Today’s post is a guest post by a WoC who wished to publish anonymously.
I remember the first time I saw the world split. A great cosmic spider spun a web of lightning across the sky and it cracked the earth into pieces. I knew it wasn’t real, but I could not stop myself from seeing it. This is my first memory of psychosis, but I know that at the time I was already used to hallucinating. I was four years old which makes me so rare that psychiatrists don’t even have enough data to establish how rare I am.
So what? Mental illness? Isn’t that the ultimate First World Problem? I’ll give a spoiler right now and say that I turned into a functioning adult who has kids and a job and can write coherent blog posts. So why does this matter? Because I learned at a very early age that my lack of control stripped me of basic human dignity. I performed poorly in school. I was bullied because I made other children and adults uncomfortable. I even once lost my job due to mental health issues and was an easy target for sexual assault.
In a church of perfection, I did not cut it. I grew up with a girl named Tara who was the epitome of Mormon goodness. She was blonde, blue-eyed, and had a family tree full of Smiths, Youngs, and Romneys. Her father was the bishop and her mother made perfectly intricate quilts. She came from a family of four girls and they all wore new dresses – no hand-me-downs. She never let me forget that I had no pioneer ancestors, no nice clothes, was the wrong race, and I was crazy. You know her? Let’s face it. We all know her. You don’t need to have experienced psychosis to have been on the receiving end of her scorn. She is the person that made you realize that Mormons were not Christlike.
Back in the eighties, the treatment for mental illness was good old will power and prayer. After a childhood of being at the mercy of this disease, I decided to ditch the former and give the later a whirl. Over the course of Junior High I learned to use prayer, hymns, and journaling to center and ground myself. The crazy thing? It worked in my early teen years. By the time I was 14, I had felt that I had it under control.
About the same time, my parents moved. I was thrilled for a chance to walk into a new school, a new ward, and a new life where no one would know that I had been crazy. The first day of church I sat down next to Patti. We quickly discovered that we were both into musicals, literature, and loved our cats. I had had short lived friendships before but this time, I was in control and things would last. I didn’t tell her that I had been bullied for being psychotic. She didn’t tell me that she was bullied for being overweight. I found out later that some of the boys in the stake would bark or howl at her and call her a dog.
My first year of high school I got good grades, had a large entourage of friends, was active in the drama club and was nominated for “Best actress” in one of my school plays. During my second year, the symptoms started intensifying. My grades began to slip, I began avoiding my friends so they wouldn’t find out, and this time prayer and hymns didn’t help. There was one fine midnight when I woke up, partially dressed, walked out of my house and started to wander while mumbling incoherently. Thankfully the police found me before I hurt myself.
My parents were appalled and did what any good Mormon would do in that case: They called the bishop. The bishop told them that I was on drugs and having premarital sex. Only such grave sins could cause serious mental instability. Before long, the whole ward was calling my parents with their unsolicited advice on how to reign me in.
Two weeks later I had to walk into seminary when everyone knew the ugly truth and had been gossiping about it. But when I walked in, Patti waved me over beside her. She started talking to me as if nothing happened. The last two years at home were awkward, but Patti stuck by me. My teenaged, black-and-white brain sorted all the people who either judged or loved me: Tara, Tara, Patti, Tara, Patti. Because isn’t that what church and life is about? The Pattis stand up to the terrorizing Taras. There are those who make it and those who struggle with imperfection.
I fought psychosis through my early twenties and began to get real psychiatric help. As the hormones of adolescence started to subside, so did my symptoms. I was able to give up the meds. I went to grad school and I found gainful employment. I even got married and had kids. I had my problems with Mormonism, but I stayed in church because I wanted to be a champion for the Pattis. The crazy thing was, a life time of trying to exercise control over my psyche actually shaped me into the woman that is lauded in LDS culture. People were jealous of my clean house, my crafting skills, my thorough knowledge of the Book of Mormon, and my cute kids who liked primary. I spent the first 22 years of my life occupying the lowest possible rung of the Mormon hierarchy ladder. I spent the next 20 reigning as perfect Molly Mormon.
People would ask me how I did it. I’d just laugh and say, “Well, it’s not like it’s as hard as graduate school.” And smugly I’d think, “Or fighting a psychotic disorder.” And if my flip attitude was insensitive – well how could I be insensitive? Wasn’t I a friend to the Pattis? And I realized that nearly every LDS member identifies as a Patti. There was that primary teacher who felt left out of the temple marriage talk because her husband wasn’t a member. There was the woman with the perfect house who had to learn she was a child of God even though she battled clinical depression. There was the Relief Society president who had a twelve-year struggle with infertility. I was all their friends. I understood. I couldn’t be Tara, could I?
Slowly I began to realize that there is no one in this church who is so marginalized that there isn’t someone else they can look down on. I heard that the new African American family didn’t look like “real” members. The woman with depression expressed disdain for schizophrenics. And sometimes I heard things like, “If they wanted to be accepted at church they shouldn’t have gotten a tattoo.”
Recently a plane was crashed by a depressed pilot. Patti posted on Facebook: “It’s too bad that mental illness is accepted and coddled today. Why should the rest of us suffer?”
Those few lines hurt me more than my bishop’s judgment so many years ago. So why did she sit with me? Was it because she genuinely loved me? Was it because she was tolerant of crazy once? Or was she just so desperate for acceptance that she would buy it at any price? Did she judge me even while she expected me to reverse the hurt that others inflicted on her?
I shouldn’t feel the betrayal of a woman who I haven’t clapped eyes on for two decades, but I do. This ate at me for weeks before it hit me: Are we not all Taras? We all claim to be the Patti’s, bullied and marginalized. But can we claim that we have never marginalized another person, clung to our privilege, or built up and exclusionary “normal.”? I have spent the last twenty years basking in my victory in winning at a perfectionist culture. What have I done to see that everyone – yes, everyone – can feel safe and loved?
Are we not all Taras? I am. I have my victim credentials: I have had five or six psychiatrists tell me I’m nutso. I am a person of color in a white church. I am a cafeteria Mormon. I am a victim of sexual assault. I was bullied as a child by the teachers as well as my classmates. But even I have been a Tara. If I want to claim that I am going to stand for the oppressed, I will have to accept that about myself.