I’m Not Really Mentally Ill. I’m Just A Drama Queen.

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 0.603% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

When I was nineteen and finally found myself some friends, I became a walking drama-bomb of a teenager. I remember being curled up in a ball while everyone else was standing in line at the movie, clutching my head and shrieking, “THE MEDICATIONS! THEY’RE STEALING! MY WORDS!”

Everyone else was just trying to see Coming To America. But me? I apparently needed to be the real show.

I look back at those moments with skin-crawling humiliation – the stupid things I did when I was a teenager that I would never do now.

But at the time, I believed that having big, scene-stealing panic attacks were how you found out who your real friends were. If they dropped everything to comfort you, no matter how embarrassing you were being, well… they were your friends. And all the other people you lost along the way were jerks for being mean to a depressive.

Victory either way, really.

Yet as I got older, I realized that the idea of acting out to get people’s sympathy was, fundamentally, a shitty blackmailish mechanism for making friends. You didn’t actually acquire buddies so much as you rallied the codependents to circle the wagons around you, and making friendships on the basis of “Who would drop everything to help someone else out?” meant that you spent a lot of your time embroiled in soothing your buddies, who – like you – had little interest in finding the right medications or the right therapists or the right self-soothing methods because dammit, the whole goal of this process was to find who could handle you at your worst.

And I evolved. I was still dramatic on occasion, of course – I don’t think you get to post consistently to a LiveJournal blog without splashing a little drama on ya – but I learned.

I learned that I had this whacko tendency to cry in public for attention, or to self-harm to get sympathy, or to fake-stutter when I was stressed, and thank God I was slowly stepping away from all that silly drama.

Yet I was distressingly weak at times. I’d be at a party and find myself hyperventilating in a bathroom, chiding myself – Ferrett, how dramatic, you don’t need to do this, just be happy.

I’d pick up the knife, ready to carve slow gashes into my arms because it was the only way to distract myself from the tsunami of negative thoughts, and part of me would snidely observe, You really want your friends to worry about you, don’t you? Imagine how they’ll react when they see your scabs.

I’d stagger around the house, completely alone, muttering distressed whimpers to myself as I wept so fiercely that my face hurt from dehydration, and I’d think, Oh, my, if you do this for just six more hours your wife will be home, what an act you’re willing to go to for drama.

It seems a little elaborate, doesn’t it? I mean, nobody knows why I’m in the bathroom. If I slip and do cut myself again, nobody knows how hard I work to wear long-sleeved shirts around my friends and family – even sleeping with a towel on – to conceal my stupid dramatic outbursts. And by the time my wife gets back from her trip, I’ll have sponged off my cheeks, I’ll have swallowed back those whimpers, I’ll have on a fake smile and I’ll tell her everything is fine.

I’m such a goddamned drama queen.

I’m glad I’m a goddamned drama queen.

Because if I wasn’t a drama queen, why, that would mean I was genuinely mentally ill. You can fix drama, that’s a stage you grow out of, but mental illness means you’re forever going to be breaking down at inconvenient moments, you’re condemned to an eternity of needing these pills and this workaround and this level of friendship – and even if you get everything you theoretically need, you’ll still have some days where you’re shivering against a cold wall, trying hard not to shout out the crazy things that come into your head, because if you do you’re dramatic and by suppressing all that crazy you are, in fact, a mature and good and sane person.

If I’m a drama queen, well, every time I suppress my craziness then I am, at heart, a sane person who’s fixing himself.

But if I’m not, well… then I’m bugfuck looney, doing his best to squash all evidence of his real and serious and unfixable problems down so that his friends don’t know how bad it gets sometimes, and…

I mean, wouldn’t you rather be a drama queen?

And I am dramatic. Always have been. It’s why I write fiction. But there’s days I look back at me having a complete goddamned breakdown in line to see Coming to America, thinking of all my friends wincing because Oh God there goes Steinmetz again, and I wonder.

Maybe that was a legitimate breakdown. Maybe that was me genuinely unable to fucking cope, so unable that I couldn’t consider the social consequences of going batshit in a public place with my buddies and I wasn’t just pretending to be a nutball, I was actually every bit the basket case.

But that?

Who wants to admit that?

To this day, I don’t know whether I was crying out for attention, or legitimately breaking down, or a combination of both. People are complex. It could be that I was integrating both thought models, which is why I do try to suppress my more outward-acting tendencies, because if I’m a good friend then I should try to minimize the number of times I ruin someone’s evening. If I can handle tonight’s panic attack by cloistering myself in the bathroom for ten minutes, well, then the panic attack is handled and my friends don’t have to spend their evening clustered around Old Breakdown, here.

But there are days where I’m absolutely alone, out of medication, curled up against a cold basement wall because I’m repeating madness mantras to myself, these endless flows of self-hatred, speaking them aloud because if I internalize them I might very well kill myself before anyone else gets home, and on those days I am so very glad I’m a drama queen.

If I wasn’t a drama queen, I’d be crazy. Seriously, incapacitatingly, crazy.

And if I’m a drama queen, then I can snap out of this funk. Any time now. It’s all under my control, you see? It’s not that I can’t stop muttering and stammering and shivering – it’s that I just don’t want to yet, oh Ferrett, you silly old attention-seeker.

Thank God.

Thank you, God, for making me a drama queen.

Thank you, God, for letting me believe I might be something other than this sad, broken thing that I am.

6 Comments

  1. Erin
    Oct 31, 2018

    Lord, yeah. I go back and forth on this too. A few childhood meltdowns are seared into my memory for the melodramatic, humiliating things I said. I definitely spend a lot of time in crises wondering how much of my behavior is valid or not, and wondering how much is under my control or not.

    And lately I’ve found a new variant on it. A year ago a friend sent me a book about people with Aspergers and it was like suddenly seeing a mirror. The childhood media obsessions, the self-harming, the analytical thinking, and more. There were things in that book that left me feeling like the author had been spying on me all my life. And it helped me in many ways. With my attention drawn to it, I realized I actually did have some issues with sensory stimuli and eye contact. These became previously unknown ways to try to avoid overloading myself. I got new language for my crises. Labels like “panic attack” and “suicidal” had never really fit exactly – the one time I did have a classic panic attack it was completely different – but as I learned about shutdowns and meltdowns and stimming I realized they fit exactly. And, I could look up how other people coped with their shutdowns, and adopt similar strategies. What an incredible relief it was to realize that when I had urges to smash my head into a wall or stab myself, it wasn’t because some malignant part of my brain hated me and was trying to kill me. I’d been so confused and terrified of that part of my brain. But it was actually because I needed intense sensation to help with the overwhelming feelings I was having, and there were substitutes that wouldn’t harm me. And, for me there was a difference between the idea of being an aspie and being mentally ill. Being aspie is just who someone is, and the challenges are less about something being wrong with them than about something being wrong with the interface between them and the rest of the world. Being mentally ill just made me feel fundamentally broken, maybe because it seemed like something fixable that I was always failing to fix.

    So the possibility that I had Aspergers was hugely positive for me. The only problem was, when I told people about it, they all immediately came back with, “no, you’re not.” Including my therapist, and a guy who has actually been diagnosed.

    So that’s my new variant on wondering whether I’m a drama queen. Now when I start to shut down or melt down, and I reach for my new knowledge about Aspergers to find self-acceptance and coping strategies, I often fall into a morass of second-guessing myself. Am I really just now noticing that sensory simulation helps with meltdowns, or am I just posing as an aspie so that I can claim I have a named condition? Do I really have trouble with understanding social situations, or am I just running away from the label of social anxiety? Or worse, is that trouble only in my head because I have low self esteem? I don’t feel like I have low self esteem.

    Thanks for the writing. It’ll be helpful to think about how shame and a desire for agency both play into this kind of inner turmoil.

  2. dellstories
    Nov 1, 2018

    I think I’m reading this essay wrong

    Because it sounds like you’re saying “I’m glad I’m a drama queen, because otherwise I’d be crazy, and being crazy is a hopeless incapacitating thing to be. Being crazy means that life is horrible and will never ever get better. Being crazy means it would be best for everyone if I were shut away somewhere far from decent people forever”

    I do not believe that you actually feel that way. I’ve seen you express empathy and understanding for a variety of issues, including mental health issues.I’ve read your posts and your writings for years, including beta-reading that story about depression for that Kickstarter for the anthology of compassionate mental illness portrayals in fantasy settings, and we have met a couple of times. So while I do not “know” you, I think I have a rough idea of who you are and what you believe (at least your public persona)

    I understand that this was probably a difficult essay for you to write, and it may be that you failed to express certain aspects as you may have wished

    Or, and I’ll admit this, the fault may be entirely on my end; I may have misinterpreted some perfectly innocuous statements. It’s happened to me before

    But I interpret that last line to mean that you’re saying that someone who is “crazy”, who has a serious enough mental issue, will be a sad, broken thing forever

    And I have never read or heard you say anything like that

    • Anonymous Alex
      Nov 2, 2018

      I’m not sure you’re reading it wrong, or at least not entirely wrong. I’ve been at loose ends trying to form a comment, for reasons similar to what you note, above.

      I’m hoping that some of the language you cite was intended to be hyperbolic, but even that is a rabbit hole I’m not successfully going down.

      -Alex

    • The Ferrett
      Nov 5, 2018

      “But I interpret that last line to mean that you’re saying that someone who is “crazy”, who has a serious enough mental issue, will be a sad, broken thing forever

      And I have never read or heard you say anything like that.”

      I have said that before, though. I’ve mentioned that I’m broken on several occasions. I can slap myself together and cruise along for periods of time, but the self-repair is a significant part of being me and it does bring me remorse.

      People go “No, you’re not broken, you manage.” And yes, I manage. Under some circumstances I even thrive. I don’t see myself as worthless. But I cannot see myself as a wholly functional, unbroken being because a part of my psyche is forever out to kill me. I can still manage to acquire love for myself, and do things, but I also can’t sweep it under the carpet that this isn’t devastating to me in a lot of serious ways.

  3. Paul N
    Nov 3, 2018

    You hit this one out of the park.

    I remember that story about you melting down in front of the movie theatre. If I remember correctly, you were essaying about why you were not on meds (specifically, Paxil). It sounds as if something has changed? That would make for an interesting blog.

    • The Ferrett
      Nov 5, 2018

      Well, I’m currently on a very light dosage of Paxil, because I need to be. Any more and my words do evaporate; any less and I wind up self-harming.

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