Mental Illness is not something to be trifled with. It’s often silent, it afflicts more of us than we all think, and it comes in all shapes and sizes. Mental illness is the elephant in the room which nobody wants to talk about and it’s one goddamned big elephant, too.

I’m no expert in psychology or mental illness – so let me put that right out there. However, I am definitely not a stranger to the ways in which mental illness can negatively impact family, relationships, work, etc – because I have experienced many different forms of it over the years and have been subject to psychoanalysis and treatment, including a brief stint in the “crazy ward” of a hospital. While I am not an expert – feel free to get from my experiences what you will.

My own experiences, as they are, are varied in seriousness and in scope. When I was in my teens, I began to rebel. I was a lost youth and my turbulence was due to many factors. A negligent parent, only having one parent, lots of abuse (physical, sexual, mental, emotional), poverty, violence, chaos, etc. You name it, really. I was picked on constantly in school, didn’t own a thing worth owning, barely had friends, and my family support was inconsistent – though I did have a couple of family members who helped me (and my siblings) escape childhood relatively unharmed.

When I was only four years old, I was sexually molested and repeatedly raped in a shed. A man who lived a floor below us was the culprit. Often, he would leave candy on my windowsill after the acts. When I would leave the “safety” of our apartment to fetch the candy, he would be waiting and he would strike. I didn’t know it was wrong in the way I know it was wrong now. Back then, I would cower when the guy knocked on our door. “Can Joey come out to play,” he’d ask my mother. “I don’t want to go outside,” I would reply. She would make me anyway. When I grew older, the impact of the acts of sexual violence began to manifest in different ways. Not just that, but everything else going on in my life, too.

Growing up, my mother was constantly arrested. Mostly for drug-related stuff, but other things, too – like violence. Hit and run with a car. I saw her screaming, thrown to the ground by five police officers, who then left me when I was so young with a random downstairs neighbor. I was there for days while my mother was incarcerated, not knowing if she’d be back, or if this new woman was going to be my new mother.

I wet the bed until well through high school. I saw my first dead man when I was only eleven. I was knocked unconscious by a grown man, and I was even made to fight other children for sport by one of my mom’s boyfriends who bet on us with his friends with real money as they sat back and drank beer. I began to withdraw into myself. I began to experience intense anxiety. I couldn’t sexually interact with anyone my age, shying away from contact until my early 20’s. After high school, I grew angry and openly searched for the man who did what he did to me – asking questions and silently scouring the internet on sexual offender lists, hoping to find him so I could dedicate the rest of my life to punishing him for what he did to me.

In my late teens, my mother joined a biker gang. She began cheating on my step father with a younger guy in the gang, and because I was a teenager – I thought I wanted a mother who was a friend, not someone who’d punish me. So we got along. I attended her parties. I joined the gang. We did drugs together. My siblings and I watched her heat a knife and carve the word “STRAY” into her arm with the blade. I began to grow despondent. I missed more than 100 days of school. I skipped my final exams. I received weeks of in-school suspension, some out-of-school suspension, and I even racked up a whopping 74 detentions my sophomore year.

Then, I went into the foster home – and I was required to attend therapy sessions with a psychiatrist. His name was Scott, and he immediately wanted to prescribe me drugs. He twisted anything I said into a negative thing. If I said I liked to play paintball, he interpreted that as me wanting to hurt myself or others. My family fought it in court, and the judge made me see several other shrinks in order to get second opinions. All of them had wildly different diagnoses.

When I was older, in my mid-twenties…I met a beautiful young woman and we married one another. However, as many of you reading this probably know – it didn’t last and we separated and then divorced. During the separation, my long-dormant anxiety kicked into overdrive. One day while I was sitting home, I felt my left arm go numb and experienced shooting pains. I took this as a sign of a heart attack and called the ambulance after some deliberation. I began to pass out on the floor, telling the dispatcher that I had to let them go so I could call my wife and tell her goodbye. However, the medics came and hauled me from the floor into the ambulance. They stuck me full of needles, ran tests for things like diabetes. They couldn’t figure out what was wrong. When I arrived at the hospital, they wheeled me into a room full of surgeons, scrubbed and ready to go, as well as a lot of nurses. I was crying, hyperventilating. I had never been so scared. I was looking death in the face. The doctors all hurriedly spoke and looked at my vitals and asked me questions. One woman gave me a clipboard with a form on it. The form said “LIVING WILL AND TESTAMENT” or something. This promoted a new wave of extreme anxiety. “Standard procedure,” said the woman with the clipboard. I signed it, sobbing the entire time. “Am I going to die?” I kept asking, knowing that I was. I wondered how painful my last moments would be as my heart ceased and my breathing stopped.

Finally, after some more deliberation on their part – they decided I was “only” having a severe panic attack. With that, everyone left the room, leaving me literally alone. Most of them looked disappointed, or even frustrated. Still – my brain wasn’t done with me. I called on the intercom, “Are you sure I’m just having a panic attack? I really don’t feel well.”

“Yes,” came the voice of a nurse, almost in a frustrated sigh. “You’ll be fine. We’ll send someone to check on you.”

On the television was a medical operation. I told myself to relax, watch some TV. I changed the channel. There was a murder. I changed the channel. It was a court show. Everything seemed to amp up my anxiety. Then, I felt the strangest sensation. Uncomfortable tightness. I realized that it felt like an entire army of ants was marching its way from my toes, into my fingers, and finally all the way up to my face. My toes curled in. My fingers extended and then froze in painful parodies of claws. My limbs went rigid. My face scrunched in and locked. My whole body froze and shook. It was a seizure. A nurse finally registered that it was a VERY severe panic attack I was feeling, and they finally brought down some calming drugs which eventually helped me to stop.

Another incident like the one above happened when I was at my sister’s. I pleaded and begged her, and then even angrily demanded that she bring me to the hospital. They eventually accepted me and made me disrobe and put on pajamas so they could put me in the crazy ward. I was sitting in a room where they treated me like a child, and a grown man was banging his head against the wall while he watched television.

I tell you all these things because so many people experience this kind of stuff on a daily basis. However, it’s not treated as a legitimate sickness. When the doctors found out it was “just” anxiety – they left me and basically treated me like garbage because I was wasting their time. But my body was actually going through massive stress, and it obviously was powerful enough to send me into a seizure. In the second instance, in the crazy ward – they ran many, many tests on me – racking up thousands of dollars without me being coherent enough to understand what they were doing. I simply did not want to die.

In our society, it would have been easy, so easy for me to fall through the cracks. In school, when I was mercilessly taunted and beaten – I could have killed someone. With a knife, or a gun, or a bomb. In my own foster home, we made pipe bombs from everyday materials that could send jagged shrapnel in all directions (I know because a piece of shrapnel came through a wooden barrier and almost lodged in my head). Other kids couldn’t understand me, or thought me weak – so they pushed me, and pushed me.

In my teens, I could have found the man who molested and raped me, and I could have killed him. When I was going through my separation and divorce, I could have killed myself. When I sought help, I often felt like I was being a burden, on top of suffering what I was going through alone, and with negative repercussions as well. When I was in college, I almost killed myself using pills, but ended up backing out.

When you have a mental illness, you often know that nobody can help you but yourself. I present all this to you because that needs to change. With all the mass shootings and general apathy toward the human race, we need to focus on mental health. We need to figure out how to help instead of how to mask or hide. Recognize the signs, recognize the patterns, learn how to help someone. When someone feels like they have nothing to live for, they usually find a way out or find a way to take out their frustration in terrible ways. Be the change you wish to see in the world, right?