It Has To Matter… Mental Health (Passions Profile Challenge #9)

I’ve pretty much always had a passion for Mental Health, and while I’m addressing it last in my Passions Profile Challenge, I would say that it is certainly the passion I give the most time to now, and it is probably the thing I have been passionate about longest.  Long before I had any inkling that I would dive deep into my own mental illness, I was interested in helping other people achieve their own mental health.  Actually in high school I did a big English assignment about institutionalisation, focussing particularly on people facing this in the mental health area.  Times have changed since then and institutionalisation isn’t as favoured as it was then, but my interest in mental health has never waned.

I don’t know where the passion was born, it just was.  It wasn’t until I was 28 that I had to face my own failing mental health, and as a child, while I can now see sometimes when I was perhaps depressed, there was no diagnosis or treatment.  But I can’t deny my late father’s input.  He always had a strong concern for people who were disadvantaged by a variety of things and as children we certainly weren’t sheltered from seeing the hardships faced by some people he worked with.  Christmas Day regularly included being involved in running Christmas dinners for people who had nowhere else to go, and I guess many of those people would have had mental illnesses.  That was just normal Christmas Day tradition in my family.  From around the age of seven I can remember my family helping out on a rostered basis at the local City Mission dinners.  I doubt I was really that much help.  I can remember clearing tables and that’s about it. But I felt comfortable with the people who came for the meal and somehow I knew, even at that age, that not everyone was comfortable with them.

My Mental Health First

There are three parts to my passion and the first is a passion to see my own mental health returned.  To be honest this passion is a new thing.  While my mental health has been in tatters for a long time, I had little interest in life and so recovery was to some extent just what I was supposed to work towards.  But I couldn’t see any point.  I was so badly depressed that I could see no point in living, let alone striving to return my health.  I was simply still alive because there was someone I just didn’t want to hurt.

Don’t get me wrong.  I was working like I was told to.  I was in therapy, I was trying to get my eating disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) under control; but really all I was doing was trying to get through each day.  I couldn’t see anything beyond that.  It has only been in perhaps the last 12-18 months that I have started to want recovery.  Amazingly it has come at a time when really I couldn’t have been blamed if I had completely fallen apart.  Life has been very stressful and traumatic in that time.  I still can’t entirely explain how the turn around has happened by I know that the psychotherapy I do has a large part to play.

Therapy is hard work.  I have an excellent therapist who I have been with for a while now and I think the most important thing is that I trust him completely.  I know he will take care of me whatever I go through in therapy, and that makes a huge difference.  Unfortunately therapy is expensive though.  I get little government help (they consider therapy should be over in six sessions) and none from insurance.  I could have given up because of the cost, but I’ve made it my priority as I know that it is the one thing that has actually worked.  It’s one of the reasons that I have decided to give up smoking this week.  I need to put the money into something that works.

The Mental Health of Others

Like I’ve said, the mental health of other people is important to me and always has been, far before I stopped to think about my own.  Now I have been through this journey (and I in no way expect that it is over yet) I want to be able to help others.  My original plan when I went to university, as an adult student, was to end up working as a Mental Health Social Worker.  That hasn’t quite worked (yet).  Maybe one day.

Meanwhile though, I now run two on-line support groups for people struggling with mental illness.  They are small groups but I like it that way.  One group is for people with BPD and the other is for adults trying to recover from self harm.  I haven’t mentioned them before because I think it’s important to keep the groups and my blog separate. The last thing I would want would be for group members to worry I was going to write about them here.  I won’t be doing that.

The groups are really my priority at the moment.  Not been able to work (because of Fibromyalgia) at the moment means I have the time to commit to this and I love it.  This is also the reason I do not post here everyday.  There is a limit and I am learning that.

It’s interesting though because my involvement in the groups has highlighted the issue of stigma in terms of mental health.  Several people warned me off getting involved because “those types of people are pretty hard to handle”.  Actually “those kinds of people” are so loving and rewarding to work with.  I am one of “those kinds of people” and I would never want to be any less.  Sure there are hard times, and occasionally I can feel like I have been let down but it’s still worth it.  People who have been through extreme suffering (and I would put many with a mental illness in that category) have a unique way of looking at life that I love.  They also tend to be very compassionate people.  Often mis-understood by the world, but definitely worth knowing.  I am fortunate to have these people in my life.

Mental Health Stigma

You may have noticed, if you are following my blog regularly, that I talk about stigma a lot and devoted one post of my Passions Profile Challenge to stigma across a number of areas, as well as several other general posts about mental health stigma.  It has disturbed me for a long time about we hide our mental illnesses because of the type of reaction we expect to get from people if we admit to having a mental illness or needing treatment.  This is so sad that still now, it is necessary to hide.  Only this week I became subject of some vicious accusations because I spoke out on the topic.

Regardless, I have personally come to the conclusion that it is time for me to stop hiding because I believe that until we can be honest about our struggles then the stigma will never go away.  It is only through people being open about something like homosexuality that the stigma has started to reduce.  It was hard for those people to put themselves on the line but I think they are teaching me a lesson.  We can tell the world that one in four people will suffer from mental illness but I don’t think that means much until it is personalised.  Until people realise that people around them (that they know) suffer.  It has to be more than some anonymous statistic and maybe a celebrity waving the mental health flag.

Of course I know that this is a tough call for anyone, and I’m not saying you need to do this too.  Rather I just want to say what I am doing, and that this is really what my blog is for.  It’s not easy to write some of this stuff knowing that friends and family might read it, but I realise now that I need to put it out there if they are to understand that my experience is actually normal, and shouldn’t be stigmatised.

―    Susanna Kayson, Girl, Interrupted Screenplay based on book

How We Treat Our Mentally Ill

Today I have been unable to get onto Facebook.  Actually I can, but apart from read I can’t do anything (and that is torture).  No doubt I will have been reported Missing in Action by now.  I’m not sure if another quake early this morning (the Christchurch alarm clock) cut Facebook’s cable to the city or whether it is just me they are penalizing for who know’s what.

Anyway I have been checking out the news instead, and couldn’t help to notice a New Zealand news site with a title saying Naked man was chewing victim’s face.  You can check it out if you want to, but it’s fairly predictable and I would warn that the video attached is a complete waste of time.

Even before I read this and various US news sites I suspected that this man was mentally ill (although I admit I am no expert), and my concern about how he was treated made me read on.  The police shot him dead.  Apparently the first shot didn’t stop the man in his actions so the police officer shot him several more times and he died in hospital a short while later.

There just seems something wrong with this to me.  Mentally healthy people don’t usually lie on sidewalks naked or, as the report claims, attempt to cannibalize another man (who by the look of the video I wasted my time over) was also, at least, semi-naked.  The MSN report I read finished by suspecting that the attack by the man was fueled by “cocaine psychosis”.  Does this not suggest the man needed help, rather than to be shot dead?

I admit I don’t know the rules the US police force use to determine when they shoot an offender, and I only have what I read in the articles, but it did seem to me that there were a lot of missing facts here, and that to shoot the man dead was a poorly chosen choice.  As regular readers my remember I have little time for guns anyway, so perhaps I slightly biased and if that is the case, so be it.

I guess I really have two problems with this case.  One, is the police action to shoot the man.  But perhaps what fuels me even more is the media response.  The captions they chose to use have been picked to draw attention to the story.  It certainly got my attention.  They are sensationalist to say the least, and then they finish by admitting they know the man was probably mentally ill.  If they were to write without stigma for mental illness, they would have chosen a less sensationalist caption and had some compassion.

It makes me so mad when media do this and they give the impression that all of us are more than likely to act in this way.  Wouldn’t it have been better to ask the question of whether the police handled the situation wisely, and what could have been done to help (both) men.

Am I dreaming?  This reminds me so much of my post from last month A Man Named Jason… And Why I Cried.  Different people, different situation but both cases of the mentally ill being mistreated by both Police and Media.  We have a long way to go before the stigma attached to mental illness disappears.

I’d love to hear what you think…

“Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all.”

 - Bill Clinton

‘Sick’… Is Driving Me Crazy

Image via ehow.com

I recently read a great blog about what the writer has learned in 10 years of being sick.  It’s worth reading:

10 Tips from 10 Years Sick by Toni Bernhard
(What I’ve learned from 10 years of chronic illness.) 

Her first tip is to take time to grieve your old life and then create a new one.  I think this is what I’m trying to do now.  Whatever it is, it’s not easy and I hope I can adequately explain how I’m feeling and what I’m thinking.

Firstly, I don’t really think of myself as sick, so actually I nearly passed over this blog thinking it wasn’t for me.  Yes, I have Fibromyalgia and am in pain most of the time.  I am also struggling with fatigue and the inability to get refreshing sleep.  All of which are symptomatic of fibro.  I also have a mental illness (Borderline Personality Disorder – BPD) but that doesn’t make me consider myself as sick either.  But when my busy sister-in-law recently came and did my vacuuming, because I couldn’t manage it, I felt a combination of embarrassed, humble… and perhaps sick.  Maybe she helped me in more ways that one.

I stopped work in November 2010, after being diagnosed with Graves’ Disease.  This left me with a racing heart, eyes literally bulging out of their sockets, insomnia, a bulging goitre (an over-grown thyroid gland) and an all over body tremor.  Actually while it was all pretty unpleasant it was the tremor that was the most difficult to manage.  I struggled to hold a pen or type, and clients were welcomed by me shaking all over the place.  I was supposed to be the calm one.  They were coming to me for help.  It was just after the first and largest of our earthquakes, so to appear nervy was nothing unusual in this city.  But I was taking it at least 10 steps too far.

But I still didn’t consider myself sick.  I had a medical certificate to be off work but somehow I attributed my failure in the workplace to be more about my BPD symptoms (but again didn’t regard this as sick).  I was having difficulty working with my colleagues, and actually I’d got to the point where I regarded them all as fools that I wasn’t keen to work with anyway.  Perhaps my intolerance was related to BPD but I think it was also a reflection of how sick I felt physically, even though I couldn’t admit it.

Fibro followed, and while my symptoms of Graves’ eased, thanks to medication, I was faced with this never-ending pain and fatigue, so heading back to work hasn’t been an option.  Somehow though, it’s other people who are sick.  Perhaps people in hospitals, or with terminal illnesses or permanent disabilities.

The weird thing is that if you talked to my long-term friends and my family they would probably tell you I have been sick for 19 years.  Isn’t that crazy?  With perhaps the exception of the years I was at university, I have been sick with mental illnesses all that time.  I spent years in and out of hospitals.  Actually I have no doubt I was very sick at that time, but it’s still not how I viewed myself.  I think somehow I saw mine as a self-inflicted problem.  It wasn’t self-inflicted, but I felt I was to blame for some weakness that had caused this and the issues in my life that had led to mental illness, so how could I legitimately let myself be called sick?  This was all my fault, after all.

Sometimes when I’m talking, my words can’t keep up
with my thoughts.
I wonder why we think faster than
we speak. Probably so we can think twice.” 

- Bill Watterson


At this point I start to get into an argument with myself.  Don’t worry, I do this all the time.  I just hope you can follow because just in the past week or two I’ve started to think “hey, perhaps I am sick”.  Anyone who has fibro will tell you that this is not a nice way to be, and you spend a lot of your time feeling like the pits.  Basically it sucks.  Then another part of me pipes up with what I’m sure my doctor believes - that it is all in my head anyway.  It makes me so mad that this seems to be his attitude, yet I’m telling myself exactly the same thing.  Yes, I think that meets the definition of crazy (and I honestly don’t mind because I can see enough to know it is crazy).

So yes, perhaps I am sick but what happens now.  To be honest grieving my past life is hard because most of it recently I didn’t enjoy and don’t want to repeat (the last 19 years anyway), and what went before was mostly good but is just so long ago.  I get what Toni Bernhard means though.  Maybe now I have to accept that I am sick but the difficulty I still have is how do I move on and create a new life?

Fibro is a relatively new thing for me.  At this stage I can’t get any medication to treat either it, or the pain because of interactions with other medication I am on.  Added to that my doctor says he wouldn’t give it to me anyway because a lot of it can cause suicidal ideation as a side effect.  He won’t give it to me because of a history of trying to kill myself, although in my defence I would point out that it has been over 14 years since I tried.  Obviously some sins can’t be forgiven.  That makes him crazy in my books, but right now he’s the one with all the power – and the prescription pad.  And isn’t it crazy that medication that is basically anti-depressants and mood stabilisers can cause you to want to kill yourself?

I can’t get medication and I can’t afford alternative treatments and therapies, so I’m being honest with myself when I say the future isn’t looking so hot.  Creating a new life with sickness has a big question mark hanging over it.  I simply don’t know what is in the future and right now it seems impossible to set realistic goals for myself because I don’t know what is ahead.  Maybe in 10 years time I might be clearer?  But then I suspect I might also be very depressed.  Somehow I have to make a future for myself, so that I don’t end up depressed.  Actually right now, that is what I’m scared of the most.

I know that feeling of depression well and the last thing I want is to go back there.  Combine the unknown element of the future with the constant pain, fatigue and lack of sleep… and depression seems like a certainty.  The one thing going for me is that I know what I’m like.  I know what to expect from myself.  Unfortunately my track record is depression when I feel like I am stuck and without options.

But this is not some pity party, and if I can, I’m going to fight this.  Seems that while I can admit I’m sick, I better get in my car and head straight to my therapist.  Maybe between us we can fight this together.

PS.  I notice that Toni Bernhard has also written a book called ‘How to be Sick‘.  If anyone has read it, I’d love to hear what you thought of it.  Right now it’s on my wish-list but I’m not too sure just when my wishes will ever be granted.

The trouble with always trying to preserve the health of the body is that
it is so difficult to do without destroying the health of the mind.” 
~G.K. Chesterton

Lessons For Cate So Far…

My 50th post has snuck up on me.  Not so long ago I thought it would take forever, but now I’m enjoying blogging so much that the posts have just flown by and at the moment my mind always seems full of ideas.  It seems a good chance to talk about what I’ve learnt so far, because one thing I know is that everyone’s experience, aims and practise of blogging is different.  And that’s okay.

This is what I’ve learnt so far (in no order):

  • There are only 24 hours in a day.  This has been a surprising, but worthy lesson for me because I have great aspirations for what I want to do, only to realise I just don’t have the time.  I am slightly envious of those who post several times a day.  It looks so impressive to keep coming up with ideas and to just get the work done.  After 50 posts I’ve learnt that I don’t have the time to do that, nor is it my priority, so I’m going to stick with posting about every second day… and being content and hopefully healthy.
  • It pays to actually have something worthwhile to say.  This might seem obvious to some bloggers, but it is more important for me to offer something worthwhile rather than just be another screen you look at.  Of course it is up to you if you do look at it, but I don’t help the process if I don’t make it worth your while.
  • I love feedback.  I was a little nervous of feedback to start with.  This is my first ever blog and I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Now I know it is a fantastic opportunity to support fellow bloggers as well as opening up lines of discussion and making friends.  That said, I realise some bloggers don’t want some types of feedback.  I think that’s sad, because there are always new ways to learn and think, and I’m sure we help each other by offering differing opinions.  But that’s me, and on my blog (or my facebook page) I love the feedback.
  • I started my blog to write about recovery from mental illness.  About the same time I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia and so I’ve added that in.  Now my aim is to write about managing physical illness at the same time as recovering from mental illness.  I think it’s good too, that the aim of a blog can change with time and experience.
  • When I started I set myself some rules in what I write about.  That is, I don’t write about my family relationships.  Some of my family follow my blog but others don’t, and I’m always thinking of making sure I don’t say anything that is offensive to them.  For me, I owe them that much.  I also recognise that there are a few people I really would rather  didn’t come across my blog.  But my goal is to write as if those people were going to read what I write.  It is too easy to find a person on the internet and I am not going to kid myself into thinking I can do this completely separate from those few people I would rather stay away from.  In saying that, I know other bloggers work differently and I entirely respect their choices for them.
  • Publishing my book, Infinite Sadness, in 2009 was a big step in opening up to the world about my mental illness.  Many people have commented about how open I am, and I think it is because of already having the book out there.  My secrets (to some extent) are exposed there and so being open in my blog is a natural progression.  I also strongly believe that unless people like me talk openly, especially about mental illness, then the stigma associated will never be removed.
  • There’s little point in me writing posts that my readers can read somewhere else.  I know this isn’t how many bloggers work but I’m no professional in either mental health or chronic pain, so I’ve decided I’m not going to pretend to be.  My blog is primarily my experiences and my opinions.
  • I really dislike when other bloggers don’t attribute the work of others to the correct source.  I have noticed that in blogging, and in other social media, that there seems to be a trend towards dropping the name of the author.  I guess I had the plagiarism thing drummed into me so firmly in my years at university, as well as just believing that credit should be given where credit is due.  I can only determine how I act and so my writing will always give credit where possible, and I will be inclined to stop following blogs where I see this doesn’t happen.  Maybe my BPD traits (a bit of black and white thinking maybe?) are showing, but it’s just something I believe strongly about.
  • I didn’t realise when I started that I would spend more time reading than writing, but then I think that’s how it should be for a writer.  I love reading other blogs to the point where I take on too much and can’t keep up.  I clearly need a little discernment in this area but it is a habit I have struggled with in many different areas of my life.  I take on the world and then can’t quite keep up.  That said, I love it.  Everyone’s journey is different and worth reading.  But I haven’t learnt that I won’t follow blogs where my health and safety gets compromised by reading.

    My Blogging Mantra
    Image via I Am Somebody

  • I enjoy looking for quotes and pictures to use to back up what I am saying.  Sometimes I get quite distracted, but often I learn things I’m glad I came across.  The quote I chose for the end of this post sums up blogging for me.  It’s really weird because there are all these people who are now friends and know me well, but I have never met and probably will never come across in real life.  But somehow for someone with a mental illness it makes human interaction possible again.  And that is something I like too.

One Final Note:  Please don’t forget in reading this post that these are the lessons I have learned for me, and I am not in any way criticising anyone else or suggesting that they should learn these lessons too.  We all develop our own sense of what is right for us, and I simply thought you might be interested to read what I have learnt.

“Only on the Internet can a person be lonely and popular at the same time.”
    Allison Burnett,    Undiscovered Gyrl

All Senses Engaged… Water (Passions Profile Challenge #8)

We never know the worth of water till the well is dry.” 
~Thomas Fuller, Gnomologia, 1732

I’ve always enjoyed water but I guess it grew to be one of my passions (as part of The Passion Profile Challenge) when I had to go without.  Then I realised its full significance to all my senses.  I love to see it, hear it, touch it, taste it and yes, even to smell it.

I live on the east coast of an island.  New Zealand being made up of three islands (two plus a small, but beautiful, one down the bottom) and I am always near the sea.  In my life the furthest I have lived from the sea was about one hour, and at that there were lakes close by.  I just don’t know what it is to not have the sea and I struggle to imagine being landlocked and having to travel days to get to the coast.  Actually I just don’t think I would cope in such an environment.  There is nothing better than to be able to smell the sea, even before you’ve arrived.  To be perfectly honest I admit that occasionally the smell is not at all good thanks to the wastes that get pumped out to sea.  I know they have to go somewhere but it just doesn’t seem right to me, especially when they interrupt that wonderful salty, fishy smell of pure sea.

Fishing boats at Island Bay, Wellington, New Z...

Fishing boats at Island Bay, Wellington, New Zealand (Photo credit: Wikipedia)  There is actually an island to the right.  The great feat of youth was to be able to swim out to the island (a very cold trip that I never made)

Kiwi kids learn to swim early on and take to the beaches for the summer.  There are some lovely beaches in New Zealand.  But it’s not so much the gorgeous beaches that spring to mind as I remember but rather the regular haunts.  As a family we spent summer weekends at Okahu Bay in Auckland, and holidays in a caravan park at Red Beach, north of Auckland.  Another favourite was Judges Bay in Auckland.  For five years as a teenager I lived five minutes walk from Island Bay in Wellington.  Because of memories associated with the bay I both love this place and hate this place.  I try to stay away when I visit but somehow find myself drawn back.I lived in Wellington for a total of 15 years and loved to see the harbour each day.  Every day it was different.  It could be calm and beautiful or whipped up, stormy and fierce.  But for me seeing the harbour was like an essential part of the day.  Lucky I either lived in houses, or worked in buildings, with great views.

Looking west along the Avon River from the Mad...

Looking west along the Avon River from the Madras Street bridge. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 2003 I arrived in Christchurch, described as The Garden City of New Zealand.  Gardens weren’t exactly what I came here for but I was really happy to be living two minutes walk from the Avon River, one of two rivers that winds through the city.  It is a beautiful place and in the days when I was running, walking and cycling, this is where I did it.  There are many bridges crossing the river so I would go up one side and down the other.  My favourite was to follow the river side to the sea (about 12 kilometres), but that was in my super fit days.Everything changed though when Christchurch was struck by the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011.  Actually the view in the picture to the right is not one I have seen for over 15 months now, even though it’s not that far from where I live.  I’m no geologist so I’ll give you a very simple version, but the rivers in Christchurch, and a whole set of underground streams created enormous problems in the earthquakes.  Much of the land around the Avon River can not be repaired and so residents are having to leave their homes. 

English: The Medway Bridge as seen from the tr...

The Medway Bridge as seen from the true left of the Avon River. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The water level has risen significantly and along with some river banks collapsing, the whole place looks different now.  Muchof it has been either closed off, or out of respect for people still trying to live there I have chosen to stay away.  There are enough ‘rubberneckers’ out wanting to see the earthquake damage.  It’s really hard on residents.  This bridge is one people come to see. A footbridge that I regularly crossed.  Now totally uncrossable (yes, that’s a new word!).  For me it’s a symbol of how the river has changed.  Once a thing of beauty but now a symbol of destruction and harm.  There is talk of leaving the bridge as is, as a memorial.

In the days after the worst quakes it was necessary to have waste water and sewage pumped into the river.  There was nowhere else for it to go.  A necessity which has now been stopped but I guess the smell from those days, and just the thought of what the river contained has also changed my impression of it.

A lack of drinking water also changed my view of water.  Suddenly it became like gold as I had to think about where to get water from, and when I needed it.  I was lucky.  While there were water stations around the city, these involved queues.  My brother, who lives just outside the city, still had drinkable water and so I got all I needed from him.  Actually for some time I also got water for my 90 year old neighbour.  He omitted to tell me that his son was also getting water for him and it took us a while to realise he actually had two sources.  I have no idea what he was doing with the extra water.  Maybe a cold bath, maybe watering his garden (that we were strictly warned off doing).

As you can tell I had always loved water, and was particularly fond of the sea.  But the earthquakes changed that too.  Our deadly earthquake of 22 February 2011 did not involve a tsunami, but came only two weeks before the Japan earthquake and tsunami.  To be honest, I didn’t actually take much notice of that event when it happened.  We had electricity back on but we were still very much in survival mode.  To see the images of the Japan tagedy was simply too much and I didn’t watch.  The pain was too raw.

It was about eight weeks before I saw the sea again.  It is only 10 kilometres from home but no one was going anywhere and roads were in an appalling state.  But I missed the sea and so decided to go down to New Brighton Beach.  When I got there and got out of the car I was overcome with fear.  Suddenly after all I had been though, and all I knew had happened in Japan, I was aware of how strong and powerful the sea really was.  I stood there and imagined a tsunami coming ashore.  My life would have been over as there was no high ground to run to.  I guess it gave me a new respect for something that I had pretty much always viewed with enjoyment.  Now I have some sense of it’s power.

“Ah, well, then you’ve never stood on a beach as the waves came crashing in,
the water stretching out from you until it’s beyond sight, moving and blue
and alive and so much bigger than even the black beyond seems
because the ocean hides what it contains.” 
―    Patrick Ness,    The Ask and the Answer

Mental Health versus Mental Illness… a Stigma Issue?

1212mentalhealth-RW

1212mentalhealth-RW (Photo credit: Robbie Wroblewski)

I was minding my own business, like you do, as I perused my Facebook newsfeed a few days ago, when I came across something I didn’t like.  I fought with myself.  Was this going to be one of those things that I would fight back on, convinced the writer needed my opinion?  Or would I let it slide?Actually I did a bit of both.  To start with, I couldn’t help myself and had to put my two cents worth in, but when I got heated responses I decided I was best to opt out and leave them to their own rather firm opinions.  It’s always so hard to know, do I fight or not?

The issue was the announcement of the theme of the World Mental Health Day 2012 (in October), as ‘Depression – A Global Crisis’.

I had no problem with the topic, actually I think it’s great that a mental illness gets the focus.  The difficulty I had was the comments of people complaining that this was far too negative a topic and it was time that the event focussed on health rather than illness.

Interestingly the topics of the past few years have been:

  • The Great Push:  Investing in Mental Health (2011)
  • Mental Health and Chronic Physical Illnesses (2010)
  • Mental Health in Primary Care (2009)

I should say that I was particularly interested in this announcement because I had recently found out that this event in October is the reason why New Zealand, Australia and perhaps other countries have not recognised the May ‘Mental Health Awareness Month’ currently going on in many countries.  I was told, rather tersely when I enquired about New Zealand’s involvment in the May activities, that May has nothing to do with mental health.  There clearly seems to be some tension in the air over these two events, although I won’t get side-tracked onto that.

Rather, people are claiming that a topic like Depression has no place in a Mental Health event.  This is bizarre!  So what is mental health?  The World Health Organisation tells us that mental health is defined as:

“as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.

The positive dimension of mental health is stressed in WHO’s definition of health as contained in its constitution: “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” (1.)

I can’t argue with this but I notice that there is actually no acknowledgement of mental illness.  They say mental health is a state of well-being and not just the absence of illness.  I can accept that but wonder why there isn’t more focus on mental illness.  And what is so wrong with using a specific mental illness as the focus of a mental health event?  It almost seemed that the people I chose not to argue with didn’t want to acknowledge that mental illness exists.  And if this isn’t a case of stigma doing it’s damnedest I’m really not  sure what is.

Put all of this argument (that didn’t really happen) aside and it makes me wonder what I mean when I talk about mental health here.  In most cases what I am really talking about is an absence of mental health, or mental illness.  It seems from what I stumbled on that ‘Mental Health’ and ‘Mental Illness’ are perhaps two sides that don’t want to meet.

This all seems like such a shame.  If we want to remove the stigma attached to mental illness I fear we will never achieve this when the very people charged with promoting the healthy answer do not want to know.  No doubt they might protest but I really don’t see why mental illness can not be part of mental health.  I am convinced it is possible for me to live with my mental illness, yet have a firm hold on my mental health.

Right now it is not my mental illness that is preventing me from particpating fully in a healthy life.  If it weren’t for my physical illness (Fibromyalgia), my Borderline Personality Disorder would not be holding me back.  Sure it makes some things difficult but I don’t accept that I don’t have mental health.

What do you think?  Am I away with the fairies on this one?  Or is there are problem when people don’t want to acknowledge the existence of a mental illness when discussing mental health?

“Our society tends to regard as a sickness any mode of thought
or behaviour that is inconvenient for the system and this is
plausible because when an individual doesn’t fit into the system it
causes pain to the individual as well as problems for the system.
Thus the manipulation of an individual to adjust him to the system is
seen as a cure for a sickness and therefore as good.”

―    Theodore Kaczynski
  • Normal (infinitesadnessorhope.wordpress.com)
  • Stigma (infinitesadnessorhope.wordpress.com)
  • Half of Us (psychsplash.com)

Space Please (Passions Profile Challenge #7)

“…because I rant not, neither rave of what I feel, can you be
so shallow as to dream that I feel nothing? ”

― R.D. Blackmore, Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor

Image via Parade of Insanity

Yes, I admit it.  I’m an introvert.  And I need my space.

I have included this as one of my passions, as part of the Passions Profile Challenge, because it is such an important aspect of me that I can’t ignore.  As my family will tell you, I need my space and if I don’t get it… well, it’s not worth knowing me.  That said, I can be as extroverted as the next… extrovert, but it’s an act.  It’s not really me.

What is an introvert?  My understanding is that an introvert draws their strength and energy from themselves whereas extroverts draw it from being with other people.  An introvert needs time to themselves to think, to process, just to be; whereas an extrovert needs time with other people,perhaps to discuss and process with others.

There is a tendency to think that extroverts are the life and soul of a party, while the introverts are the boring, quiet ones in the corner.  Some think that introverts are shy, and so are difficult to communicate with but I don’t accept that.  Some introverts might be shy but by no means are we all.

I spent at least the first half (possibly more) of my life trying to be an extrovert.  They seemed more exciting, more popular.  My best friend at high school was a loud extrovert, and while we may have seemed like an odd match, I think we were a good balance for each other.  That said, I could see that she was the life of the party, she had more boyfriends, and she was just more popular.  I wanted to be like her… but I wasn’t, and I never was going to be.

From school I continued on in an unstated, but firmly believed idea that it was better to be an extrovert, so I did my best to be one.  I had jobs that were normally done by extroverts.  The career I was heading into (quite successfully too) was as a corporate trainer.  It involved lots of public speaking and just “being out there”.  I loved it, and as I said, I was good at it.  But while I was able to put on a mask and be that person at work, I needed to withdraw from that and recharge myself on my own.  Unlike some of my colleagues I did not get recharged by the job, and perhaps that meant I would end up more exhausted.

During that first half of my life and more, I lived with other people.  First with my family and then from the age of 18 I shared flats with various people.  In all of that time, I always had my own bedroom to retreat to, to get my own space.  This was crucially important to me especially when I was trying to do an extrovert job in the workplace.  Interestingly of the number of people I shared flats with, the one’s I struggled with were the ‘life and soul of the party’ extroverts.  I found them difficult to understand, just as they found me difficult to understand.  Sharing a house with people who just don’t get you is hard, even when you have no more commitment to them than sharing the rent.

Where I really came undone is when I got married.  I had not lived with anyone in a relationship before marriage (because of my then religious beliefs) and then after 29 years of always having my own space, I suddenly had to share – everything.  I’m sure many people love this, but I hated it.  It didn’t help that we lived in a shoebox of an apartment and there was nowhere to get away from each other.  I’ve been thinking about whether my (now ex) husband was an introvert or an extrovert, and what his needs were too.  Actually I can see both in him and I suspect he was a half and half (an ambivert).  I think a scale exists for this introversion/extraversion debate, and what I can see is my ex had elements of introversion but had stronger elements of extraversion than I did.  So he didn’t need the space to himself, quite to the degree I did.  What he needed was to be with me.  Unfortunately what I needed was to be alone.

There were lots of problems with out marriage and it wasn’t helped by me being very unwell at the time, but I think my need for my own space was perhaps the biggest stumbling block for us.  Since I left the marriage, I have lived on my own and I really can’t imagine going back to living with other people.  Last year, after our Christchurch earthquakes, I had my parents living with me (until my Dad died suddenly).  It was a hugely stressful time anyway, and it was a situation borne out of necessity but I found it very difficult.  Maybe one day there will be someone I want to choose to live with, but certainly not at the moment.  I like being alone.  I like to be able to choose when, and if, I am with others.

So do I sound boring, withdrawn and completely unable to contribute to a conversation?  Regardless of how I, or any other introvert sounds, I am none of these things.  There are a lot of myths surrounding introverts, like that we all wish we were extroverts.  Actually nowdays I don’t.  I love that I can get my energy from myself, I love that being by myself doesn’t phase me, I love being able to be part of a conversation but I am able to walk away and be okay with that.  I would hate to need other people to that extent.

I spent far too long trying to be something I wasn’t.  Now I don’t want to be the life and soul of the party.  I don’t need that.  I’m sure that my denial of who I really was contributed to my mental illness.  I was spending most of my life pretending to be someone I wasn’t, because I thought that it was the way to be liked, to be part of the crowd.  I still have it in me to ‘pretend’ to be an extrovert when the need arises, but it’s not because I think I have to in order to be an acceptable human being.

I’m fine just as I am.

“This above all: To thine own self be true, And it must follow,
as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

~Hamlet, Shakespeare

Self Harm & Me

WARNING: This post addresses a disturbing issue and should
be read with caution.



“My head was full of wild ambitious urges to hurt myself. I tasted the ambrosia
of maddened impulse. I wanted my interior pain out in my body somehow.
I wanted this vague pain to be specific. That’s how I explain it.”

–Charles Baxter, The Feast of Love

While I’m talking about stigma, what about self harm?  Maybe you call it self-injury, self-mutilation, or maybe you don’t even dare to give it a name.  Whatever name you give it, there is huge stigma attached to it, which simply makes it harder to talk about so harder to help people address.

A news report in New Zealand last week said that up to half of all teenagers will harm themselves deliberately and the researchers claiming this are starting to ask why.  It made me think, because while I didn’t self-harm as a teenager and actually I doubt I even knew it existed, I have self harmed for a long time.  Thankfully now, I can say that I haven’t for a long time.  But you need to know just how this issue can have a grip on you, because even now there are times I still get the urge to self harm.  I’m not free of it yet.

It’s not an easy topic to discuss and when my blogger friend Kevin from Resonate Freedom came up with this image recently, I knew it was time to use the image (thanks, Kevin) and to talk about me and self harm.

There are a range of views about what self harm is, so I want to start with my understanding of it.

“Any deliberate, non suicidal behaviour that inflicts physical harm on your body and is aimed at relieving emotional distress, without a conscious intent to commit suicide. Physical pain is often easier to deal with than emotional pain. Individuals may consider that injuries can prove to themselves that their emotional pain is real and valid. Self-injurious behaviour may calm or awaken a person. Yet self-harm only provides temporary relief, it does not deal with the underlying issues. Self-harm can become a natural response to the stresses of day to day life and can escalate infrequency and severity.  The types of behaviours considered as self harm are wide and vary according to the person, and therefore are not listed here.  To determine whether what you are doing is self harm you need to consider the reasons for what you are doing.  What are you doing it to achieve?”

It’s not straightforward.  If you thinking it is just about cutting, you’re wrong.  There are many forms of self harm which really only can be determined as self harm, by looking at the motivation behind the action.  I think that any harm to your body is bad, but you will find that some websites recommend that you use a lesser harm in place of a worse harm.  For example, they suggest flicking your wrist with a rubber band rather than something more serious than cutting.  The problem with this is that it is all a matter of degrees, and it is far too easy to take a ‘lesser’ harm to the extreme very quickly.  Because of this, I don’t accept any harm (even the rubber band) to my body as okay.  That said, I know some people find that helpful and if it works for them, that is what matters.

The thing is, I realise that I am writing about self harm rather than what I said I’d do: me and self harm.  Actually it’s really hard to do.  Self harm is not something that is talked about openly, so I guess I am fairly used to keeping it to myself.  To turn around and put it out here is hard.  I am also conscious that self harmers often pick up ideas from others, and I don’t want to give anyone ideas.  Recently I had to ‘un-follow’ a blog because the person was regularly including pictures of her self harm.  I really didn’t need that.  It’s not that it gave me ideas, but just reminded me of a place I don’t want to return to.

Self harm began for me one weekend (at the age of 29) when my husband went away.  He needed a break from my battle with depression and suicidality, so I was on my own.  I was fairly anxious about being alone, and about where I was at generally.  I was dissociating often in an effort to manage my feelings and found myself scratching my arm (with my fingernail).  The skin was raw and bleeding before I realised what I had done.

I knew nothing of self harm.  I had been sick for about two years and had one lengthy spell in a private hospital, but I hadn’t encountered it there probably because I was confined to bed rest, thanks to my anorexia.  Actually the whole thing completely freaked me out but I wasn’t able to admit it to anyone for some time.  Instead I began the routine of wearing long sleeves, regardless of the weather.

When I confessed to my doctor, and then to my therapist, they both told me that my self harm was a good thing.  Good?  Yes, really… they saw it as me expressing my feelings, and I hadn’t been doing too much of that.  The self harm continued but there wasn’t much good about it.  Eventually it extended to other means of self harm, not necessarily more painful but definitely more dangerous.  Thankfully I found other workers who didn’t think it was a good thing.  I have heard this theory since, that self harm is a form of expression of feelings and so is good, but I don’t buy it at all.  It’s too destructive and it’s too dangerous.

Self harm is different for everyone, but for me it I eventually learned that it was about control, and was often tied into dissociation.  Somehow it provided a sense of relief, and the feeling pain that I could explain enabled me to feel a sense of control that was otherwise missing.  It also became an addiction for me, and while this isn’t the case for everyone, it was a difficult addiction to break.  If there was undamaged skin, I needed to harm.  I also needed to harm everyday in order to gain that sense of control over what I was feeling.  More so, if someone hurt me, then I hurt myself.

It was never a suicidal action for me, but there were a couple of times where I was lucky I didn’t kill myself.  And that’s the problem.  It’s too easy to just go a bit deeper, and before you know it, you’ve gone too far.  It is on that basis that I don’t accept any harm as okay for me.  I know myself well enough that I just can’t go there.  I know that if I give myself the opportunity, I could just push it too far.

So now… it is some time since I have self harmed, but as I said earlier I still get the urges to do it again.  It’s really like giving an alcoholic a bottle of vodka.  It’s dangerous and you just wouldn’t do it.  The thing about self harm though is that it is a personal thing that I have to monitor myself.  I have to make sure I don’t give myself that bottle (or a blade).  Unfortunately there are many ways of self harming.  It’s not just about cutting.  I need to continue to watch myself carefully.

And meantime I have scars all over my body that I regret.  Most of them aren’t where anyone can see, but you wouldn’t catch me naked with anyone.  They hold great shame for me.  I have moved on, but the scars will always remind me of the extreme emotional pain I felt, and expressed, through physical harm to my body.

“It didn’t occur to me that there was something decidedly odd in
finding a box of razor blades aesthetically appealing. I wonder if
a heroin addict loves the elegant simplicity of the needle, if a
drinker romances the curve and shape of the bottle.”

–Caroline Kettlewell, Skin Game

“Give light, and the darkness will disappear of itself.”
- Desiderius  Erasmus

Stigma (Passions Profile Challenge #6)

If you have been following my journey through The Passions Profile Challenge, you will be getting an impression of the types of things that are important to me, along with the things I hate.  Stigma is one of those things that I hate, and would passionately desire to be stamped out.  Why?  Because there is no reason for it and it is totally unfair.  Why can’t we all just accept each other?

Stigma, according to the Oxford Dictionary, means:

noun (plural stigmas or especially in sense)

  • mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person:
    for example: the stigma of mental disorder,
    to be a non-reader carries a social stigma

I also saw it described as a stain or reproach on one’s reputation (1.); a mark or token of infamy, disgrace, or reproach (2.); or when people disapprove of something (3.).

So I take it as something that isn’t liked about one’s character.  And that’s where I have a problem.  Who are we to judge another’s character, qualities or anything as unlikable or disgraceful?  My belief is that I do not have the right to judge another.  I guess for me, that belief is based on my Christian beliefs and regardless of what you think of those, I’m sure you will agree that most religions tell us not to judge another man (or woman) in some form or other.

Here’s some truths about me, for you to judge, should you so wish:

  • I am a woman
  • I am white skinned (in New Zealand I am known as a Pakeha, meaning ‘white skinned person’ in Maori)
  • I am attracted to men (so far)
  • I am of average weight
  • I follow (most) Christian beliefs
  • I am child-less
  • I am HIV negative
  • I have a mental illness
  • I am not in paid employment
  • I have invisible illnesses (Fibromyalgia and Graves’ Disease)
  • I take psychiatric medication and am probably addicted to pain killers

There are probably other aspects of me I could list there but hopefully I have the main elements, from which people might choose to dislike me, and see me as disgraceful.  That’s even before I open my mouth.  Go ahead.

But why?  How does the colour of my skin affect who I am?  And how does my sexuality affect who I am?  You didn’t know from reading my earlier posts what sexuality I am but I wonder whether now you know, whether it has affected what you think of me?  I really don’t see why it should.  I haven’t done anything but label myself.

In my previous post Normal, I talked about the need to accept mental illness as something that can happen to any of us.  I didn’t expect it to happen to me and struggled with something called self stigma.  I was embarrassed to have that mental illness, so straight away I faced criticism from myself.  And actually it is probably the worst I have faced.  I have also faced personal discrimination, another form of stigma, by people who didn’t want to know me because of that illness.  On a cultural level, it has been presumed that because I have Borderline Personality Disorder, that I am beyond help and am a drama queen.  How dare they decide that on the basis of a label.  The last type of stigma I have faced because of my mental illness is an institutional stigma.  I get that from the health sector surprisingly because they don’t take me seriously as a fibromyalgic patient with a mental illness.  Because of my mental illness they won’t treat me with medication that they  say they can’t ‘trust’ me with’.  They are using my actions of over 14 years ago when I was very unwell to make that judgement.  And my insurance company refuses to accept chronic mental illness as a valid expenditure. (4.)

That all makes mental illness stigma seem pretty crazy but what about other stigmas?  How about if I tell you now that actually I am gay, morbidly obese, and am HIV positive?  How does that change your view of me?

Remember I still haven’t opened my mouth to say anything, nor have I done anything.  These are just labels used to describe me.  If I say I have dark skin, am a single woman with five school age children?  What then?

I don’t deserve to be judged as unacceptable, disgraceful or even embarrassing because of these things.  They really don’t tell you accurately what kind of person I am.  All you can do is use assumptions and generalisations to make your judgement, and I would suggest that you will not be accurate.

There are lots of things about each person that we may decide we like or dislike.  We do that all the time by the way someone is dressed, by the car they drive, by the job they have, by the volume of the children with them.  But I don’t accept that as a fair way to make a decision about anyone.  And I don’t accept that it is my right to judge anyone.

For me personal experience taught me some very useful lessons.  I had a learning experience when I worked with a person who was going through a transgender transition.  The person I knew as a man at work , I also knew that outside of work she lived as a woman, and eventually as part of the transition this person was going through, their sexual identity in the workplace changed.  It might seem crazy but suddenly someone I knew as a man, was facing me in the women’s toilets.  Actually that was what woke me up to realising that she was a person (who was going through hell) and I had no right to object or disagree.  She was a person.  She deserved my acceptance and compassion.  End of story.

Some of my friends thought I was being ‘too liberal’ or ‘too broad-minded’.  They said it wasn’t right.  I disagreed.  The best thing I could do for both her, and for me, was to accept her as she was and support her, just as I would support any other friend going through any other life change.

Easy.  As we might say in New Zealand, it’s just not worth getting your knickers in a knot.  It’s so much easier if we simply accept.

“The opinion which other people have of you is their problem, not yours
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

“Whatever gets you through the night” 
John Lennon

Normal

Seriously, I am as normal as you.

Mental Health Awareness Month – May 2012
Bringing Mental Health out of the darkness

This month, in some countries, it is Mental Health Awareness Month.  I should add though, that it’s not in my country (New Zealand).  For some reason our Mental Health Awareness activities happen in October.  So perhaps I’ll re-post this in October for the sake of my kiwi readers.  If you like, you kiwis can take a sneak peek now, and we just won’t tell the NZ Mental Health Foundation.

As regular readers know, I have several mental illnesses  to my name and have been on a journey with them for quite some time.  Perhaps because of that, you might prefer to say I’m not normal.  Fair enough.  As only one in four people will experience mental illness in their lifetime, I recognise that it leaves me in the minority.  But hey, that’s an awful lot of people who will experience something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.  That could include you.  No one is exempt.

It doesn’t really matter what you call me.  You can call me crazy if it suits you, but it all depends on your perspective.  I have many friends who also struggle with mental illness, and so I actually don’t find it strange, odd, insane, crazy or even just a little bit different.  It’s just life.  Regularly I see jokes about the ‘crazy people’ and the ‘insane’.  They’re there for all of us to see.  Well, I want you to know that we who you might put in that category also joke, but it’s about how we would hate to be called ‘normal’.  ‘Normal’ means like everyone else, and unfortunately to us, normal often means not having a heart for others who suffer (no matter what the nature of their suffering is).  I saw a pic today that said ‘normal is a setting on a hair dryer’.  Hmm.  I don’t know about that.  I do know though that I would love to have never been through the hell I’ve been through.  But I have, and there’s nothing I can do about it other than to learn from it, and move on.

I don’t mean to judge anyone else but something I have noticed in my years of mental illness is that the unscrupulous suffering (of any sort) has one advantage.  Somehow it makes people more compassionate toward others, it cuts out the need to judge others and leaves people unafraid of accepting the differences of others.  Other people become okay regardless of who or what they are, and I think that’s because we have often experienced being judged as unacceptable ourselves.

When I was first diagnosed with depression I admit I was horrified.  Mental Illness was something that I could accept for others, but not for myself.  But when I said I accepted it in others, I almost put those people in a different class.  Something okay for them, but not me.  I’ve realised now that it is not accepting of those people to have that attitude.

My doctor sent me off to a psychiatrist, and he told me I was going to a specialist.  I had no idea what was wrong with me so didn’t for one minute expect I was going to see a psychiatrist.  It wasn’t until the end of my first psychiatric evaluation that the ‘specialist’ gave me his card and I realised just where I was.  I was mortified.  Again, okay for anyone else, but not okay for me.  He prescribed anti-depressants and yes, again I was horrified and thought ‘how would I ever admit this to anyone?’

And sure enough my fear of being judged was realised when a few people made comments like “you don’t really need that do you?”  Well actually I did, and if I hadn’t had the psychiatric help or the psychiatric medication I would be dead.  I think those people were like me.  They could accept mental illness for the people in a psychiatric hospital where those people couldn’t disturb their world.  It was okay for those unknown people to be put away but it wasn’t okay for one of our friends to be crumbling in a heap, losing her career and wanting to die.  It was too close for comfort.  One of those people who judged me, and deserted our friendship, was a nurse by profession (not a psychiatric nurse admittedly).  I am quite sure she could find compassion and empathy for a patient in her job, but to give it to me, a friend, was too much.  Maybe too close to home.

…so said Glenn Close

I lost friends as a result of my mental illness, but actually while it hurt deeply at the time, it’s okay now because I know the friends I still have are here to stay.  Those people mean so much more to me, because they stayed.  For years I have struggled to keep up my end of the friendships (because of my illness) but those people have accepted where I have been at, even though they didn’t necessarily understand what was happening.  That means the world to me.

The thing is that mental illness can happen to any of us.  One in four people.  For some, the illness can be caused or aggravated by past events in their lives but for a lot of people, mental illness just is.  It just happens, for little reason.I am no different from you.  I’m normal.  I have a heart that pumps blood through my body and the last scan of my brain showed it to be… normal.  It’s just that I happen to be one of those one in four.  You could be too.

Mental Health Awareness (whether in May or October) matters because it can happen to anyone.  No one knows what their life might involve from this day on, and no one knows if the next person will be them.  I don’t say this as a scare tactic but rather to highlight that I am just like you.  While I previously thought it was okay for other people, I now realise that I have to accept that it’s okay for me too.  And the attitude of all those around me, helps me to do that.  I believe all of us have to get to the point where we can say it is okay for us.  It’s not something you would want, but it could still happen.

The statistics on sanity are that one out of every four Americans is
suffering from some more of mental illness.  Think of your three
best friends.  If they’re okay, then it’s you.”

 - Rita Mae Brown