The following blog post originally appeared on twloha.com, the website for the nonprofit To Write Love On Her Arms. They're an incredible movement focused on helping and inspiring people presenting with various mental health issues. And so I jumped at the opportunity to write something for them. Here it is:
At the age of eighteen, shortly after I left home for college, I lost my mind. And by lost my mind, I mean I didn’t think I was me anymore. I suddenly thought I was Jesus. Yes, you read that right. What followed was incredibly embarrassing—getting arrested, prophesying heaven on earth, stripping off all my clothes. The worst part was making the university newspaper. I thought my life was over, and, most of all, I thought I was totally alone.
Upon my psychotic episode, I had no idea that could even happen. I mean, I knew people were mentally ill—I’d seen it in movies, and I’d heard about it on the news. But as far as it actually happening to me, it seemed impossible. It seemed about as improbable as being struck by lightening or winning the lottery. And yet here I was, the victim of this thing called mental illness.
At first, I was too busy worrying about how to survive the extreme humiliation of my condition to learn anything about it. Every person I interacted with upon my return to campus was a threat, a possible witness to my insanity. And if they didn’t witness my break from reality directly, I was certain they had heard about it. I was certain they were thinking about it and judging me. Who knows? Maybe, they were.
I was so ashamed that it prevented me from accepting treatment. All I wanted was for life to go back to the way it was before. Never mind the fact that life wasn’t all that great before. Never mind that I was struggling with addiction and disordered eating. At least that was kind of a secret. This felt like something I couldn’t hide.
But why was I really hiding anyway? At the root of my fear was this overwhelming feeling of isolation. I felt like no one was struggling the way I was. I felt like no one would understand. Maybe that’s why my unconscious mind chose Jesus. Could there be a more isolated figure in the history of mankind? Perhaps not.
And why did I feel so alone? It could have been because I was a guy, and there’s a considerable expectation to keep any vulnerabilities hidden. Maybe it was because I saw others drinking one or two beers, whereas I could never keep count. It could have been because I felt special in some way, as if I alone was the only person squandering such great potential. Whatever it was, I had an unshakable belief that I was doing this whole human thing by myself, and it terrified me. At this stage in my life, I had never thought about suicide. If anything, I was absolutely terrified of dying. But over the years, as I struggled in an isolation I was creating, it became more and more enticing.
What I didn’t know, what I hope to help share today, is that I wasn’t alone. None of us is ever alone. It turns out that millions of people live with mental illness and addiction. Millions! And here I was, thinking that I had some special recipe for dysfunction. It turns out my struggle was fairly common, at least compared to how I was thinking about it. Plus, those fears and insecurities weren’t exclusive to me either. We all have them. Some of us are just better at hiding than others.
What I’ve realized for myself over the years is that depression wasn’t the only reason I felt suicidal. The reason I felt suicidal was that I had no hope. I didn’t know anyone in recovery because I myself was unwilling to put myself out there. Hopelessness was the true culprit.
And here’s the thing about hope in recovery: Every time we tell our stories of recovery, we are giving someone hope. Every. Single. Time.
After finding some health and clarity around my recovery, I felt inspired to write a book about my journey, to maybe help someone in the way I needed help myself. In honor of the wild delusion that I was the Second Coming of Christ, I titled it “The Body of Chris.” As I started putting words to my experiences, I felt a huge shift in myself. I felt stronger because of my vulnerability, not weaker. I felt hope, not just for others, but for myself as well.
When I first set out to tell my story, I gave myself only one requirement, albeit an enormous one: just tell the truth. I knew that if I held back, I might rob someone of the chance to relate. “Just tell the truth” became my writing mantra. I knew that if I was honest and forthright in my struggles, someone going through the same thing might find hope in the fact that I am in recovery and living to tell the tale. The truth is never alone. I’ve had people tell me that I’ve written their story! People that aren’t even in recovery have told me how much they relate. This, after believing I was alone for all these years. It’s been a humbling experience. As it turns out, I was just another imperfect human being all along.
Chris Cole is a life coach for folks in recovery, and his new book, The Body of Chris: A Memoir of Obsession, Addiction, and Madness, is now available everywhere books are sold. For more information, visit thebodyofchris.com.