The Trail of Mental Illness
Amber Celelaith Tawen Rossi
It’s a cool July morning and I was supposed to be at work three hours ago, but I called out. I can’t go in. I’m sick today, though if I told my boss what with he’d probably tell me to suck it up and come in anyway. That’s what they told me last time, but they don’t get it. I really can’t come in.
So, instead, I’m a hundred miles away at the edge of a residential area on the southern edge of Kanab. Through the muddy sludge of a parking lot lies the base of the Bunting Trail. It’s about a mile and a half of steep, rocky inclines that gouge their way up the mountain-side. Common sagebrush lizards dart between bushes of their namesake, birds chirp and flutter over thin, twisted trees and squirrels watch at a wary distance, waiting for hikers to drop bits of food they can devour. The air is clear and fresh from yesterday’s rain, and it will be a while before the heat becomes unbearable. This is what I need right now. The peace, the quiet, far away from other people and their problems complicating my own. Supposedly, the view at the end is a breath-taking panorama of Kanab, the Vermillion Cliffs, and the fields into Arizona, but most importantly, it’s very high up and a very long drop back down. I start climbing the trail. I do not know if I’ll be coming back.
I’ve heard a lot of people spout that mental illness is an issue made up by our generation; that for thousands of years, we have not suffered from it, and now it’s coming up because we’re just whiny brats who want everything on a jewel-studded pedestal of pure gold. I know better. It’s run in my family for generations. My great aunt suffered. So did my great grandma. And it goes even farther back than that. Many summers ago, my cousin and I visited Hebron Cemetery, an abandoned graveyard from the 1800s. It sits, forgotten by most, at the end of an old dirt road west of Enterprise. We know it though, because we have a family history in Hebron. Back then, people didn’t know what mental illness was. They blamed demonic possession and fits of insanity, but even back then, our family had it.
While our family history only goes back to the eighteen-hundreds, mental illnesses goes back even farther. The ancient Greeks documented them, but like many ancient discoveries, their work was forgotten until recently. Around 150 AD Aretaeus of Cappadocia, a well-known physician, wrote about Melancholia: a disease characterized by bouts of depression and mania. He is credited with the first clinical descriptions of depression and bipolar disorder. Despite having such a limited understanding of the brain, he looked at the symptoms of these illnesses and concluded they were biological in origin and not, as many people today insist, a personality issue or a figment of the imagination.
We lost my cousin Bruce to it this past June. He was the first of my generation to go, and while I hope it kills no one else, I wouldn’t be surprised if it does. Whenever I bring the fact up to others, they spout their ignorance at me. “Why would he do that?” “That’s so selfish.” “That seems like a silly thing to do.” No one in our family said that. From them I heard, “He fought so hard.” “I wish I could have done more.” And, “Is it sad that I really can’t blame him?” We all knew, to some extent, what he’d gone through, and no one was foolish enough to believe themselves immune. We came together to honor his life, but in our hearts we were afraid. Bruce was very strong. His fate could have very easily been any one of ours.
My first encounter with mental illness happened when I was about six years old. We were living on a military base in Germany when my brother was first diagnosed with depression. He was nine, and I had no clue what was going on. My child-brain couldn’t comprehend complex matters. I was just excited because we got to move to an apartment closer to the school because the Psychiatrist said he needed his own room. The army housing department was very stingy and would set families up in the minimal required housing (one room for parents, one room for sons, one room for daughters, and no carpeting) but on doctor’s orders we moved to a bigger apartment. I liked having more space, but I did not like my brother. He was irritable and overly sensitive. We fought a lot, and one day I woke up to discover a note pinned to his door. I couldn’t read it, but my oldest brother did, sighed, and told me not to worry about it until Mom came out and started crying. She sent us out to look for Aron.
He wasn’t hard to find. While the military base we lived in wasn’t surrounded by sandbag barricades and patrolled by armed guards all the time, the entrances were guarded and everywhere else was surrounded by a chain-link fence that separated us from the dairy farms outside. We could smell the dairy farms whenever they were upwind. There was no way he would be going there.
So we trudged over the mossy ground surrounding the school’s playground and searched up and down the stepped hills until we found him, wrapped in his blanket, sitting in the crook of a warped tree in a forested area that ran along the fence. The children on base spent a lot of time wandering the woods, poking sticks at the temporary streams and ponds that formed after a rainstorm and catching the tiny black lizards that shot from leaf cover to rock cover while your closed fist landed just short of its tail, so we were not the first to find him. There were others there, asking him why he’d run away from home.
I don’t remember how our conversation went, exactly, but I suspect it was something along the lines of, “What the heck, you made Mom cry, come home right now.” None of us wanted to see mom cry, so he came home. I didn’t know it at the time, but she had depression too. I just knew that I thought they were dumb, and I didn’t understand why they were this way. I couldn’t understand, not until years later when I faced those problems myself.
I chose the Bunting Trail because it was less popular than the neighboring Cottonwood trail, and I can see why. The landscape is as beautiful as red rock and sagebrush ever is, but between the unstable dirt of the riverbed that drags me back with each step and the steep sandstone rocks that require me to use my hands to climb over them it is not a hike to bring the kids on. All the shifting footing and scrambling makes my joints ache and I know I shouldn’t be going on a hike like this in my condition, but somehow when I get to the top things will be better. I know it will.
My issues were first diagnosed when I was seventeen, but my battle began long before that. I think I began to suspect I had trouble when I was in eighth grade. Where I’d previously prided myself in doing well academically, I started to hate school. I still behaved myself, as I was too shy not to, but the beige hallways lined with maroon lockers and hordes of people whining about class and practicing cannibalism on each other’s faces in discrete and not-so-discrete corners became the bane of my existence. I stopped drawing much, everyone knew you couldn’t make a living doing that and it was pointless anyway and took up the much more productive hobby of sitting alone in my room, surrounded by weeks of dirty clothes and garbage, staring at my homework and pointedly not doing it. One good thing did come of the changes though. I started writing. My language arts teacher complimented me on a piece I did, and I soon discovered I could express myself much more fully in written words instead of struggling to string together a tangible sentence in front of anyone, including my parents.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that something was wrong, but I was stubborn. I knew I most likely had the same issue my mom and brother had, but they had to take medication to manage that and I knew I was better. I could manage these horrid emotions all on my own (spoiler alert: I couldn’t) and show them they didn’t need to rely on measly pills to be happy.
There are some forms of depression that can be treated just by therapy and lifestyle changes. Typically, they are cases of physical depression (depression caused by an outside event rather an inborn unbalance in the brain) that are mild to moderate. The problem that runs in our family is a genetic issue in serotonin production. We know this because migraines, also caused by a lack of serotonin, are rampant in the family and the most effective treatment for them is antidepressants. Needless to say, my attempt did not go so well. No amount of exercising and doing hobbies and forcing a smile was going to help if my brain simply did not produce the serotonin it needed. To this day, I hate trying to force a smile. People always tell me that it will improve my mood, but the only reaction I get is anger. Rage from years and years of trying something that everyone said would help, only to feel worse with each passing day. It made my life in customer service a living hell because smiles are required and they always made me furious.
While my depression slowly spun out of my control, I was very good at hiding it. Years passed, and I learned that melancholy came in cycles. At first it was two weeks of depression to two weeks of happiness. Then it became four to two, then six to two, then eight to one. In the spring of my seventeenth year, it became everything to nothing.
Finally, people started to notice, but at that point, I had conditioned myself not to say anything. Besides, we had no insurance, and doctor’s visits were expensive. It wasn’t until one day in early June that I cracked. I took my blue Chevy Sonic, a manual transmission car I had bought just earlier that year and went for parts unknown. I had no plan, no reasoning, I just knew I didn’t want to go back to the life I hated.
I drove around the Salt Lake area for hours and cried, barely aware of the cars and world around me. I love exploring, but I didn’t take much note of the winding roads through parks I’d never seen and cul-de-sacs with houses ranging from trailer-sized manufactured homes in dull shades of blue and yellow to multi-million dollar mansions with landscaped front gardens in full bloom, fountains, and ornate fences. The world around me did not matter. I did not matter.
At one point, I found myself at a light at the top of a steep hill. I stalled the car through three light cycles before I finally managed to eek my way around the corner and decided I’d had enough driving. I tediously worked my way back to the freeway and found my way home.
That night, my mom confronted me in my room.
“You’ve been really depressed, haven’t you?”
“Have you been thinking of hurting yourself?”
“Do you think you need medicine?”
“Okay. I’ll call the doctor tomorrow.”
I’m extremely thankful for my family’s experience with mental illness, because that was all there was to it. No judgment, no shame, just a matter of fact, “Okay. We can get you help.” Unfortunately, I proved a difficult case to treat. My first diagnosis was Major Depressive Disorder and I was given a medication. Then another. Then another. They helped, but in spite of that, suicidal thoughts became my daily life. It became such an issue that my mom and I came up with a code phrase for it, “bugs everywhere,” and it meant we had to change medications again. My life became a desperate struggle to stay afloat. I couldn’t seem to hold a job. I couldn’t manage school. All I could do was flit around my parents’ house and pretend to be useful. A horrible emptiness filled me, one that sent me to the hospital for a week after I took another drive with no intention of returning, one that didn’t leave even after the psychiatrists added panic disorder and GAD to my list of diagnoses and gave me new medication, and one that drove me up the Bunting Trail out of sheer desperation.
It really is a gorgeous view at the top of the Bunting Trail. The description couldn’t have done it justice. The sharp cliffs behind me cast a shadow that keeps me cool while I admire the valley below me. The cliffs to the east, the small town sprawled at the foot of the mountain, and the greenest fields that the Utah desert can get sprawling out so far that I can see the blue tinge of the atmosphere clouding them before they fade from sight. I wipe away my tears and sit down on a rocky outcropping to think, with nothing but the gentle breeze and coldness of the rock beneath me to keep me company. Even the sounds of wildlife have stopped. I’ve had a bit of time to sort through my emotions on the way up and I know I have a choice to make. At the time, I did not know that it would be another year before I get the genetic testing that helps me find relief, all I know is the lost cause I call my life is looming over me, but somewhere, deep down, I want to find hope. I sit. I listen. I pray. And, very slowly, I stand up and make my way back down the mountain.