I’m Mentally Ill, but It’s Not My Fault

abigaillville

I’m meeting Alyssa for the first time. She is a First Access counselor for Behavioral Health and she is facilitating my intake. She calls me in and asks me some questions. The questions are easy and difficult at the same time. I know all the answers, it’s the saying them out loud that is hard. I start rattling off about hospital stays, self-harm, suicidal ideation, accidental prescription addiction, withdrawal, fear, anxiety, depression, PTSD, disassociating, past therapeutic experiences.

She applauds me on the different coping strategies I have employed like getting a tattoo on my left arm so I will see that beautiful inscription instead of seeing my wrist as a canvas for cutting. I tell her how I am terrified at night when I try to sleep, afraid of that space between closing my eyes and actually falling asleep. Afraid of not falling asleep. Scared of the memories, intrusive thoughts, anxieties, flashbacks that haunt me when the shadows come.

I’m sleeping so much better these days but those times still come, and I’m 5 years old and alone and scared. I don’t know why my my mom is gone or why my brother and I are living in a different home. I just know it’s a loss. A devastating loss that will never be healed. I live from that loss every day. It is a magnet that draws predators, tormentors, damaged peers, and it brands me as damaged, too.

I am a foster kid. A child of the system. I’m 10, 14, 17, and I’m damaged. I’m separate, I’m less than. I’m lost. Monthly visits with my birth mother do nothing to assuage the grief that has clawed itself into my heart. I have to leave. She has to leave. I have no certainty that she will show up next month. Kids ask why I leave school early or why my parents’ name is different than my own, and I am so ashamed to tell them. I am so other. I will never be one of them. I won’t have the security of a home that never crashes into shattered hearts, minds, and bodies.

I just know it’s a loss. It’s a devastating loss that will never be healed. I live from that loss every day.

I’m a number and a check every month. I’m a family appendage who is the perfect target for abuse. I’ve been groomed by loss. They can see it, these men and women, they know I am split right down the middle and will never be whole enough to tell the truth about the recreational role playing, about the boy in the basement, the neighbor, the foster father, the teacher, the youth pastor. I will never speak about the men I see everywhere, exposing themselves in alleys, touching themselves under train cars, sitting in their cars naked. I’m a magnet for depravity.

All of this seeps out of me when I am asked questions, It’s all of a piece. Why I can’t sleep, why I detach, why I collapse at 3 every day and wonder why it’s worth it? Why tomorrow? What’s the point of it all? When the sun starts fading, I do too. And it feels like grief. Every single day, I have to push through with truth, with the people who love me, with the belief that I have a purpose. It’s difficult for me to exist, to be present to myself and others, it is a challenge to be all there in that place at that time. It is physically exhausting to keep all this inside, not knowing who to tell, who will understand, who won’t judge me for all the things I have failed to accomplish while I am overwhelmed by fatigue and stuck in my dark reverie.

All this accumulates in the silt of my heart until it is stirred up and swirls inside me. I leave with mixed feelings. Being heard breaks my heart wide open, I am being drawn back to the earth, I am reminded that I am a bodily form, that the space I take up is okay, I’m worth sharing it with, it’s not too much, I’m not too much, I’m enough. Being seen at my lowest and weakest and not only accepted but affirmed, adds weight to my spirit and lands it back inside me. Reflecting on the fact that I now have two counselors and a psychiatrist can mean only one thing. I am mentally ill. I feel the shame of the stigma, the feeling of failure because I need so much help to maintain daily normal interaction and good mental health. I am dizzy and detached with the knowledge that this is lonely and long work.

What brought me to this place, physically and emotionally, wasn’t my fault. And that makes me angry. Angry at my family for sacrificing my life because they were selfish and wounded and sick and lazy. Angry at a system determined to help but falls short every time, they place you but you never feel placed. Angry at the system because there were few safeguards back then, there was no child advocacy to insure children had a voice and the words and the safety to speak the unimaginable experiences they’ve had. Angry at foster parents for not seeing me, for trying the wrong things, for not asking the right questions, for fulfilling the requirements but not hearing my heart. Angry at the foster parent who tucked me in at night and then helped himself to my self. Angry that I had to carry this now, alone, burdened down with all the other abuse. The blind eyes, the manipulation, the power plays, the roving hands, the man of God who told explicit stories to impress me, who cornered me and kissed me in the dark church while the other kids played games. Angry at God for letting this all happen. Angry that I now carry years of shattering and I am doubled over by the weight of the secrets and sickness.

I now carry years of shattering, alone, burdened down with all the other abuse, and I am doubled over by the weight of the secrets and sickness.

I am mentally ill but it’s not my fault, but I have to do all the work, have done all the work for all these years to stay alive. That label rips me apart inside, makes me want to curl up so small until I am subtracted into nothing and sucked into the void that resides on the perimeter of my soul. The hours I’ve spent with therapists and psychiatrists and doctors and social workers and peer groups have added up to weeks, months, years of my life I’ve spent attempting to undo what was done to me. My feeble, faltering attempts at healing the wounds, becoming whole, filling up that gaping maw of need in the center of me, have cost me so much and cost my perpetrators nothing. I am furious that I have to enlist the help of so many people to keep me out of the hospital, away from sharp objects, distracted from thoughts of annihilation.

I am mentally ill, but it’s not my fault. And yet I pay for it. With strips of skin I peel off my body to expose what’s underneath. With fingerprints on my teen-aged throat as I choke myself into unconsciousness to escape the loneliness. With ink on my wrist to discourage the knife. With a medicated brain to help me not be overtaken by catastrophic thoughts or groundless worries, or the anvil of anxiety crushing the breath from my lungs. I pay for it with aching throat and tightened jaw that holds the tears at bay because most of the time I don’t know how to cry. I pay for it with numbness and detachment because I don’t know how to feel the pain anymore.

I am mentally ill but it’s not my fault. Yet I am branded by it. When I walk through the doors of the clinic marked behavioral, when I sit in the waiting room with the other clients who know why I am there, when I pick up my medication at the pharmacy from the same pharmacists I’ve known for years, who now know what I take every day. I am branded by it when I isolate myself and hide away because I don’t have the energy or presence of mind to interact, to make eye contact, to respond to questions. I am branded by it with all the appointments marked in my calendar, a constant reminder that I am not okay. I’m mostly okay. But mostly doesn’t get you off the meds or allow you to shrug off the shame of the depression and anxiety that are the evil twins birthed by PTSD.

I am mentally ill but it’s not my fault. I was born to an alcoholic who was unwilling to give up her addiction in exchange for her children. I was born into a family who would not keep me and called child services to take me away. I was born into a family of desperately broken people. I was born into poverty and fatherlessness. I was born into impossibility. Hopelessness. I was born into death.

It’s my responsibility to tell the truth about how I’m feeling that day.

I am mentally ill but it’s my responsibility. I have to learn how to care for myself when I don’t even want to be myself. I have to take the medication, lined up like straight-backed amber sentinels, on the shelf that takes up a third of the cabinet. I have to say no to events and invitations because I have to keep my appointments, the ones that rattle me and settle me. It’s my responsibility to tell the truth about how I’m feeling that day, that the darkness is closing in, that I don’t want to be present, that I’m having trouble coming out of my detachment, that I’m having hopeless thoughts about tomorrow, that I am paralyzed by fear and anxiety.

I’m mentally ill but It’s my responsibility to speak up and shoulder the shame with other survivors and sufferers. To not hide because I’m scared or embarrassed, to not care so much of what people think of me that I withdraw and withhold. It’s my responsibility to offer hope to others while my own hurt is crushing me and my own heart is struggling to beat. It’s my responsibility to bring awareness to the heaviness that is weighing people down, the weight of secrets, self-blame, self-loathing, and self-harm. It’s my responsibility to create a space in myself for others who need a space to be loved and seen and convinced they’re not invisible or alone or disposable. It’s my responsibility to not let someone else’s sickness make me sick, too.

 

Resources and Support

For Mental Health:

nostigmas     twloha     facingus-house     nami

NEDA    nimh    adaa   band back together2     project semicolon

 

In Chicago:

Thresholds logo

Thresholds Veterans Logo

 

For PTSD:

sidran     healmyptsd    

For survivors of sexual abuse and assault:

rainn     vandf     NO+MORE_STACK_TAG_RGB     nsvrc-circle.preview     joyful heart    

For Men:

1in6logo-print     Bristlecone-Project-1in6.org_     obs-landing-logo

For veterans and active-duty soldiers:

Safe-Helpline-Logo-Teal_250w     mtc_ani     lg-icon-ptsd-coach

military_with_PTSD_strength_warrior     ptsdusa     sod

Tammy Perlmutter
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Tammy Perlmutter

Writer at Raggle-Taggle
Tammy Perlmutter writes about unabridged life, fragmented faith, and investing in the mess at her blog. She founded The Mudroom to make room in the mess and create a space for people to be heard. Tammy guest posts a bit, writes flash memoir, personal essay, and poetry, leads writing groups, and preaches on occasion. She will has an essay included in the book Soul Bare: Raw Reflections on Human Redemption, by Inter Varsity Press.
Tammy Perlmutter
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Latest posts by Tammy Perlmutter (see all)

  • Caiobhe

    Tammy this is so much. Too much. I can’t bear that this is what you have to bear, have to shoulder, have to take the responsibility for. Your courage in taking the tablets, turning up to the appointments, and letting us know what it is like in some small way to be you in your life, is immense and extraordinary. Thank you for writing out these painful shards of truth. I have no good words to respond with. I’m not close enough to even give you a hug. But I’m holding you really tightly today.

    • Tammy Perlmutter

      Thank you, friend!! Your words are plenty good enough. Thanks for being here.

  • Abby Norman

    Oh Tammy. This piece is beautiful. You are beautiful, and brave. What a gift you are to this community, to the world.

    • Tammy Perlmutter

      Abby, I appreciate your kind words. Thank you for thinking of me as a gift. I will keep your words close.

  • Velynn

    Tammy Sis you are courageous and needed and loved. Your words tore me a part and put me back together. Thank you for sharing your true journey it makes us all a little braver to share our own! Love you.

    • Tammy Perlmutter

      Awww, V, don’t make me cry. I’m sorry for the tearing apart but am grateful to you for risking it:) I love you too.

  • Nicole Walters

    Beautiful. Thank you for shining a light on what the church has been afraid to speak of for so long. Praying for freedom for so many as they step into the light and finding healing in Him and a community of faith who hears and hopes to help!

    • Tammy Perlmutter

      Thank you for reading and responding, Nicole, and for calling the church out on its responsibility to care for the wounded inside it. Thanks also for your prayers.

  • Kelly Zimmerman Conrad

    Tammy, you are not only courageous, you are also a very gifted writer. I’m sure you’ve been told that before, but I wanted to add my words of admiration and respect for your willingness to share such an intimate portrait of your struggles. You are helping so many people. You obviously have many gifts and definitely an important purpose, a role to play in others’ healing. God cannot use us unless we are broken; I thank God that He is using you in such a meaningful way.

    • Tammy Perlmutter

      Wow . . . . That is a lot of praise. Thank you. That was the push I needed to post this, I wrote what I needed to read. I wanted it to reach those people who are alone in their darkness and offer them some hope and community.

  • “the silt of my heart until it is stirred up and swirls inside me,” – so vivid, I can see it and feel it – thank you for sharing your heart and soul. Our surviving son has an extraordinary chest tattoo that weaves and covers his cutting scars into a seamless piece of art. I am at a loss for words, crying too hard. Honored to know you, grateful for your words.

    • Tammy Perlmutter

      Thank you so much, Terri, for reading and for sharing your son’s story. How incredibly powerful.

  • Frodine

    So much love. It’s wrong that the people who have the most to deal with, who have to fight the hardest every single day, face the most judgment. You deserve celebration, and joy, and all the good things. Thank you for sharing your compassionate soul and making space for others. All those pills and appointments that feel like they separate you? I wish the world would see them for what they are–hard-won victories that show all the work you’ve done and how amazing you are. Thank you again for making this space. <3

    • Tammy Perlmutter

      Thank you!! I wish I could see them as hard-won victories. And maybe I will from now on. It’s a good image to project onto the negative. Thanks for that!

  • Thaeda

    My word… the courage it takes to be so vulnerable and share so deeply. Wow. I worked in child welfare for 10 years- I hear you about the system being broken. I cannot tell you how many times I felt like we were not doing enough, and yet did not know what else to do…my daughter suffers from depression and anxiety- she also has a tattoo on her left wrist…I see the same strength in her that I hear in your words. It is tragic that you must be so strong, but beautiful to hear you share it. Blessings to you.

    • Tammy Perlmutter

      I can only imagine how helpless that would make you feel, wanting so much more for the kids but having to settle for what little could be done. I applaud you for your hard service. And I am sorry about your daughter, but I am glad she is finding some light too. Thank you for this beautiful comment.

  • Caity-Shea Violette

    Aboslutely GORGEOUS. Your courage to share your gift of storytelling and share your truth is nothing short of heroic. Thank you. Thank you thank you thank you.

    • Tammy Perlmutter

      Thank you for crying when I read it to you in its rawest form, and for encouraging me to keep going with it, and to keep going every day, and for being there when it gets too dark to be alone.

  • Melanie Dale

    Tammy, I’m reading this and feeling so many layers of feelings. As your friend, I love all the pieces of your shattered heart. I ache for your journey and I’m indignant and thrashing “Not Fair” inside my head. And I’m proud to know you, like I just want to take out a billboard that says, “I know Tammy Perlmutter! I get to be her friend!”

    As an adoptive mother, I’m grateful for your bravery and vulnerability to share your story and I soak up every word and listen to your voice. You’re leading the next generation of kids who feel, “they place you but you never feel placed,” and you make me a better, more understanding mom.

    As a writer, I feel all, “Hot damn, she’s beautiful,” and am fist pumping the air whooping and hollering for you.

    Mostly I don’t have the right words and just want to hang out with you because I like you so much.

    • Tammy Perlmutter

      Melly Mel, you are a beacon of light to me. Thank you for your friendship and your love of all things inappropriate and scandalous. Your words just pour hope into me. I love you and think you are the best thing ever, and you can have as many aggressive full-frontal hugs and ear whispers with me as you want.

  • Gayl Wright

    Tammy, I don’t know what to say. I hate that you’ve had to go through so much and still do. I’m glad that you are trying to make space for others who also are struggling. You are beautiful and awesome. I pray God will strengthen and heal and shower you with grace and love. {{Hugs}} <3

    • Tammy Perlmutter

      Thank you, Gayl, for your consistent support and encouragement, and for your prayers!

  • Janet Schmidt

    You are a very talented writer and a true inspiration! Thanks for sharing this!

    • Tammy Perlmutter

      Janet, that is so nice of you, thank you.

  • Tammy, you are a brave and beautiful writer, and a brave and beautiful person. I regret that we haven’t managed to reconnect yet. I am really grateful to know you, even a little.

    • Tammy Perlmutter

      Katherine, thank you for reading and commenting, it means a lot to me. Thank you also for your lovely words.

  • Praying that you know how much your are loved and appreciated today… and it’s not because you wrote a beautiful blog post.

    • Tammy Perlmutter

      Ed, thank you from the silty bottom of my heart. You are a wonderful, compassionate, and insightful man, and your support of women has been a source of hope for me and I know there are others who agree with me. We are blessed to know you.

  • Thank you, Tammy, for sharing your story. I appreciate your refrain “it’s not my fault” and “it’s my responsibility”–I pray for your continued strength, courage,and wisdom as you continue to know the difference and live that out.

    • Tammy Perlmutter

      April, your prayers are coveted. I am so happy to have “met” you, and hope to get to know you more. Thank you.

  • Ashley Tolins Larkin

    Tammy, my heart hurts with you. Thank you so much for sharing your story…for your own sake and for so many others. You are beautiful and loved. I am holding space for you and lifting prayers for you. I am so angry about what happened to you. Bless you, sister.

    • Tammy Perlmutter

      Ashley, thank you for holding space for me, that is a beautiful offering. Thank you for affirming and allowing my anger and for joining in it with me:)

  • This is an amazing and beautiful and powerful post. What comes through the most for me is your courage determination, raw grit in continuing and coping and managing and surfing. But my heart breaks for the child that you were and how you were treated. It is not right. It is not okay.

    I absolutely love your take on this – you’re so right, that we as a society are quick to put the blame on the patient, but there are more factors in play. I haven’t even expressed myself properly, but I just wanted to say how much I admired your attitude and the maturity of your response to acknowledge the significant grief, and grit your teeth anyway and continue to cope.

    And I wish there were a better way of getting help with mental illness than having to rehearse to a stranger the intimate and traumatic events of your life. That in itself is a vulnerability.

    So thankful for your voice and your words.

    • Tammy Perlmutter

      Tanya, I am overwhelmed by your sweetness and support. Please remind me now and then about my courage and grit and determination. I think I’ll need it. Your words are a salve for my soul.

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  • Tammy, this is a courageous, honest account. When you say “I am mentally ill…” remember that your identity is not your illness; you illness is not your identity. You deal with the results of what happened to you and who was or was not there in your life, but you certainly did not cause your own illness. And as for the “identified patient” label which used to be so popular in families who didn’t want to deal with their own flaws/dysfunction, that is a cop-out. It seems that you have worked hard over the years toward healing and health…. consider that. You are your own precious person. Thank you. @LatelaMary

    • Tammy Perlmutter

      Thank you, Mary for reminding me of my worth and for your perspective.

  • Beautiful, Tammy. Thank you for sharing so vulnerably and for committing to the hard work of wanting to live and be well. Your words are powerful and stir up love and compassion in my soul. You are being reborn into a greater story and I am already a humble and grateful recipient of your redemptive self.

    • Tammy Perlmutter

      Astrid, thank you for acknowledging and affirming how hard the work is, and for your beautiful, heartwarming, healing words. I am glad you are here with us.

      • Thanks. I keep thinking about your story… My parents adopted six kids- older ones who were abandoned by their parents so I have pondered that type of loss and sadness from a young age. God’s pain tolerance seems higher than mine…. You are whole enough to tell the truth now and that’s a beautiful thing- I am grateful for you and your loving words.

        • Tammy Perlmutter

          Thanks for letting me know my words lingered, that’s one of the highest praises a writer can hope for. Your parents must be incredibly compassionate and patient people. Abandoned kids are a unique challenge–a strange mix of fear of people and a desperate longing to connect, which then makes the kid into a target. I am grateful for you to, thanks for the dialogue, keep going if you want:)

          • yeah- they keep lingering… My parents are great and have some wonderful strengths that contributed to their calling. I’d say neither patience nor compassion are in their top 10 strongest traits but God seemed to be able to work with that 🙂 I did learn a lot growing up in our unusual family. You can’t out love someones pain/past/loss for instance… but I think you can help provide a safe place for someone and hopefully greatly reduce the chance of further relational damage. I keep wishing someone had done that for you and I keep thinking that I could be that someone for a child in need. It’s hard and messy and can also be rewarding. My siblings have all turned into high functioning adults and that’s grace and a miracle. And you’re a miracle too.

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  • Michelle

    Thank you for sharing this the world needs to hear it. The world needs to see it. I currently work at a trauma assessment center and I see and hear the stories of little ones who have endured the unimaginable but the one thing I am finding over and over again is that people need to be educated on the effects of trauma. I encourage you to continue to tell your story because it makes a difference and if it means anything today I hear your heart and I pray that God will use you to bring awareness and to advocate for those who have walked in similar shoes as you.

    • Thank you so much, Michelle. Your words are so encouraging!! I didn’t understand the depth of my trauma for real until a few years ago. That’s when the PTSD symptoms kept worsening. Keep up the important work.

  • Gina

    Love this Tammy-so powerful! Thanks for sharing this.