20 August 2014

Let the elephant speak

At the risk of making a blog entirely about mental health, I wanted to do a post on this before pursuing the feat of chronicling my Asian Adventure of the last two weeks… but then, maybe the sentence I just wrote is all the more reason to do this? Simply by opening with "at the risk", I have made a veiled apology for a topic that should never necessitate one. I have bought into the very belief I criticise - that mental health should be wrapped up, buried away; as if it is something unsightly. 

Then again, ultimately it is. Depression is not beautiful. Eating disorders are not glamorous. Panic attacks don't draw covetous looks. Suicide is not a word we ever want to hear uttered on the news, or splashed across a front page. Mental health hurts. Just as cancer kills, heart disease destroys, chronic illness elicits a lifetime of challenges, big and small. Mental health hurts -  this is why it needs to be spoken about. The elephant in the room is not going away. Trivialising it, vilifying it, at worst ignoring it - this won't make its presence any smaller. 

The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Photo credit: pinterest

To be "depressed" is a verb that is thrown around in day-to-day life, often with little passing thought. Post-holiday blues, bad day at school/work, relationship turmoil, and the word may slip off the tongue. If we were to give a penny for the number of times the phrase "so depressed" was used on Facebook, we could probably build a skyscraper - or, on second thoughts, put much needed funding into charities such as Mind and Time to Change, in order to raise awareness of what is a serious illness, and the resources to help treat it. I can understand, for people who haven't experienced it themselves, why it might be hard to comprehend. Unlike other illnesses, you cannot pinpoint an exact cause, or treat it with conventional medicine. However, this does not mean that it is some figment of a selfish, attention-seeking imagination.

Stan Collymore alludes to Alan Brazil's
insensitive comments on TalkSPORT.
Just this morning, I was reading a 2011 article by the footballer Stan Collymore (he is now a pundit for TalkSPORT, and spoke out against Alan Brazil's deplorable comments last week) on his own struggle with depression. It was a very moving and erudite piece, yet almost predictably some of the classic Daily Mail rottweilers emerged in the comments section: "snap out of it lad"… yes, and while we're at it, should I "snap out" of diabetes? Would he have told Robin Williams to "snap out" of PD? Hopefully not. But of course, they are illnesses. Well, here is some news for the 'snap out of it' people: so is depression. One of the tweets on the right, with someone believing that it is "embarrassing" to say they might struggle with depression, shows the crux of the issue. The shame, and consequent denial, that people find themselves in.

This oversight, of what is a serious illness, is detrimental. As Collymore described it in a 2011 interview, "it takes a massive leap of faith to know that this time next week, life could be running again, smiling, my world big and my brain back as it should be. So what do some do? They don't take the leap of faith". The latter sentence, alluding to suicide, is quite pertinent given Robin Williams' tragic death a week ago. I cannot begin to fathom the devastation it leaves behind; I would never in a million years overlook this. However, I can equally say that my blood boiled whenever I saw the word "selfish" crop up in the print media, on social media, or on the radio in the past week. 

Depression is an illness woven by paradox. This echoes what I wrote back in february; how an eating disorder's power lies in distortion. Many people have the concept of the "selfish" sufferer of depression; on the contrary, many of the thoughts that arise in a depressive state are rooted in wanting to protect others. In the past, I have acted in the intended interest of those I love, only to later learn that I was ultimately doing the opposite. My delay in opening up to my family about my eating struggles, for example, was as much a fear of hurting them, as it was any self-interest. To this day, I admit that I still find myself teetering above the trap of believing that speaking out hurts more than staying quiet. Time and time again, I am reminded that this is almost never the case - but it is a continuous learning curve.

Depression upends your internal world. For loved ones to witness, this is naturally highly distressing. To experience? It is terrifying. Having experience of both a physical and mental illness, there is a palpable difference for me. With diabetes, it is something external. Yes, it affects my body, debilitates my body - but it is external. With mental illness? It is inside your head. Experiencing your mind - the very thing that governs your entire existence -  seemingly fight your efforts to simply live; the realisation allow is difficult to comprehend. How, at its most powerful, it can even convince you to abandon the fundamental strategies for survival: alcohol, drugs, starvation, self-harm, the intentional ending of life itself - mental health hurts.

It is like a plant being deprived of water, and you can feel yourself wilting, searching blindly for that sunlight but all you can see is darkness. You admonish yourself for feeling this way. You tell yourself a hundred times over to 'snap out of it' - why other people saying those words is, in reality, futile. We've been there, received the dozen postcards from self-deprecation Station. I am not good enough. I do not deserve this. I am not worthy. Do any of those things sound like the words of a "selfish" person? Or rather, are they words spoken from a cloud of self-doubt, self-criticism…. never the blame game, unless directed inwards. So dismissing this illness as selfishness, or trivialising it as choice, does not change the situation; on the contrary, it causes the cloud to wrap even more tightly round. 

What can help lift it? Patience. Small acts of self-care, which can often benefit from support - the paradox again. The love and care that treatment necessitates, is the very thing your mind tells you that you do not warrant. Again, patience - compassion. Not ignorance, or anger. Depression is a selfish illness, but the sufferer is not. And, when you stop to think about it, is this any different from other illnesses? Diabetes is certainly a selfish illness - I cannot count the number of times it has placed both physical burdens on my family (staying up through the night to test my blood sugar, panicking over a 'failed battery' warning, rearranging plans because diabetes is a truly awkward tyrant), and mental burdens: high blood sugars, to be blunt, turn me into a miserable scrooge. Cancer is a selfish illness - I saw three children have their mother taken away by this monstrous disease, have watched it hurt people I care so deeply about, who never asked for it.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Taken from one of my favourite books, this quote perfectly  surmises the final misconception I want to address: discrimination. Depression does not discriminate. Some of the discussion surrounding Robin Williams' death and battle with depression, is incredulity over why he suffered. What does he have to be 'depressed' over? Hollywood star, Oscar winner, loving family - he seemingly 'had it all'. Except he didn't. He, through no fault of his own, had an illness that made all of these things pale into insignificance. This is not selfishness - it is the condition. On the darker days, no amount of finance or fame, adulation or awards, can penetrate that black cloud which can make the simple task of getting out of bed a near impossible feat.

Christmas 2012
I look at past events in my own life, where I am horrified that I could not simply "snap out of it". The family holiday we took to Disney, for my 18th birthday, still fills me with intense guilt two years on - I was a misery. In the "happiest place on earth", I was miserable. The first few months of my puppy Millie's life, I did not give her anywhere near the attention or love the rest of my family did. I did not build a real connection with her until she was almost a year old - I hope I have made up for it since! In this period around two years ago, my lowered mood was connected to the physical side effect of undernourishment; however, I can recall the crippling effect of the 'black cloud' all too acutely in various periods of my life. It is ruthless; it can drop without warning and, like diabetes, I have also discovered that it is particularly awkward with timings.

On the subject of diabetes, this is another thing that I want to highlight; I know people with diabetes will, perchance, read this post. According to NICE, people who are diagnosed with diabetes (or another chronic health condition) are up to three times more likely to struggle with depression, than those without. Hearing in the news that Robin Williams' death, or worsening depression, may have been linked to his diagnosis of Parkinson's, really shook me - this should have been known. There should have been more support and awareness.

The impact of a chronic health condition, coming to terms with it and living with it, destabilises so much in your world. The connection to mental health completely does make sense - the same way that the correlation between diabetes and the development of an eating disorder is clear to understand (but is still being missed by health professionals). You are suddenly faced with a condition that places you on a lifelong roller coaster - no matter how much you love a ride, at some point you will want to get off. With a chronic health condition, you simply can't. It does not have an 'off' day. I have periods where it is simply impossible to manage, despite my best efforts; being a perfectionist by nature, it isn't the best combination. I have also discovered that high blood sugars significantly impact my mood, and catalyse the black cloud descent. I try to work through it as best as I can, but if someone told (or tells) me to "snap out of it", I would very quickly pull out the piercing Professor McGonagall eyes that say "don't go there".

Support. That is what is needed. For some people, this can come through therapy. Something else with a stigma attached to it; goodness knows I was hesitant. However, I have done therapy, and I feel no shame in saying that. Recently, I have actually discovered that the children's department I used to be part of now has a psychologist, and my team agrees with me that the availability of therapy, to diabetics, should play a key part in overall treatment. Coming to terms with a chronic health condition is necessitates it, but many of the resources just aren't there. After writing my article in February, I heard from people - fellow T1 diabetics - who said they struggled with depression and anxiety, but never spoke about it. Growing up, I recall being given advice on alcohol and teen pregnancy, not to mention how to "eat healthy" (bye bye banana…!. What was never mentioned? Mental health, namely depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. Oh the irony.

Me and my main minion
With depression, you have good days and you have days where your duvet seems the safest place. One of the comments I have read about the 'solution' to depression was: "just be happy". It's not that simple. I think the "keep smiling" approach is far more accurate. I have days where I laugh and smile with no consequence. I also have days where no amount of disney movie watching, reading, poetry writing or Millie cuddles can penetrate the cloud. Usually, diabetes is the cause; other times there is no discernible one.

Is this logical? No. Do people have it much worse than me? Yes. Should I be able to "snap out of it"? Yes. Nonetheless, simply put - sometimes you can't. That's the nature of the beast, you have days where you cannot just "be happy" - and no one should demand this of you. However, you can keep smiling.  You can go through the motions for that moment in time - take that "leap of faith" - because at some point the cloud will lift and you will be able to breathe again. It is from this very idea that my blog title stems: Writing Possibility. Possibility. To make this a reality, however, you need to take the personal responsibility and communicate your struggle. Keep talking. Be honest with those around you, and with yourself.

Nevertheless, the reason many people remain in this cloud is because the stigma attached - the elephant in the room - means that they are feel unable to speak. They are scared. Sometimes, all that is wanted - that is needed - is a voice of confirmation that their struggle is valid. All too often misconception creeps into society like a parasite, wrapping depression in ignorance and allowing the myths to fester. It is time to change. Depression is being misunderstood by media, public figures, and society as a whole. They place the elephant in a circus; reduce depression to a selfish choice. Mental illness is a reality, and it isn't going away. By burying our heads in the ground, the problem will only grow.

When talking about the "elephant", my mind subconsciously pictures the media controversy over elephants in captivity; mistreated - forced to perform and degrade themselves. It provokes such outrage. Now, substitute the elephant for a person suffering from a mental illness... is the painting really so different? I have the same horrified reaction when I hear stories of mental health stigmatisation - every word of ignorance locks up those with this illness. Sees them wear the smile to shroud the sadness. Emit the laugh to mask a crippling loneliness, which is not seen as 'valid' within a superficial society. They are essentially made to perform, through fear that no one could ever understand. The comments regarding "choice" and "selfishness" - they are degrading. They are a shot in the heart to every mind that has to battle continually with an illness that does not discriminate, does not relent - that society does not even grant a voice.

Stop imprisoning a conversation that, in this day and age, is unfathomable not to have taken place already. Talk about mental health. Let the elephant speak.

photo credit: pinterest
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