Mental Health (or the Lack of It)

posted in: chronic illness | 2

Day 21 – Write about mental health

Dreams of Narnia © 2004 Jane Waterman
Dreams of Narnia © 2004 Jane Waterman

Dear Reader,

You might be fed up with me talking about mental health, or rather the lack of it, but I had some thoughts about it (of course) and thought I would share them with you.

In some ways, this prompt is a bit of a surprise, as to me, mental health underlies everything I am, everything I do, my interactions with most of the people I love (and more often than not lately, it’s someone else’s mental health that is at the centre of the conversation), and those I don’t know all that well. Talking explicitly about mental health 1 day out of 30 days of prompts seems a bit surreal to me because mental health is at the centre of my thoughts 30 days out of 30.

Talking about mental health needs to be front and centre of everything we deal with, even (perhaps especially even) if you’re ‘just’ physically ill and consider yourself mentally in tune. Think about it. A lot of people who get the flu or some kind of bug for a few days and feel like crap don’t have any problem talking about how crappy it makes them feel and even admit to feeling depressed about it, even if it’s not in any clinical sense of the word.

Then imagine you have an illness where it’s like having the flu 24/7/365 – perhaps for the rest of your life. You would think then that it’s always an important time to talk about mental health, but as soon as an illness becomes chronic, we’re not supposed to talk about it and we’re certainly not meant to talk about the mind-numbing despair of being stuck in (lack of) diagnosis hell, or not being able to do even the daily things we once took for granted, much less going out with our friends and having a good time! Yes, the expectation is that we’re not supposed to talk about it – it’s too depressing for those who still have their physical health, and who don’t even remotely consider mental health an issue in their everyday life.

That’s the reason I questioned myself if I could talk about Sjogren’s syndrome and depression in the same blog, when it suddenly struck me that of course I can! Both are chronic illnesses that are entirely invisible to everyone else (other than my wife who has seen me sobbing in bed with both extreme physical and mental pain, and of course my wonderful counsellor who has seen both the mentally shut-down me and the hopeful, getting-on-top-of-it me). Both of these diseases make me feel invisible and persona non grata to the world as most people know it. Writing about it – to anyone who will listen – helps me to feel just a little more real in the world.

Something was ‘not right’ with me around the age of 4 when I used to shut myself behind my bedroom door and beat my head with my fists, chanting silently, “I hate you!” I write about it now, even though it’s still painful, because I think we should all be aware that even 4 year-olds (and even younger children) who are sensitive and absorb the harshness of the world like sponges can be torn apart by mental illness concerns. We need to be talking about it and looking out for each other, and especially our kids, our elders, and our marginalized people – people with disabilities and people with any kind of differences – as those feelings of marginalization so often lead to alienation, depression and other mental health challenges.

I don’t mean we should look out for these people and stick them on medications, or ship them off quickly to the nearest funny farm (which is not all that funny, folks). I mean we should get over ourselves, stop feeling uncomfortable about something that is completely in the realms of all of our human experiences, and ask what we can do to help.

When I talk about that 4-year old me, I do so with a sense of shame, and even more so when I remember myself doing the same thing at 13 and older. When a loved one says they never remember me doing those things, well, of course not. I think even at that early age I learned it was something I had to hide, and it enveloped me into the world of dissociative disorders, where I became so isolated from myself, I quickly became whoever was needed or wanted at the time. I did this so naturally that when I finally stopped numbing and really went crazy in my twenties, everyone was so shocked because the madness had totally consumed my inner life and the person on the outside was a complete shell that was much loved for being so loving, hard-working and together – in short, highly functioning. That shell was, however, a much loved sham.

It was only as I could no longer contain the struggles, and learned so many of the accepted ways of self-medicating my anger and depression (alcohol) and non-accepted ways (self-harm) that I began to unfairly get the ‘looks’ and even more devastatingly, the silence, that said I was indeed ‘out of my tree’.

The thing is: no one should ever have to get through their entire childhood without someone somewhere asking about how their mental world is going. Again, I’m not saying lets screen the kids and lock up the crazy ones. God, no! Those children are often the sanest ones as they’re absorbing the absolutely crazy things we expose them to: the things we do to them, the arguments, the stresses and downright cruelty that one adult can do to another, not to mention all the violence surrounding them at every turn (and the sad thing is I can totally dissociate and watch scenes of violence on TV and in movies when as a child it made me physically and mentally ill beyond imagining – what is crazy, gentle reader?). No – we need to be asking what we can do to turn down the insane noise of the world – learn how to make their environments more peaceful, and what we can do to help those rapidly disappearing children feel like they matter so they don’t end up like, say, me at 46 still struggling to be seen in the world.

The only crazy thing about mental health, like physical health, is not talking about it. We need to be able to go to general practitioners who are as skilled in mental health as physical health. We desperately need doctors who know how to talk about mental health (without frantic looks at the door of their office, wondering when they can escape), and not just how to prescribe. The specialization of health care doesn’t just lie in physical medicine where the doctor who knows all about the bladder doesn’t truly know what’s happening in the kidney just up the proverbial pipeline. In the same way, you can’t consider that a person has complete health care until you look at what’s happening in the part of the body above the shoulders as well.

Until we do that, we will have discord at the heart of the family and society. Until then, we’ll continue to be shocked when people ‘go crazy’. We’ll not even wonder why suicide is one of the largest causes of death, or why depression and anxiety are some of the greatest ‘excuses’ for workplace sick leave (that ultimate measure of how we function as a society – those industrious little worker bees).

If we took the mental pulse of our society more often, we might actually stop being so shocked and save a few lives. We might save our kids, and the future.

That’s something worth taking ten minutes a day for, isn’t it?

Blessings,
Jane

2 Responses

  1. Annette McKinnon (@a
    | Reply

    Finding that violence in TV and movies makes you sick sounds like a far more healthy way to react if we were all going to be realistic. As kids we are more sensitive to it.

    Four year old you had a tough time for a little girl. You are so creative and articulate, you've done a lot but it sounds like it was not anywhere close to easy.

    I had lunch with a friend today who has been on various medications for 5 years and only since May has all gone well. her Dr said it was like trying to tune in a radio station and finally they got it right.

    • Jane Waterman
      | Reply

      Thanks, Annette – it sounds sensible, doesn't it, but amazing how up-in-arms people get in defending that violence and how it has no effect. That's not my experience.

      I was pretty sensitive for a young kid. There'd been big changes in the family – we moved from England when I was 2.5 – it was a 6-week voyage, and I'm sure a huge change for my parents and my 3 older siblings. I'm not surprised if I absorbed a lot of that. I now put myself in my mother's shoes, home alone when her husband and 3 kids were at school – it's no wonder that she was stressed.

      What a great analogy your friend's doctor has. I love hearing good news stories like that – it really gives me hope that not all doctors are giving up on the difficult cases. I feel my traditional doctors have abandoned me, so I'm very glad my naturopath is working with me. She is trying me on something else so I don't have to take the huge volumes of pills anymore – it really was difficult – and I feel like it's working. Good news. I often find Christmas a bit difficult, so I need to be mindful.

      I hope you are doing as well as you can. Thanks as always for dropping by.

      Take care,

      Jane

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