Well, words... but you get my drift.
This post has been a long time coming. It has not been easy to write it, much less click on the publish button, a task that I will undertake in just a few short minutes. It is a test. It is not for me; it is for you. What is it testing, you ask? Well, it's testing a few things. It's testing how much you know about mental illness, it's testing how much you will admit to yourself that you don't know about mental illness, it's testing how willing you are to admit that you may be wrong/have been wrong/have wrongly judged others and it's testing your willingness to adopt a new way of thinking.
BE AWARE that there are things written below about me that you, unless you are a part of a very small group did not know. You won't like them. You may be put off by them, freaked out by them, surprised, not surprised, horrified, bewildered or disgusted by them. Therin lies the test. let's see how you feel about me and mental illness when you're done reading. When you are feeling feelings and thinking thoughts, take a step back and look at them, look at what they say about you, your values, your opinions and your genuine understanding.
You also may not give a shit. The world does not, after all, revolve around me. But I feel like I have something to say, and I have a bee in my bonnet about an issue (SURPRISE!) so I wrote about it.
I am ready to tell this story. It’s possibly a good idea to grab a coffee and sit down.
I’m afraid of the dark. I’m not ashamed to admit it. Ever since watching The Sixth Sense I’m always uneasy when I’m alone and low on light. Donnie Wahlberg cuts a sobering image: naked except for a greyish pair of sagging y-fronts, quivering and hunkered, cloaked in despair as he hisses ‘Do you know why you’re afraid when you’re alone? I do; I do.’ Don’t get me wrong; I don’t see dead people. But I do feel stuff, I feel a lot. Sometimes, when I awake in the night needing to pee, I look to every gloomy corner en route to the can, expecting to see a dark figure, motionless, watching me stumble around with a full bladder and terrible night vision. There is never anything there, but it doesn’t stop me from looking every single time. I’m also afraid of space. I’m much more afraid of space. I don’t mean just, like, the space underneath the tallboy, with all the pet hair dust bunnies, odd socks and a dog food can that rolled under there after Bettie the bulldog stole it from the recycling and licked it clean. I mean the space that you can only visit with a rocket. You know, that place where nobody can hear you scream? I’ll be the first to admit it; it’s a stupid fear. I know that. The chance that in my lifetime someone will force me to go into space is ridiculously minute, yet the thought of feeling the effects of a complete lack of gravity and seeing the earth in its entirety makes me feel sick to my stomach. Yuck. It started when I was a little kid. I would lie in bed and try to wrap my brain around space. I would think about our solar system, and then what contained that, and then what contained that, and then what contained that and then my brain would pop and I would gasp, feeling all of a sudden very very very small, and I would shake my head to get the thoughts out and start all over with something much more manageable, like Monkey (the tv show) and whether Tripitaka was a boy or a girl. Ever since then, I hated learning or thinking about space. I imagined being out there and something catastrophic happening. I imagined myself being separated from my pals and floating off into nothingness, nothing to grab hold of, no possible way to claw myself back. I would die alone, cold and without any books. It wasn’t the first or last time I’ve been afraid of being alone.
All of my life I’ve been very different to everyone else. I know it. I’ve felt it, I’ve been told it, and I’ve revelled in it. I’ve learned to be not only ok with it, but very proud of it. I’m actually quite proud of the fact that I’m able to be proud of it, if you know what I mean, because it has been a very challenging state of mind to achieve. Being a bit odd, individual or ‘unique’ is one thing, but the day that a doctor slapped a label on it became quite another. ‘You have moderate depression and stress, and extreme anxiety’, he stated without any perceptible element of emotion whatsoever, ‘I will give you some medication for this.’ So he sent me home with a prescription in my hand and a big fat cloud bobbing over my head. I went home in a daze, collapsed on the bed and cried my eyes out, repeating ‘I don’t wanna have depression’ over and over. The first thing to surprise me was the way my wonderful Mercedes reacted. She told me that having depression and anxiety, to her, is the same as having asthma and that as long as I learned how to manage it, it shouldn’t be a problem. So, I Googled. I Googled depression, I Googled anxiety, I Googled Prozac and then I Googled cats that say ‘oh no no no no’ just for good measure. I feel a certain kinship with them now; since wandering into this depression caper I have found myself chanting that same melancholy mantra from time to time.
Allow me to describe a little of what I went through before finally going to see a doctor about my behaviour…
Like I said, I’d always been a bit strange. Many people who know me would probably be surprised to find out that I have had—at certain times in my life—a nasty temper. I’ve never taken it out on anyone else, but I sure have punched a lot of stuff. I’m not proud of it; neither am I ashamed, as I understand it now. I’ve punched walls, doors, windows, fences, tables, cupboards, cars, dirt, beds, water, a fridge and my own face. The most painful one is the face, cos that hurts both your fists and your face. The second most painful was the time I punched a shop front window and broke my hand in two places. The least painful was actually the fence. You might be reading this and thinking ‘why would you punch stuff? Were you drunk?’ Yes, sometimes I was. Sometimes I wasn’t. The common denominator isn’t alcohol; it’s frustration. My frustration came from all sorts of things, and for the most part, I felt like it was somebody else’s fault. Interestingly enough, as it turns out, it was completely mine. This year, it all came to a head. This year was definitely the year for punching my face. It’s the weirdest thing. If I was having a confrontation with Mercedes, and I felt like it was going nowhere and nothing was being resolved, I would notice a feeling of helplessness creep in like rolling fog, silent and sombre, somehow quite final. The sense of despair at this was tangible for me, and it built up very quickly, much like a filling bathtub. You keep checking and checking it and it’s nowhere near deep enough and then all of a sudden it has overflowed and there is a river running through the house carrying all sorts of debris in its current. I would be very calm and quiet and then all of a sudden BANG it was too much to handle and then my fists would be flying at my own face. It was like a pressure release and a ridiculous malfunction at the same time. I felt very small inside my mind, like a shy child hovering at the back of a room, as some awful invisible puppeteer turned my own body against itself. I imagine it was quite scary to see, and thankfully it always signalled the end of the fight, because Mercedes couldn’t stand to let it go on.
So there was that. Then, there was the endless striving for perfection and the endless guilt because, naturally, perfection is never actually realised. There were the days I couldn’t get out of bed except to pee. There were the days I forgot to eat. There were the times that instead of resorting to the face punching, I would suddenly find myself wedged into a corner, scrambling to become as small as possible, covering my head and screaming for Mercedes to get away from me until my voice was hoarse and I could scream no more. So, yeah, it was less than ideal. I felt crazy. I felt very unlike myself, or at least the impression of myself that I had come to believe. All Mercedes said to me was ‘I don’t care what’s going on; we can get through it together. It’s only going to be a problem for me if you don’t go do something about it.’ So, I did, and thus began my conscious journey through mental illness.
The first thing I had to do was wrap my brain around what it meant to have a name for what I was feeling. I hit a hurdle immediately when I was doing this reflecting. I found myself wondering why I had to ‘wrap my brain around it’ at all. When I was constantly feeling sick in my tummy, I went to the doctor to get to the bottom of it. After many unsavoury tests, they told me that I had IBS and that my intestines had trouble processing sugars. I was glad to know that, because then I knew how to stop the pain in my belly, end of story. So why was I so intent on ‘wrapping my brain around’ mental illness? Why was it even an issue? I had an explanation about why I was behaving so strange, now I had to start to work towards addressing that behaviour. Why was I worrying about telling my family, my friends? Why was I worried about my roller derby team and league finding out? Why was I worried about my reputation? Why was I ok with my sporting mates knowing I suffered from asthma but not quite ok with telling them that it was actually, more accurately, twenty-five per cent asthma, seventy-five per cent anxiety? The only answer I could think of was that there is a generally-held view by a lot of people that having a mental illness is somehow taboo. The more I thought about this and the more I learned about things like depression, anxiety, PTSD, ADHD, bipolar disorder and many other things, the more it irritated me. The fact is, that anyone, anyone has the capacity to feel depressed or anxious. Why is it that when a label is applied to it as a ‘condition’ or ‘affliction’ instead of simply an emotion it’s a whole different kettle of fish? Imagine a person who identifies as ‘perfectly fine’, with no physical or mental health issues. Then, imagine their parents die in a horrible car crash. Then, imagine their partner leaves them a week later. Then, imagine all of their hair falls out from the stress. They then are so preoccupied with everything going on that they trip on a crack in the sidewalk, face plant, chip both front teeth, and discover that their private health cover actually doesn’t cover dental. Odds are that person will feel depressed, and rightly so. It would be a bit weird if they didn’t. And take anxiety. It’s a perfectly natural emotion. Imagine you are snorkelling off the Great Barrier Reef and you look up to see a big black fin approaching you. The feeling that hits you first would most likely be anxiety; that’s a pretty anxious situation. So why is it that if it’s simply an emotion, it’s nothing to blink an eye at, but as soon as someone is diagnosed with a mental illness, it’s all of a sudden a very serious, mysterious and scary thing? That’s not a rhetorical question; I don’t know the answer and I’m asking you why.
In my case, it seems that a few things were going on. Apparently, my serotonin reuptake function was on the fritz and was whipping away all my delicious happy juice too quickly. Enter Prozac, one of many serotonin reuptake inhibitors on the market. Also, I had developed a couple of behaviours in childhood that had become so ingrained in my psyche that I had no idea they were ruling my life with an iron fist. Enter my shrink—a person with years of training in psychology—who helped me to identify these behaviours and reorganise my thinking. Enter my recovery. He reckons I won’t need to be on Prozac forever, but even if I do, I decided a long time ago that I don’t care. Like a person whose pancreas don’t produce enough insulin, if my brain doesn’t balance things properly and I need a little help to regulate it, then hurrah for the twenty-first century.
So, as far as I’m concerned, I don’t feel ‘ill’. I didn’t feel ‘ill’ when I was stuck in my bed and afraid I was going to get sent to an asylum a la American Horror Story and be skinned by Bloodyface. I just felt that something was not right and that I needed to figure out what it was. So, is it the term itself? Is it hearing the words ‘mental illness’ that makes people edgy and triggers them to wonder if the person in question is going to have a psychotic episode and chase them down the street, all flailing arms and banshee wail, wearing undies on their head? It seems so extreme to me. Mental illness… I feel like for me, and potentially lots of other people, it’s not so much that I’m ‘mentally ill’, but much more like I’m ‘emotionally confused’. They changed the term ‘learning disability’ to ‘learning difficulty’. Why? Essentially they mean the same thing. Was it because of the stigma attached to the former? What if we changed ‘Mental illness’ to ‘emotional difficulty’? Would society as a whole be a little more calm about it? Would consumers be a bit more ready to admit what they’re feeling to their friends, colleagues and families? Because it isn’t going away, and I’m ok with that. I know that my asthma will always play up depending on the season. I know that my guts will hate too much sugar and milk forever. I know that if I don’t give myself at least the simplest of routines, then I’m prone to, over time, suffer a lack of motivation which, unchecked can easily creep into depression territory. What I’m not ok with is meeting people every day who are hesitant to admit that something’s going on because they feel that to admit it will change things forever and hold them back, when all it would do is ensure that they are more in touch with their own bodies and personalities.
Like I said, I hate space. So, I went and saw Gravity, with Sandra Bullock and the delightful salt and peppery George Clooney. I was petrified. I shook and gripped Mercedes' hand so tight she went ‘ouch’. But I got through it and only looked away from the screen twice. And I’ll go back to see it again, just for good measure, because I am stronger than my fear; just like I am stronger than a label. Mental illness is not a dirty word, but ignorance is.