Mental Illness and Where You Were When…

children wearing t-shirts with Sandy Hook written on them
U.S. Air Force

There are certain moments in time that become etched in your memory, and you remember exactly where you were when an event happened, and what you were doing.  Sometimes that’s because of the significance of the event itself.  For my parents’ generation, that might have been the assassination of John F Kennedy or the moon landing.  I remember that on the morning of September 11, 2001, I was in university but for some reason didn’t have classes that morning.  When I got up my roommates had the tv on, and we watched in stunned, horrified silence as the 2nd tower collapsed.

When illness dampens reactions

Then there are the moments we remember not so much because of the event itself but because of our own circumstances at the time.  For me, the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting was one of those moments in time.  Don’t get me wrong, it was a terrible event, but sadly these types of events occur with disturbing regularity.  I remember Sandy Hook, though, because it is burned in my mind what was going on for me at the time.

I was in the small psychiatric emergency ward in a suburban hospital near the city where I lived.  It was a single large room with curtained off beds and a small seating area with a tv.  There was nothing else to do, so I watched tv and picked at the rat’s nest that my hair had become during the delirious days prior to my admission.  The tv was tuned to CBC Newsworld, the 24-hour news channel of Canada’s public broadcaster.  

As I watched the story unfold, I felt a curious sense of indifference.  The only thing that really struck me was that I wished Adam Lanza could have shot me rather than those innocent kids.  Why did they get to escape this world while I was stuck rotting on the psych ward? Aside from that thought, I just kept mindlessly picking away at my hair.

I don’t like the heartlessness that depression brings about in me.  I previously blogged about my own non-reaction to the Las Vegas mass shooting; I was disturbed more by my lack of reaction than by the event itself.  Indifference was not a “normal” way to look at such a horrific tragedy.

Landmarking by illness events

I find it interesting that my life’s chronology has come to be defined very little by external significant events and much more by illness events.  Hospitalizations and relapses form the major milestones as I look back at my life over the past 10 years.  Everything else is situated in relation to those milestones; either that, or it just blurs into a fog of meaninglessness.  I regularly watch the news and so am aware of major world events, but unless things somehow relate to my depression journey my brain relegates them to the discard bin.

Mental illness changes how we interact with the world around us, and that can be distressing and even frightening.  It can be hard to separate how much of our reactions are truly our own and how much are the illness.  Why are both 9/11 and Sandy Hook burned in my mind when so many other events have gone into the dusty filing cabinet of my brain?  Why did 9/11 trigger stunned horror while Sandy Hook triggered nothing?

 It’s not something I try to beat myself up over, but I do find it curious.  As in so many other situations, I’m not really sure where I end and the illness begins.  On this journey of self-discovery, I don’t think I’ll ever find concrete answers, and maybe there will always just be more questions.  Still, it’s important to keep asking those questions – and maybe that’s what I really need to take away from all of this.

Book cover: Managing the Depression Puzzle, 2nd ed., by Ashely L. Peterson

Managing the Depression Puzzle takes a holistic look at the different potential pieces that might fit into your unique depression puzzle. The revised and expanded 2nd edition is now available on Amazon.

12 thoughts on “Mental Illness and Where You Were When…”

  1. Although the content of this post is very serious, I enjoyed and appreciated your style and “voice” of writing it. It sounded like it could be made into a poem.

    I found some of it deeply relatable, such as when you said you didn’t know where you end and the illness begins. I completely know that feeling. Sometimes I feel there is no difference or separating between myself and my disorder.

    This reminds me of a conversation I had recently with my therapist regarding all the sexual assault accusations in America’s news media, Hollywood, as well as other places. I told him I sympathized with the accusers and those in the me-too movement, but I was sick of hearing about. Not because I don’t care and I’m insensitive, but I’m so saturated with depressing events, mine and others, that I just can’t take it anymore, and some might see that as indifference. I just find it overwhelming to the point I can’t give it any more attention.

    I don’t know if any of this made sense, but that is my two cents.

    Becca X

  2. Yes. questions and asking questions is important. I agree with you that sometimes we dont know where we end and our illness begins, that part of mental illness is so frustrating. so hard to cope with. xxx

  3. I have the opposite experience to what you describe, much of the news makes me feel worried and depressed. When my depression is bad, I avoid the news. It’s fairly easy as I don’t have a TV in my flat and I don’t listen to the radio much. I try to look at the news online and on workdays I usually remember to look during my lunch break, but on non-workdays I often forget. I sometimes listen to the radio on waking, but if I’m depressed I don’t and it doesn’t take me long to eat my breakfast and get dressed and leave for work. I feel bad about not reading the news as much as I used to, but I don’t really have the time and a lot of it I find depressing and triggering.

    I also don’t know where I end and my depression begins. I’ve been depressed almost continuously certainly since I was 19, maybe since my mid-teens or even earlier, so there isn’t really a post-childhood version of my personality that I can access to compare with how I am now.

    1. I think avoiding the news and blanking out on it emotionally probably come from the same place of avoidance as a coping strategy, and can trigger the same amount of guilt.

  4. I have the opposite effect where horrid events I feel too deeply about, they can really bring my mood down. Sometimes so much that it disabled me to try to help it from ever changing etc. I do help humanity when I am able to or given an opportunity I jump at it. Cruelty of any kind I believe at times may be the reason for my depressions and awful moods. I wonder that even if people truly lead a successful life, have everything they want, achieved a lot and still are achieving, enjoying life etc…..Can still be happy with all this crap going on around us. It is like we have to be completely ignorant to the actual truth in order to be happy. Or we just don’t care everything is awful? “Like I’m happy, so who cares that thousands of children die of unavoided causes like starvation, lack of clean water” I am like how can it not bother you? The sad thing is it is not just once incident or singular events. No bad things happen around the world every single day. And if you think too hard about it, it will likely alter your mood. I am not asking for people to think hard about it, but I believe if we did truly care about these mass shootings, animal welfare, starving children something would have broke by now. We as humans would be doing more to prevent it from happening every day.

    9/11 is a perfect example of the patheticness of humanity and the hypocrisy. Not just the USA, but the western world all moaned and cried for 2,000 people dead. We remembered it and still do a memorial for it every 9/11. Hardly anyone mentions Hiroshima, the worse terroist act of war of all time in my opinion. We are not moaning the casualties of our wars today. Of course unless maybe it’s our own kind. We need to care a lot more about humans as a whole. There are many examples and it is never ending. Just pay attention when a famous person dies. How much attention it gets. Yet thousands of people die of starvation and other awful causes everyday. But no one likes to talk about that.

    My main point is we wonder why people are depressed. And even when we pretend to care about the mass shootings etc, I see a lot of hypocrisy and it not ever ending anytime soon. So we can just admit that humans are awful and no we don’t really care. Ignorance is bliss right? Saying we won’t change the world so why try. They are bs excuses. I know I am guilty of standing by at times and wishing I could have done more or at least tried. I just came to a conclussion humans are nuts and this is why I prefer my stuffed animals and also animals in general to people. 🙂 The day I kinda made this realization I think it made me a bit happier actually. We like to have hope we will get better, but I don’t see it getting better. I see technology advancing, that is about it our greatest achievment I believe as humans. But now technology is just getting crazy scary and give it enough time humans will ruin it too if we haven’t already.

    But yes I am the opposite, any big traumatic events I have a really hard time responding too. Yet I am great in emergency situations. Maybe it is because I care too much and I feel like I can’t stop it from happening?

    1. You’re right there are so many negative things going on around us, and taking it all in can be really overwhelming. And I guess people react in a variety of ways, from numbing to genuine indifference to being really distressed by it all. Perhaps if there were clearer ways to respond with productive action then it would be easier to bring about positive change. Like you I’m good in emergency situations where I can take charge and act, but when I’m more removed from whatever’s happening I just feel powerless.

      1. Yes we act in a variety of ways and sometimes it can be extreme opposite to how another would react. Different coping mechanisms may be one of the reasons and that differs for everyone.

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