A Big 'Ol Pile of Issues
After my suicide attempt in 2016, I spent some time in the inpatient psychiatric facility of the Durham VA, colloquially known as the “9th Floor.” It is called the 9th floor because, well, it’s on the 9th floor. Plus “9th floor” is way easier to say than “inpatient psychiatric treatment facility” and it is more respectful than calling it the nut hospital or loony bin. Whatever you call it, it is where I went and where I stayed instead of jail after my breakdown and subsequent accident. I went partially to heal physically, and partly to heal mentally. And I went primarily because a judge ordered me to.
While I was on the 9th floor I met some interesting people. My roommate George only left the bed to eat and to do art therapy. He wasn’t interested in much else. There were guys of all ages, some of whom had served in combat, some of whom hadn’t. There were guys from all four branches. Some were there for only a few days or a week. Some guys were there when I got there and still there when I left.
Deon was one of the most interesting and brilliant people I have ever met. He grew up in Tarboro, NC where he was a star athlete. He was being recruited in both basketball and football. Even at his age (I would guess late 30s, but I wasn’t really sure… he never answered when I asked), he looked like he could still dominate a court or a field with his 6-4 frame. He said he was leaning toward football. That, he said, was when the voices came.
Deon would never play any sport in college. His senior year, his behavior became erratic. He stopped going to practice, and then he stopped going to school. He didn’t graduate. He would stay out late drinking, and eventually doing drugs, with the people he was hanging out with. A few weeks before he should have been graduating, he told me, he was arrested for the first time. The judge, who knew Deon from his athletic exploits, told Deon that he would give him a slap on the wrist IF Deon joined the military. So Deon said “I got my slap and left for Texas a few weeks later.”
Deon served in the Air Force as a security specialist. And it started well. He did well at basic and his job training, and was stationed at Davis-Monthan AFB in Arizona. He was on the base basketball team and things were looking up. The problem, he told me, were the voices.
His senior year of high school, Deon said, he started hearing voices on occasion. The first time he heard one he thought he was overhearing a conversation. Then he started hearing them when he was alone. Sometimes it was hard to make out what they were saying. It was a faint whisper. Sometimes it was almost like someone shouting at him, he told me. The voices were sometimes kind and sweet. Sometimes they were loud and mean and told Deon to do things. The voices were male and female, and they were relentless. They would only shut up when Deon did extreme things. When he broke things or got drunk or smoked crack. Getting high made them quiet, he said. So that’s what he did.
Sometimes the voices would leave. All on their own. And Deon would feel great. He would connect with friends, meet girls, play ball and just generally live the best life a guy in his 20s could live. But the voices would eventually come back. They always come back, he said.
Deon would eventually be diagnosed as schizophrenic. He was prescribed medication. And the meds helped, he told me. But there was a catch. He told me that he knew he had schizophrenia, and his doctors told him that the voices weren’t real. The problem, Deon said, is that they ARE real. Real as hell. And, he said, they come from inside me. They are my thoughts and feelings asking for attention. And when I take the meds it makes a part of me go away.
So Deon said he would take his meds for a while. He would be functional. Do paperwork. Pay rent. Buy vegetables. But eventually he would want his whole self again. So he would stop taking his meds. He would wander off the beaten path. And when things got bad, he said, he would come to Durham and check himself into the 9th floor. He would stabilize. Start taking his meds. Then he would leave, buy vegetables, take his meds, and be functional again. And the cycle would repeat.
I told him I was sorry. I told him I couldn’t imagine having to go through some of the things he had gone through. He looked at me.
Deon: I’m confused. Aren’t you here?
Deon: The 9th floor, man. You are here right? They don’t send people to the 9th floor when their life is good. Look around. We all have some shit. You too.
Me: I guess.
Deon: Ain’t no guess, man. Everyone has something. Everyone. These doctors and nurses too. Do you have any idea how crazy you have to be to want to work with a bunch of crazy vets? Lemme break this down for you…
Deon asked me to close my eyes and imagine that I was at some sort of gathering place. A restaurant, church, a waiting room. Imagine if all those people could take all their issues - depression, anxiety, PTSD, schizophrenia, addictions, phobias, trauma, whatever - and put them in a suitcase. In go the mommy issues and sneaking a cigarette and watching too much porn and whatever else causes you to be awake in the middle of the night.
And then, Deon said, imagine if everyone could take those suitcases and put them in the middle of the room.
Me: Middle of the room?
Deon: Yep. Just a big ‘ol pile of issues, man. A big pile.
Me: And then what? Do we light it on fire or something?
Deon: No, man. We ask everyone to line up. And then one by one, people get to go to the pile. And they get to choose a bag to take with them. Whatever bag they choose, that’s their new set of issues. You walk up, and you choose a bag. Which bag you taking?
Me: I don’t know. I haven’t seen the other bags.
Deon: Bullshit. Look around. Let’s say we did that shit right here, right now in the 9th floor day room. We all crazy. So it’s even. If everyone here put their issues in a bag in a pile on this floor, which one you choosing?
Me: (looks around) Jesus. Mine, I guess.
Deon: Damn right. That’s the bag everyone chooses. Ours. We all choose our own shit again and again. You know why?
Me: Because it’s ours?
Deon: See, you’re smart. Damn right. We choose what we know. Our challenges comfort us. They give us purpose. Trauma can become our identity. So when we see someone reach for our bag, it is like they are reaching for US. We aren’t gonna let people steal who we are. It is what it is, man.
It can get old dealing with our shit. It can get old facing the same fears, the same anxieties and the same struggles. We keep going back to our bag again and again because it is the bag we know. The handle has conformed to our hand. We know that one pocket that has a tricky zipper that won’t quite close no matter what we do. It was the same bag with the same issues we had when we got married, when our kids were born, where our parents passed. It is the same bag and the same issues that we have had for years.
And. Bags get heavy. And all the stuff in that bag needs to find its way out.
Maybe you lessen the load in therapy (10/10, two thumbs up, would strongly recommend). Maybe your release is exercise or being outside or meditation or faith. Maybe it’s visiting the 9th floor.
Maybe it is finally letting go of needing to see your issues as your identity, because they aren’t the same. We are not what is wrong with us. When we see someone like Deon we say “he’s schizophrenic.” We are saying he IS schizophrenia. No one says that someone IS cancer. We see mental illness as who we are. Maybe part of healing is recognizing that mental illness is not who we are. It is just what we have.
Whatever it is, do it. Because when you pick up your bag of issues it’s a lot easier to pick up a backpack than a steamer trunk.
The next time you are at a restaurant, look around. Realize that every single person in that room has a bag. So does everyone in the kitchen, all the waitstaff. The hostess just found out that she got scheduled on back to school night for her 2nd grader and now has to either give up a shift she needs or meeting her kid’s teacher. The lady two tables over laughing with her husband found out this morning that she has a lump in her right breast and is trying to figure out how to tell her husband. The sous chef’s cousin just got deported. The dad who just walked in with his family was given a terrible performance review today. And on and on and on it goes.
We all have something. All of us. Everyone you meet is carrying a burden you can’t imagine. They are facing stuff you don’t understand. And they are scared and lonely and worried. They are clutching their bag.
Walk lightly. See with soft eyes. Don’t be afraid to be weird. People are able to be themselves around people who don’t take themselves too seriously.
Above all, connect. Seeing one another’s bags helps us to better understand that ours isn’t so heavy. In fact, we often have the capacity to carry ours AND help someone carry theirs.
Whatever comes, you got this.
May it ever be so.
I hope you have a great week. If you are a subscriber, I will see you Friday for the weekly update. If you aren’t a subscriber, c’mon. It’s time. ;-)
Be well y’all, and keep pounding the rock.