In a few weeks time, my parents are flying to Malaysia for a fortnight’s holiday whilst I stay in my slightly less exotic summer holiday home of the English psychiatric unit (note I say only say slightly less exotic. Malaysia may have rainforests and tropical climates but I will have you know we have pineapple juice in the fridge here as a breakfast beverage option). The prospect of two weeks without my Mum and Dad here is terrifying. As a 24 year old I feel I should be past such anxiety when separated from my parents, but I can’t help it. In terms of maturity, I am ridiculously behind other people my age, in terms of development into an adult (whatever the hell that is).
Rationally, I suppose most people would miss their parents whilst they go galavanting off around the world and I know nobody feels prepared for becoming an adult. A lot of my friends for example are a rather taken aback with things like moving out or paying electricity bills, and like me often very much feel like retreating into a blanket fort to watch a Disney film. That said, because of all this mental health nonsense, I feel I am so extremely behind that it is as if I am in a giant swimming pool with all the other people my age, and that I am the only one who still has arm bands on. Heck I am not even in the pool with them, I am sitting in a paddling pool on the outside, splashing about and wondering how on earth these people are performing the front crawl with such ease.
This feeling of being behind my peers in terms of growing up used to worry me a lot, but “delayed mental ageing” or “stunted development” is very common in people with mental health problems. I have no idea why exactly this is, but if I were to guess I would say it was because when you are riddled with an illness of the mind, you kind of step out of the world and get lost/trapped inside of your head. Your neuroses and anxieties become your universe, they consume your entire being in terms of thoughts and behaviour, and it is very easy to forget that there is any other planet out there at all.
With things like OCD, your world is your rituals, every action requiring such concentration and focus that you have no senses spare to be receptive to anything else. When you are depressed you are too busy trying to motivate yourself to keep breathing to have time for real life stuff, and then there are eating disorders where your entire universe is food. No wonder then that people often describe people with severe mental health problems as “totally out of it”. Sometimes, they really are holidaying on the outward planet of insanity with whatever anxieties that involves, and in being this way they miss a lot of what is really happening in the real world, not because they are self obsessed, but because they are not there.
This wouldn’t be as big an issue as it is, and it wouldn’t potentially “stunt” or delay development and maturity at all if the world would just stop spinning whilst us marble-less creatures were otherwise engaged. If the world waited, people could just get better and pick up their lives and development from where they left off before the insanity creatures whisked them away, but that is the problem. The world doesn’t stop turning (sometimes Earth can be so inconsiderate). Even if you are living on a different planet, time in the real world still passes, so when you try to recover and return to normality it can be quite a shock to the system.
This shock is a really difficult thing to explain to people who haven’t experienced it, so in classic Born without Marbles style I am going to try to make some sense of it via some kind of analogy. The analogy? That coming back into the real world after being trapped in a mental illness is sort of like the feeling you get when you watch a TV program for several months, miss a few years, then try to pick it up again only to be baffled and confused as to what on earth is going on.
In this analogy, sane people have been watching a daily television show, lets call it “The Life and Times of Percy The Penguin”, a soap opera style show about a community of penguins living in the Arctic (think Coronation Street with more waddling). The sane people have never missed an episode, so they have seen the story grow over the years, and learnt things about the world that have changed and enhanced their lives. Each episode actually helps people develop in life.
Now, the person with mental health problems starts off watching this program too, but then, just in the middle of an episode in which Percy is getting married to his childhood sweetheart Patricia, the mental illness kicks in and whisks them to a world where there are no televisions. Whilst they have the illness they are trapped in this other world, anxious, alone, repeating rituals, hearing voices and experiencing a whole other load of things that most people never do. Despite their absence however, in the real world, the television show continues on without them.
Say they are then stuck in this mental world for a decade but then finally break free, back to reality. One may assume that they can join back in watching the program, understanding life in exactly the same way as everyone else, fitting in just like before, but unfortunately that is not the case.
They turn on the TV and are immediately confused by the image that confronts them on the screen. Where the hell is Patricia they wonder? Why does Percy have a wooden flipper? Who is this Polly he is married too? Why are Percy and Polly crouching in a bunker looking terrified and why have all the other penguins in the village been replaced by seals? It makes no sense.
To everyone else the answers are obvious. By staying in the real world they never missed an episode and have grown up over the years alongside the program, their understanding and knowledge continuing to grow as the program progressed. They are all well aware of the fact that in “The Life and Times of Percy the Penguin”, Patricia actually turned out to be an evil seal in disguise who ripped Percy’s fin off in the middle of their wedding, resulting in the rather splinter ridden replacement. They all saw every other penguin in the village reveal themselves to be evil seals working for Patricia, with the only real penguin other than Percy in the area being a hidden gem named Polly, who Percy then fell in love with, married, and is now hiding in an ice cave with planning how on earth the pair will overcome the wrath of Patricia the dictator and her fin flapping minions. The mentally ill person can try and catch up, scrabble around for any video tapes or use Google to find out all the things they have missed, but it isn’t the same. The lessons learnt over the missed years and development in everyone that the program inspired, happened in a time that cannot be retrieved, leaving the mentally ill person understandably behind and immature in comparison.
That is how I feel right now, and considering I first got ill when I was 11, I feel that mentally I am still that age, not even a teenager, yet in recovery everyone is trying to force me into this world of the 24 year old. It is terrifying. “Getting better” from any mental illness is quite a challenge as it is, but getting better AND trying to cram 13 years worth of growing up into a couple of months is a bit much to ask. I am just not ready to be 24 yet, I haven’t had all the years leading up to it to prepare myself and I haven’t learnt the lessons you are supposed to learn alongside friends who are going through the same thing, friends who are now rather far ahead of me.
Whilst all the other people at school were leaving the beanie babies behind, hitting puberty, getting hormones and falling into relationships, I was too busy calculating the calories in an apple to join in with all the developing. When they were learning to drive, I was off counting the number of times I had washed my hands, and when they began to move out of their family homes I didn’t notice because I was too upset or anxious to come out from under a blanket.
I feel silly and embarrassed by these things, but at the same time I want to talk about them openly so that more people can understand and fewer people have to feel ashamed. It is easy to judge someone for living in their parents’ house past the age most people have moved out, but I think it is important for people to be aware of the fact that this whole stunted development thing is a real issue and yet another complex reason to add to the list of what makes recovery from any form of insanity such a scary, and difficult process. Maybe one day if I “get better”, spend long enough in the real world, then I won’t feel so alienated and distant from friends my age living adult lives. Maybe one day I will understand the friends I have who are considering getting a mortgage (what the hell is that?), whilst I consider which starter Pokemon to pick (Squirtle every time), and maybe one day I will have the answers as to how to sort your life out when your mental age feels so disconnected and underdeveloped compared to everyone else. I certainly hope so, and as soon as I find those answers, I will be sure to let any of you others out there who are struggling with this issue know exactly what they are. Until then, I guess I will just have to keep my arm bands on as it were. Force myself out of the paddling pool, keep jumping in the deep end where the other 24 year olds are, splash around a bit and hope to God there are some good life guards or at least a rubber ring floating around.