by: Neesa Sunar ((Header art by Jefferson Muncy.))
A brave and forthcoming assessment of intellectualism and its relation to mental illness…
I have always viewed life as an arena for intellectual stimulation. Regarding the behaviors of the people around me, I have perpetually analyzed their motivations and temperaments. In terms of my own growth and development, I have run into many roadblocks due to my lengthy battle with mental illness. As a child, I was saddled with PTSD and depression, likely influenced by the domestic abuse in my home at the time. In my early twenties, I developed schizoaffective disorder, a combination of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. During this time, the conventions of non-verbal communication evaded me, and so I was unable to feel connected with the people in my life. Instead, I felt like an alien.
My intellectual approach served as way to protect me from feelings of social inadequacy. I even got a kick out of being a sour wet blanket. When my classmates at school made jokes and exercised laughter, I felt hatred. How dare these people laugh and smile? They are childish and immature, I thought. To separate myself from the average crowds, I dedicated myself to an intense study of the viola as a classical musician. To me, the complexities of symphonic writing and sonata form were superior to everyday human interactions.
In truth, I failed to see people as living entities because of my approach. Instead, my eyes viewed each person in my life as a proverbial pillar, each embodying a set of values. Janie was humorous and deviant, thus representing Humor and Risk. Alexander was quiet and studious, thereby embodying Discretion and Intelligence. Regarding my own sense of self, I strove for Excellence and Intelligence at the savant level. It proved fascinating to me to see these pillars interact with one another, thus creating new dynamics. When Janie and Alexander interacted, perhaps resultant was flirtation. But as for a word to describe that creation, the only adjective I could muster was Disgust. I was especially bitter because I could never get any guys to consider me romantically.
Deep within me, my devotion to truth and reason made me miserable. I was depressed because I knew that something deeper existed, that which I had never felt wholeheartedly even as a small child: pure happiness, untinged by cynicism and sarcasm, success without the consequence of bad luck and collapse, and the ability to observe people laughing without the fear that they were laughing at me. I was also incredibly hard on myself. My intellect and desire for perfection severely flogged me whenever I made a mistake. This ranged from errors in music-making to my inability to be extroverted. My hatred for myself was justified because it was rooted in “intelligence.”
By college, my self-deprecating intellectual approach to life became too exhausting to maintain. I craved another approach beyond perfectionism, yet I did not know any other way. I thus began to consider spiritual means to achieve this, and I was heavily pushed by my mother who herself swore by the style of Transcendental Meditation. I joined a meditation group on my college campus which was affiliated with a guru in India. I devoted myself to this practice earnestly, but was forced to quit it when I developed schizoaffective disorder a year-and-a-half later. Far from offering my soul respite, closed-eyed meditation only broke my mind into psychotic tatters. Spiritual teachings did not ground me, but instead added to the dormant databank of my subconscious, that which exploded in my face as piecemeal schizophrenic delusions.
I was miserable with the reality that psychotropic medications did little more than erase my symptoms. My disconnect with society remained, and I felt emotionally flat and expressionless. Intellectualism again was the only way I could make sense of my world. It was additionally a vital trait because schizophrenia at its core removed me from reality. Intellectualism served to ground me in reality, however uncomfortable it was.
Yet I was still hopeful that spirituality could answer my woes. At one point, I radically converted to conservative Christianity and joined an Independent Fundamental Baptist church, leaving my old life behind completely. There were other brief phases where I investigated faiths like Voodoo and Wicca. I desperately wanted to erase mental illness from my life, but spirituality proved unable to do so. With each religious practice, the intensity of my delusions worsened. At my worst, I was convinced that I was the reincarnation of Beethoven, as well as the Antichrist incarnate.
Four years ago, however, my life miraculously changed for the better when I started taking Clozapine, an antipsychotic medication. The clouds that muddled my mind since toddlerhood began to lift. For the first time, I was able to really understand the nature of human happiness and connection. As a result, I was able to loosen my staunch intellectualism, enjoying a more relaxed approach to life. That elusive laughter now is mine. I am no longer paranoid.
Humorously, it is medication that gives my mind the spiritual rest that it so craves. Perhaps it is blasphemy to those who tout holistic cures, yet the truth in my case remains: clozapine quiets my mind. My intellectual musings now have been revealed to be a combination of actual intellect paired with anxiety and a diligent work ethic. But as the years have passed, the anxiety has waned, and now I am left with merely intellect and a good work ethic.
Neesa Sunar is a mental health peer specialist at a housing agency in Queens, NY. She uses her lived experience with mental illness (schizoaffective disorder) to aid and relate to clients. She is a member of three committees with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, where she contributes ideas to government employees on upcoming mental health initiatives. Her articles and essays have been published on Huffington Post and The Establishment, and she is working on an anthology of poems inspired by the mental health experience. She has previous background as a professional violist and violin instructor, and now performs as a singer-songwriter in venues in New York City. Neesa also offers reiki energy treatments, serving clients from the elderly to dogs. Neesa is the founder and head admin of a mental health support group on Facebook called “What is Wellness? A Mental Health Discussion Group,” which currently has close to 2,000 members. She is now preparing to present at a few mental health conferences, where she will talk about social media and its ability to help people with mental illness. Follow Neesa on Twitter at @neesasuncheuri.