I’ve opened my blog as a safe space for people to talk about mental health. The author of this post has asked to remain anonymous which I fully respect, and I hope you will too. It fits with the 25% series that Alison Chisnell is hosting on her blog.
My take on this is that the more opportunity we provide for people to talk, the more things can happen.
I’ve worked to promote better understanding of mental good health and illness for many years, partly spurred on by my own diagnosis of cyclothymic disorder at the age of 19.
Cyclothymia is a mild form of bipolar disorder or manic depressive illness which means that I experience mood swings that go from mild depression to emotional highs. I jokingly explain it nowadays as “bipolar disorder for those of us who are too busy for the full version.”
I was diagnosed with ‘rapid cycling cyclothmia’, which meant my moods were up and down on a daily basis, defying the day to day influences which might have helped make sense of them. One Christmas Day I was a shaking, terrified wreck, unable to summon the impossible bravery of going outside, and then on the day of my much-loved grandmother’s funeral I was an inappropriate, smiling ball of energy.
I was offered medication. I refused. I was 19, and knew everything. At 20, I had my first quiet but memorable ‘major episode’. I believed I didn’t make a lot of noise, but I walked out of my job because I was privately convinced my (blameless) boss was secretly racist. I left home after things became impossible to hide, and went to stay with friends. I was promiscuous, drank too much and ultimately took up with a domineering boyfriend. I got pregnant. So maybe I was not so quiet, after all.
At 21, and as a new mum, I straightened out. I had responsibilities – but more importantly I again had my family behind me. I found work again, and a better place to live. I began taking medication and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. For a while, things were better- even though the relationship with my child’s father fell to bits.
On 14 July 1995, a schizophrenic neighbour broke into my home one night and assaulted me. My toddler daughter witnessed it and the trauma she suffered made me blame myself for failing to protect her. I stopped taking my tablets and didn’t push for more CBT. I went into meltdown again and ended up sat with my GP for an hour sobbing. She helped me restart the medication and after a few months I scraped through. On 13 March 1996 my neighbour was convicted for two assaults on me and another woman in May 1995. I barely remember feeling anything but shock that here was an obviously mentally-ill man who was going to prison, not to a place where he might find real help. I sat in the car afterwards and listened with horror to news of the Dunblane massacre on the radio.
This was the point at which I realised that mental health provision in the UK was generally bloody terrible.
I started to look into why. There are a plethora of reasons, but the sticking points seem to be that mental health is a) invisible, unlike broken limbs or cancer; b) distinctly unglamorous and unsympathetic; c) misunderstood and stigmatised by our use of language and responses to mental health issues; and d) the ‘poor relation’ in our health service, bearing the first and deepest cuts wherever there is money to be saved.
In the years since I’ve had ups and downs, including moments when I’ve considered suicide. I stored up sleeping pills on two occasions before flushing them down the toilet instead of down my throat. I’ve even dealt with the sudden suicide of a man I was in a relationship with for five years and a cancer scare – and trust me, there’s nothing like those sort of things for a little perspective on why you should stick around.
Today, I’ve been more or less ‘well’ for four years now. I am no longer considered ‘rapid cycling’ (insert your own Lance Armstrong joke here.) I have my moments, fighting episodes of depression and too-high spirits with a deadly combination of medication, talking, support and techniques I’ve collected along the way. I’m in a great relationship now where I have been able to be honest and open about my cyclothymia. He supports me through it all without fear or judgment, but then, he has studied this stuff and knows the facts. I have worked my rear off to get qualified and recognised so that I now hold down a good job doing what I love and buy a home. I am fortunate.
So I want to use what I know to help others be fortunate, too.
In recent years some respected and admired figures have gone public on mental health issues. In his remarkable 2008 documentary ‘The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive’, Stephen Fry talked openly with the likes of Robbie Williams and Carrie Fisher about anxiety, depression and mania. This led to some in the media accusing Fry of ‘glamourising’ mental disorders and provoking a rise in people approaching their GP describing symptoms that equally could or could not have resulted in the diagnosis of a disorder, depending on a multitude of factors.
I doubt a single one went along to their GP hoping to be told they had the same illness as Robbie Williams because it would have made them feel ‘special’ or ‘glamorous.’ I like to think that Messrs Fry and Williams would agree when I say that mental illness is not remotely fashionable.
There’s a persistent belief that some mental health disorders can be conducive to creativity, quality of work and productivity. There is a perceived link between creativity and mental disorders, one explored far better than I could hope to by Kay Redfield Jamison in her book ‘Touched With Fire.’
Me? I remain unconvinced. Being diagnosed with a mental health disorder does not instantly confer upon you powers of creativity or genius. I’m not stupid; I write reasonably well, can express myself with a fair vocabulary (some of which is even suitable for a family audience) and I can even draw a bit, but I’m nothing special because of my situation. Terms like ‘tortured genius’ are unhelpful when applied to people who were exceptionally gifted and who also happened to suffer with some disorder. I balk when they are used to describe the likes of Vincent Van Gogh. It seems we add words like ‘tortured’ to temper the use of ‘genius’ because we’re somehow uncomfortable with granting a ‘mad bloke’ like Vincent such an honour. Just ‘genius’ is just fine.
Think on this: can we view Spike Milligan, Tony Hancock or Amy Winehouse simply as geniuses, or do we involuntarily add the afterthought “… considering their problems”?
‘Problems’. There’s another pet hate. “She has problems with her nerves.” “He’s a bit eccentric.” Euphemisms. Let’s stop talking around things, recognise where there’s a real issue- and offer our help.
It’s argued that labelling someone with a mental health condition can have two effects: it can scare them, and certainly others, if they do not have or are not given a good understanding of things. If they tell people, there can be a resultant loss of trust and respect, and damage to their ‘personal brand’ (if they inhabit a world where that kind of language plays well.) Those diagnosed with a condition can find themselves excluded or shut out- often because others don’t understand rather than any real desire to be nasty or difficult.
However once a ‘label’ is recognised, and a condition understood, there can be better access to NHS support services and possibly occupational health support if it’s offered by their employer. NHS mental health services have improved drastically in the time I’ve been a ‘service user’. However, even as one of our NHS’ biggest fans, I have to say there’s still a lot of room for improvement.
So what’s the first step? Addressing the stigma by being unafraid to talk is essential.
Today, I’ve found this heartbreaking yet inspiring interview with a childhood icon of mine, Adam Ant. In it he says,
“Where I come from, there’s the poor house – and worse than that is the mad house. You should never feel ashamed of it, but you do. A lot of the time you can’t take these problems even to close family because you fear that you’ll alienate them. So anyone in the public eye that comes forward and discusses it, I think it helps.”
Let’s not leave it to those in the spotlight to do it. Let’s all step up and talk about mental health.
Who’s next to take the stage?
Thank you so much to the author for writing and sharing this post.
If you want to know where to get support, visit the Mind website for more information.
If you want to use this space, it’s yours. Just get in touch.