Jane Caro writes about twenty years of dealing with mental illness.
I was mental as anything between 1977 and 1997. I struggled with an anxiety neurosis that dogged my every step. From the outside, I looked pretty fine. I married, progressed in a demanding but creative career, bought and sold a couple of houses and had two children. I did, in other words, exactly what you’d expect someone to do between the ages of 20 and 40.
Inside my own head, however, I was a mess. Being me the mental illness that struck me down one Saturday night on the way home from a party was both florid and dramatic. Out of nowhere I began to be tormented by unwanted and frightening obsessive thoughts of violence. Not, I hasten to add, of someone being violent to me, but of me being violent to someone else!
It didn’t matter which someone else, either. Any other living, breathing human being – no matter how old, young, big, small, weak or strong – would do.
While I smiled and chatted and behaved (fairly) normally I could be having the most lurid thoughts about the terrible things I could do to you. I didn’t want to think of such things. I would have done anything to get rid of these unbidden, terrifying thoughts. But the more I resisted them, the stronger they became.
I was terribly ashamed, but the thoughts made me feel so desperate that I forced myself to seek help and tell others about the bizarre things that were going on inside my head. I was sure when I told my then-boyfriend (now husband) what had happened to me, he would shun me as evil and depraved. As you may have gathered by the fact that he eventually married me, he did no such thing. He was sympathetic and understanding but he also helped me see that my imaginings were slightly ridiculous, especially considering I am 157cm tall and in those days weighed about 45 kilos. For most of my imagined victims if I had lost control as I feared, I suspect it would have been like being attacked by a kitten. Even I could see my lurid imaginings were grandiose. What did I think I was about to become? Ted Bundy?
But even though the years went on and I never did any of the horrible things I feared (as I have since discovered, it is the nature of this neurosis that sufferers never act on their thoughts), even though part of me recognized the absurdity of my imaginings, they retained their power to make me cringe, quiver and writhe in mental agony. That’s the trouble with mental illness – it doesn’t make sense so applying sense to it doesn’t help.