Emerging from the darkness of mental illnessThe young man that Eric Buckner is today — happy, smiling, confident — is totally unrecognizable as the boy that he used to be. He says: “I was kicked out of three preschools, three elementary schools, one high school — and loads of restaurants — for violent behavior. I could not control myself.” It wasn’t just one thing that would set him off; it was a multitude of things. He didn’t think; he reacted. He got so angry he couldn’t remember things. Kids at school would make fun of him; his outbursts and tirades would perpetuate the cycle.
By: Katherine Jones, McClatchy Newspapers
BOISE, Idaho — The young man that Eric Buckner is today — happy, smiling, confident — is totally unrecognizable as the boy that he used to be.
He says: “I was kicked out of three preschools, three elementary schools, one high school — and loads of restaurants — for violent behavior. I could not control myself.” It wasn’t just one thing that would set him off; it was a multitude of things. He didn’t think; he reacted. He got so angry he couldn’t remember things. Kids at school would make fun of him; his outbursts and tirades would perpetuate the cycle.
“If anybody told me to do something, I’d resist, freak out and get angry, just to spite. In preschool at nap time. You’re going to tell ME? I’ll tell YOU.
“I was so emotionally fractured. I was depressed constantly and constantly bullied. I was borderline suicidal; I didn’t want to live. That’s a depressing thought when you’re only in fourth grade.”
Eric tells these stories matter-of-factly, not to gain sympathy, but as a measure of how he has changed, and how a person with mental illness can not only thrive, but blossom. Eric has a list of diagnoses that ranges from oppositional defiance disorder and ADHD to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
“When I thought about the future, I thought I would be incarcerated or institutionalized. Who I am today is beyond everything I thought I could be. When I was younger, I didn’t have the ability to have aspirations.” Eric had glimmers of hope in people who believed in him. Even so, the significant turning point was not toward light, but further into darkness. Just before junior high school, Eric had what doctors called a severe mental and psychotic break.
“I was paranoid, I didn’t trust, I didn’t like anyone. I couldn’t tell what was real; I couldn’t tell what was not. I hit my mom in the stomach ... I felt sad and apologized, but I couldn’t make a difference and I couldn’t control myself.” At their wits’ end and with a doctor’s advice, Eric’s parents sent him to a psychiatric hospital for a solid evaluation. He lived there for seven months.
Darkest before the dawn
“It was the worst point in my life. But I got so much better. It wasn’t just one click and you’re better. I got such good help, got good medication, learned good coping skills. I took pride, I was happy. I wasn’t depressed, I wasn’t threatened, for one of the first times in my life.
“That was a taste of what heaven was. It didn’t last forever, but I didn’t have to do things to make myself happy.” That was the beginning of his recovery, which catapulted him into a perpetual quest for making good, happy choices.
“The world was against me before the hospital. Recovering from that is just light years. I feel enlightened from it. ...” When Eric talks about his life, he says it this way: “I live and prosper with multiple mental illnesses and disorders.” But he is very clear: “Mental illnesses are just labels. They are a means to getting better. (It’s like diagnosing a cold.) It’s treatable, recoverable and not the end of your life. You’re not a bad person; you’re not a good person. They are just there, labels.
“People think if you have a mental illness, it’s the end, you can never recover. People always seem to think that — like you’re untouchable: Don’t go near them, don’t touch them. People feel alienated; I felt alienated. It hurts a lot when people won’t be your friend because you have a ‘label.’” At Boise’s Ascent School, Eric started his involvement with the Idaho Youth Council, giving voice to what it’s like to be a youth with emotional, behavioral and mental health issues.
“If you don’t educate, people can’t understand, all they can do is judge. If you don’t provide education and tools, if you don’t provide a means to understand, people can’t change.” He speaks publicly, and he’s co-hosting a peer support group for kids, too.
“Sharing feels like the end to recovery for me, although there’s never really an end. It makes me feel complete to give, to share my experiences. ... It feels like a circle. I went through that hurt to be happy and now I’m helping other people get through their circles.
“When I was younger, my life felt like a curse. Why me? Why is it me dealing with this? Now that I’m older and have had those experiences, it is like a blessing in disguise. I feel like a better person; it’s a point of pride: Despite my past, I am this.” Now 20, Eric lives on his own and works full time helping people troubleshoot their electronic devices. (“I’m a huge nerd,” he says.) But he has his eye on college, a major in psychology and writing a book about self-help and recovery.
“My overall goal is to help as many people as I can with their issues, to alleviate stress and stigma. There doesn’t need to be as much negativity in the world. I want to present myself with so much ‘positivity.’ I’m hoping for the domino effect.”