was small, the blood bright against my dirty hand. I stood up and walked up to my father, silently showing him the wound. He brought me inside to clean it up. It was just an accident. Some Neosporin and a bandaid, and it was forgotten. 

Of course, I didn’t forget. And it was no accident. 

I was 12 years old, sitting in math class when I again became invisible. The anxiety enveloped my body like a blanket, and I faded away, leaving nothing but a wispy pile of eyelashes on the desk. I only woke up when my teacher exclaimed “What are you doing?!” My fist at my eye, only feeling the tiny, sharp pop of the hairs as I pulled them out. “Nothing,” I whispered. And it was forgotten.

Of course, I didn’t forget. And it was not nothing. 

I was 14 years old, alone at a table in the cafeteria, when I became invisible. The numbness trickling over my body until nothing was left except the food in front of me. I stared until my focus blurred, only feeling that my body was taking up too much space, that the monster I saw in the mirror was misshapen, so big, too big, and if I didn’t do something, this grotesque frame I was trapped in would explode. The bell rang, and I threw the food in the trash. And it was forgotten.

Of course, I didn’t forget. And it was no oversight.

I was 22 years old, watching the towers fall when I became invisible. The smell of burning concrete leaching through my windows, my heart thudding in my emaciated chest, my scarred body shaking as CNN showed the world ending over and over and over. I reached for the bottle of scotch that had been sitting in the cabinet for over a year. And I drank until everything around me was invisible too. Many people did that. And it was forgotten.

Of course, I didn’t forget. And it was no understandable reaction.

Each time I made myself invisible, I did not realize that I was slowly but surely falling down the rabbit hole of severe mental illness. Sure I was always sad, confused, solitary. I led a life of few friends, bad relationships, and constant self-harm. But that was simply the way things were. I never thought that when I took the trowel to my arm when I was eight years old that I would be sitting here 30 years later, frantic that my food stamps were just cut off and my disability check would never pay all the bills. I never thought that the breakdown I had right after grad school was actually a psychotic break, that my bipolar disorder was in control of my life now, and that as hard as I tried, I couldn’t hold a job, or a relationship, or even a place to live.

When I was eight years old and cut my wrist with that trowel, I could never know that I would spend most of my thirties in various rehabs and psych units, so many times that the nurses knew me at my local hospital, moaning “not again” when I was wheeled into the sterile green locked halls over and over. I became a “frequent flyer” and the psych unit became my second home. There I was the president of all the invisible. I never thrived as much as I did amongst my own people, we who were thrown away or ran away from reality and the world in general. Us rejects and defects who didn’t fit in anywhere, who were shunned and spoken of only in whispers, when we were acknowledged at all. We were the lost children of this country, banished to behind the metal doors that protected us from the world and the world from us.

It was behind those doors that I learned to adapt to the walls, and eventually to need them. I would be released: stay on my medications and away from alcohol and other self-destructive behaviors for a while, before the darkness overtook me again and I would crumble, quit outpatient therapy, stop taking my meds, and end up back in the hospital again. And again. And around and around we go. It’s been eight and a half years since I was diagnosed bipolar and borderline, with a heaping helping of PTSD, eating disorders, self-harm, and alcoholism, just to make things more interesting. And during those years, I have been in 12 psych hospitalizations, three rehabs, countless outpatient programs, and a partridge in a god damn pear tree. I have spent more time behind locked doors than not, and now that I have over a year since I was last in “The Bin” I am still learning how to live on the outside. It’s hard as hell, being invisible. It’s even harder when a part of you wants to stay that way.

It’s easier than one might think to stay invisible. When I speak out for mental health advocacy, when I tell my story, people get uncomfortable. Society wants us to stay behind locked doors, and if we are out, plenty of people want us to either accept the poverty level of living that being on permanent disability demands, or to fake being one of you “normals” and keep our illnesses invisible. I could give a string of facts and statistics about the dearth of care for those of us with mental illnesses, or I could spout off suicide statistics until my face turned blue, but that really never does any good. When we invisible women advocate for ourselves, we are attacked and told to shut up and deal, or mocked, or disregarded completely. I choose instead to tell you my story and hope that my pain can help others. But sometimes that’s a pipe dream.

For when I was eight years old and disappeared into my mind, I never thought that society would consider me invisible. To most of the country, I am a series of labels, not an actual person. Lazy. Crazy. Drunk. Selfish. Useless. Nothing but a drain on the people that are “normal” and why don’t I pull myself up by my bootstraps and suck it up and deal. The names I was called on Twitter alone would make a sailor blush. I wish I could say that I deleted and blocked and moved on, but I didn’t. Each of those insults was salt in my wounds, further encouragement to be invisible, to vanish into the crowd, to stay inpatient forever.

I didn’t vanish. I continued, in my tiny way, to be there for other people living with mental illnesses. I continued to fight for my own life, in drips and drabs, stumbling along the way over and over, always hearing the hissing voice of self-doubt telling me to stay down. Just don’t get up the next time you get kicked. It’s that easy. Take all the pills. Drink a quart of vodka. Disappear. Just disappear. It would have been so easy.

But then friends started dying. And they didn’t stop. That handsome rogue from my second rehab who dazzled all the women around him? He died. That sweet girl from outpatient who I gave my number to, hoping she’d call? She died. My best friend’s brother, gone. My precious friend who was the embodiment of beauty and light and fun. Her bright eyes forever closed. I know too many people who are invisible forever now. I see myself in all of their shadows. It’s so easy to be invisible in a world that doesn’t want to see you. So I make the decision every day to be seen. I talk about my illnesses, my addictions, my pain. I encourage others to do the same. I give out my number. I even assure people that they can call me instead of texting. Little things like that to do anything and everything I can to keep us from vanishing into the ether.

Of course I have bad times. Being bipolar means I can go full tilt Furiosa rescuing people left and right, and suddenly run into a wall of pain and lie in bed for a week, filthy and broken and staring at the wall, wanting to fade away. Every time I take my morning fistful of meds, or collapse into bed at night with another fistful of meds, I make the decision to not be invisible. Every time I look at a blade and imagine it separating my skin to release the bright red pain but set it aside instead, I make the decision not to be invisible. Every time I turn down a vodka tonic, or don’t purge my dinner, the lines of my frame solidify a little more. My hair is blacker, my eyes bluer. Every day that I’m on the outside of a psych ward, I take up a little more space in the world. 

I’m not invisible. You can’t make me be invisible. I have reclaimed my place in this universe.

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