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Nailing the Compulsories - or How I skate my way through explaining mental health

Don't let the smile fool you...I'm scared silly

Previously I've written many a blogpost about my ongoing struggles with depression. Struggles? Sure it’s a struggle, I guess. Some days it’s a cage match, bare knuckled, no rules. Other days it’s a deftly choreographed dance. Or maybe a championship figure skating routine, with jumps so deft and turns so fast that your head spins just watching. At its worst my struggle is violent and raw. At its best it is dizzying, defying logic and our normal senses. As the Winter Olympics approach, skaters around the world are honing their skills. Only the most experienced skating aficionados can truly evaluate it; the rest us can only admire and assume the routine is championship caliber. Oh, who are we kidding; most of us only watch for the falls. We sure can evaluate those pretty clearly when someone ends up with their bottom sliding on ice. But the rest of the routine we can’t tell our Axels from our Lutzes, our triples from our quads. Mental illness is pretty much the same; we all can tell when someone falls. But the rest of the time? Mental illness is the skating long program, and most folks are just not qualified to judge this routine. Technical or artistic scores might as well be generated by one of those lottery machines spitting out numbered ping-pong balls. Nothing is linear. Nothing is discernible without slo-mo instant replay or the commentary of a former skater. There isn’t something we can measure, like the height of a bar, the time on a downhill heat, or the distance of a javelin toss. And even when a Scott Hamilton or Michele Kwon are talking you through it, just when we think we’re getting it, the skater changes the routine, and you’re lost again.

I’m fairly active on Twitter, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, people are pretty open about their own mental health issues. If Facebook is the parent’s brag blog (brog?), Instagram is the internet’s coloring book, and Snapchat is…Snapchat is completely unfathomable to anyone over 40…if all of those things are true, then Twitter is the couch in the internet’s psychiatry office. For whatever reason, a lot of people feel comfortable completely opening up about their mental health, 140 (now 280) characters at a time. Maybe that’s why. Maybe in such a short message, you can’t expose too much of your fears and foibles and deep dark secrets

But really how much can a Tweet or two say about mental health? Well here I am, laying the groundwork to do more than 280 characters. In the next several posts, I try to explain the inexplicable. It might be a fool’s errand. A reporter once asked Louis Armstrong to explain what jazz was. He responded, “Lady, if you gotta ask, you’ll never know.” The same goes for mental illness. I’ve always told friends and family that trying to explain depression to someone who does not suffer depression is just about the most exhausting thing I’ve tried to do. Yet here I go.

By the way, I focus mostly on depression, as that is what I know all too well. There are so many other forms of mental illness, and if anything, I’ve learned that you really can’t know them until you truly live them. But there are a great many shared experiences too, so hopefully I won’t do them too much of an injustice.

Finally I wanted to apologize if I am being presumptuous, trying to explain things as if I knew so much about it, and worse, trying to speak for those with mental illness, who never asked to be spoken for. There are others who have written about depression far more eloquently than I can, with more depth than I have. And there are those who are have had it so much worse than I, a man who only recently admitted he even had depression; a man who has had every privilege and advantage; a man with every resource to fight mental illness, every support system, every last need met. Nevertheless, write about it I will, invited or not.

Finally finally, a disclaimer: I occasionally refer to folks like myself (those with mental health issues) as “Crazies”, and those without disease as “Normals”. Crazies and Normals. Sorry if you feel that this seems insensitive or flippant*. It’s part of both my sarcastic persona, but also the very same self-deprecation that got me here.

Now, without further ado, I present to you befuddled answers to questions none of you asked (first post coming soon)

*Not all that sorry

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