This week is Mental Illness Awareness Week in the United States! Started by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, its a week dedicated to help bringing awareness about the effects of mental illness and support for loved ones that live with it. I hope to be able to write something about living with mental illness each day this week, spoons permitting – fingers crossed!
Despite all of my current financial and employment struggles, I stepped back and took a moment to do something for myself that I’ve been meaning to do for some time now. I bought myself a necklace.
I’m not exactly a jewelry person. I can’t wear watches on a regular basis (despite my obsession with time) because of my various wrist braces, none of which get along well with neighbors. I don’t wear rings, partially because they’re cumbersome and prone to damage (or damaging other things) with my job, and partially because I’d probably lose them. And I haven’t worn necklaces in a long time because they keep getting caught on things unless they’re chokers or just as short. I had to retire a necklace that I wore every single day for religious and personal reasons because the chain kept breaking when it would get caught on things and I didn’t have the spoons to repair or replace it continuously. Since then I’ve stepped away from those beliefs anyway, so there’s no point in fixing it.
But I found a necklace that really resonated with me, and I knew in the back of my mind that I had to have it. Not only was it pretty and yet simplistic, but it included a symbol that has a lot of special meaning to me due to my experiences with psychosis.
When I was in high school, I saw a lot of things that people would probably consider creepy. It was probably a reflection of the stress I was under at the time, the result of the haunting and invasive cruelty of my peers. But there was one hallucination that flipped off all of these and went about its way, fluttering through the world with rays of positive energy and hope: a bright blue butterfly. Granted, butterflies probably don’t seem like a very noticeable hallucination, but bright blue ones aren’t exactly native to this area. Not only that, but last I checked they don’t usually glow. This one very much did.
It’s not one that I typically tell people about because they don’t ask about it. More often than not they’re interested in the darkness, the negatives of mental illness and especially psychosis because that’s what they’re familiar with. They see on TV the characters with their breakdowns that leave them paranoid and thinking that there are men in suits and sunglasses out to get them. They hear about the people who are afraid of their delusions and hallucinations. They hear of these stories and think “oh, that’s so sad”. They don’t stop to think that maybe, just maybe, someone may find some good in their psychosis. That maybe an aspect of it gives them a feeling of hope or peace in a world of chaos.
Our society thinks of psychosis as an ultimately bad thing, something that should be eliminated or cured, never embraced. For centuries this idea has been reinforced both within the medical community and outside it, through media depictions and misinterpretations and the othering of those experiencing psychosis and/or mental illness.
What we don’t tell people is that psychosis and mental illness can influence a person’s perspective on the world in a way no one else could imagine. As a personal favorite example, remember John Forbes Nash, Jr., a world-famous American mathematician diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. During an interview with PBS he pointed out that the effects of mental illness can be an escape from the world, stating “People don’t develop a mental illness because they are in the happiest of situations usually. [...] If things are not so good, you may be one to imagine something better.” But one statement that resonated with me especially was that “people are always selling the idea that people who have mental illness are suffering.” Because it’s true – they are. They other us, focusing on this built-up concept of demons and don’t take into consideration the fact that aspects of it may be benefiting us.
I don’t see my butterfly anymore. The years have past and I’ve gone through other breakdowns and periods of remission, with my own demons. The butterfly didn’t come back to give me that hope I needed during those moments, but I found other ways to let my mind help me. Primarily, through art. I’ve been turning the things I see, the symbols that my mind develops through its abstract thinking, into pieces that I can show my loved ones to try to connect with them on a level that I never would be able to otherwise. I use it to communicate with them during times of need, should I not be able to effectively with language, to the point of giving prints of some of my pieces to my mother for holidays. I’ve even depicted the blue butterfly as that symbol of hope. Because honestly? I kind of miss it. And I know people don’t understand when those who experience psychosis miss their hallucinations or delusions. But it’s true. I miss it.
So when I found that necklace, I knew I had to have it. It took me months but I finally bought it. Like many other symbols throughout my life, blue butterflies have a distinct meaning for me now related to how I perceive the world through the lens of my mental illness. I want to reclaim that, keeping that hope and peace close to my heart so that even though I don’t see it anymore, it’s still always with me. Just much smaller and made of crystal, hanging from a sterling silver chain.