It is that time of the month when I try and make people with mental health problems feel a little less lonely, so grab a cuppa and lets sit down together for a good old chinwag…
A few months ago I read a quote stating that when “I” became “we”, mental illness became mental wellness. Now at the time I will admit I thought that statement was a nice thing to write on the wall of a psychiatric unit (as in properly artistically written as a message, purposely placed there by the authorities rather than some crazed crayon scrawl of a patient with too much time and too many crayons), but other than that I didn’t believe the statement very much. It felt like one of those things that is all well and good to say like “the sun will come out tomorrow” and other similarly cheesy phrases sung by red headed orphans who have no experience, knowledge or authority in weather forecasting to make any such predictions, but I have to say that over the past few weeks, I have realised that this quote is actually pretty accurate. Okay, it is not flawless, but there is a lot more truth in it than the words of a deluded 10 year old who thinks no outfit is complete without a smile, a very inappropriate thing to wear to a relative’s funeral.
I think I can say on behalf of many, that having a mental health problem is very lonely.
For one thing there is the actual physical distance created by mental illness. Maybe your difficulties restrict your ability to take part in life so you lose touch with friends leading “normal” lives and end up pretty isolated. Maybe you have to take time off work to go into hospital or to have treatment which separates you from the community in which you may have played a part. Maybe you fall out with acquaintances who cannot understand why you can’t “just be normal” when “it’s all in your head” and there is “nothing physically wrong with you”, but the biggest distance is the unseen emotional distance that nobody really talks about. When you are so trapped in thoughts spiralling around in your head, you feel as if you are a million miles away from people who may be sat right beside you, simply because you can’t relate to them in anyway. You watch them laugh, eat or open a door without washing their hands afterwards, you wonder how they do it, and you feel like a lesser underdeveloped species. Furthermore there are the thoughts that come with mental health problems, the low self esteem, feelings that everyone must hate you, the shame and inability to be honest with people incase they think you are crazy, and general emotional detachment from reality.
Both these physical and emotional distances can make you feel like you are the only person in the world who thinks the way you do, and this in turn contributes to the overwhelming sensation of being alone. Don’t get me wrong, being alone is nice sometimes, but when you are feeling alone and trying to battle a mental illness that is hitting you on the head with a mallet every five minutes, it can make your individual feeble attempts to fight against it weak and futile in comparison to its all controlling power. What you need is an army to help you, people on your side to support you in battle, in short, you need to call in the troops to face your demons with you, troops who will preferably bring a large number of rather large mallets with them. For this reason, friendship, community and kindness should never be ignored as ways of treating any disorder, for they are pretty much as important as all the therapy and psychiatric drugs in the world.
I guess my attitude to all this has changed fairly recently and has been during my time in hospital. When you are stuck in unfamiliar surroundings with unfamiliar people, anyone is going to feel alone, and that in turn made me feel pretty alone with my problems. Fighting them felt futile and every second pointless. It was like I was a tortoise lying upside down on my back waving my legs around, unable to roll back over, yet being asked to wrestle with a lion, a crocodile, three tigers, and a bear who had somehow developed the use of opposable thumbs and managed to get his hands on an armoured tank complete with canon. As I lay there flailing pathetically, I couldn’t help but think “why bother trying to fight this? I can’t stand on my feet let alone battle a pack of vicious animals with the use of military style transport and machinery”. However, I then received a sudden onslaught of kindness both from friends, family and strangers, and it made me wonder whether or not there might actually be a point in giving it my best shot.
When people feel emotions caused by kindness shown by other people, they tend to say things like that they were “touched” and “moved”, but to say that is to vastly underestimate what I felt. Indeed I was so touched I was practically black and blue all over with the force of it, and so moved that one morning I actually found myself several thousand miles away in the sahara desert, where it took staff on the ward a very long time to find me again (they say they the reason for the delay in locating me was a dodgy sat nav but I am suspicious that they got distracted by the abundance of sand and started building castles…nurses love sand castles). I felt like a gigantic boob with the worlds strongest wonderbra supporting me, and though I never imagined anything positive ever coming from feeling like a boob, here I was proved wrong.
Knowing I had all these people supporting me made me feel empowered and suddenly trying to wrestle all those animals seemed a lot less daunting. I had back-up, and if I joined forces with them then my beasts could be overcome. Furthermore, actually engaging in the battle suddenly seemed worthwhile. When flailing on my back (remember the analogy, I am a tortoise here), not only did I see the fight as impossible, but I saw it as something that didn’t matter because I didn’t care what happened to me. I didn’t care if the lion ripped off my head or the bear flattened me to a pancake in his armoured vehicle. To be honest, when I was admitted, I just wanted for it all to be over. With the support I received though, I realised that it wasn’t just my vote that counted in all of this, it wasn’t just a case of me not wanting to fight and that being the end of it. For some bizarre reason, a lot of other people did think it mattered. They did care, and they did want me to win the fight. There were people who didn’t want to see me torn to pieces, there were people rooting for me, people who wanted me around, so when it came to facing a challenge, lunch for example, I couldn’t help but think “Even if I don’t care and don’t want to do this right now, there are a lot of people who do care, and I am not going to let them down, so for now I will do it for them”.
The confirmation in the quote that when “I” becomes “we”, illness becomes wellness and the important message I want to get across here then, is that when it comes to fighting mental health issues, knowing you are not alone in your recovery can be as important as any other aspect of treatment. If you don’t have mental health problems yourself but know someone who does and you want to help but don’t know what to do, helping them doesn’t have to be as hard as you may think. You don’t need to study all the psychology books in the library to try and understand what they are going through. You don’t have to move in with them, rally them each morning with an inspirational speech and skip encouragingly beside them throughout the day. Trust me, just letting a friend know that you are there for them if they need, that you care about their battle and other simple acts of kindness will do more for them than you will ever know.
Alternatively, if you yourself are sitting there reading this and you have mental health problems, feel that nobody understands, are unable to talk to friends and family in real life about your struggles and feel completely alone, know that this is not the case. I may not know you personally, but I can assure you that I care about your battle and I am more than happy to support you in it. When you know you are not alone you gain power, and that is what I want to give to you. I want you all to know that I am one your side, and that I have three tanks with canons so big that those bears and lions don’t stand a chance. If simply knowing that is enough then great, but if you still feel alone and ever want someone who understands, email or message me. I may not give the best advice and hearing from a stranger may not be what you want right now, but if you need a hand to hold in this darkness, I am more than happy to lend you all mine.
Take care everyone.