Friday, 10 August 2012
I wanted to write a few words explaining what living with a mental illness is like. My hope is that a few people might find it useful to read, even if plenty aren't interested.
It is currently 4.30am. I woke up about an hour ago. It was the kind of waking up you have on the first day of your new job, and you have just realised you have overslept by an hour. The four weddings four-letter word kind. If you had left about 5 minutes ago you'd have had a slim chance of getting the train that would have got you to work on time. You know the feeling, your heart is pounding so hard in your chest you can feel your toes throbbing, your mind tearing around the inside of your head in a ferociously working out what to do. It has already started carrying out a half-formed plan, and as you stumble out of the house dribbling breakfast you glance in the mirror to realise you have stubble on your left cheek, toothpaste on the right and yesterday's pants are hanging out of your trousers.
I don't have a new job to start today however. I only have to teach one violin pupil in the afternoon, and he's pretty relaxed about what time we start. There is no interview for which I haven't prepared, no imminent deadline from the inland revenue, and no freak weather event threatening to flood the street. I have no idea why, but my mind triggers this fight-or-flight response well before sunrise, and at points throughout the day, for weeks and sometimes months at a time. Muscles trembling, senses on high alert, with a pulse which is fast and worryingly visible. The effect is as if you have just avoided a fatal car-crash, constantly.
Being in a high state of alertness has some benefits. If you are avoiding a fatal car crash for example, or being chased by a lion. Or if you have a lot of things to do in a very short space of time. You don't need to sleep much, and you can come to snap decisions without procrastination or worrying too much about the consequences. It also makes you feel incredibly alive, and glad to be alive. You can be very funny - your brain is working so fast you've spotted the punchline before the other person has finished their sentence. However it comes at the cost of being able to think in a normal, methodical and organised way. Thoughts are erupting like chains of fireworks. You can barely follow any individual one before it has fizzled out. The overall effect is so exhilarating you don't really care.
Unfortunately, your mind is so busy being euphoric it doesn't always have time to apply your judgement as to what is appropriate. Things which are gut-crunchingly hilarious to you seem to offend other people. Are some parents of young children really sensitive about paedophiles? How on earth could 'kiddie fiddlers' not be a brilliant name for a violin school? You also have no hesitation about confronting people with blunt and important truths (as you see them). After all, if you're wrong, at least you tried. If you do become aware of the need to backtrack and apologise, it's probably too late. I have learned the hard way that some things really are better left unsaid.
Problems really start when this wired state of mind combines with externally stressful circumstances. In my case I realised something was really wrong when I was trying to do a PGCE teaching course whilst also working as a freelance musician. Imagine giving yourself an hour to plan a complicated lesson, but whilst doing it you have to run across a motorway dodging speeding traffic. I bet you can't keep your mind on the task. That's what it felt like. Having not planned the lesson properly, I would wing it through, which stresses you out, which leads to further loss of concentration, more stress, lack of sleep, and so on in an ugly upward spiral. In my case it led in a few short weeks from disorganisation and impaired judgement to delusions, mania, psychosis and getting sectioned in a mental hospital.
Then one morning the fire doesn't start. Over a couple of days, you begin to feel a heavy exhaustion set in. If there were a socially and financially acceptable way of staying horizontal for the next week or two you would, because you simply don't have enough energy to make the decision to get up. Lying there, your mind and body feel as though they have both come to a complete halt. You are thinking of something useful you really need to do, but your brain has crashed and you don't know how to get it to work, despite that triple espresso. Having been slicker than a brand new iPad it now leaves you with the processing power of an early Nokia. Snake is about the limit. After so much hypervigilance, your responses are now hyper-dead. You can see colours, but they all look grey. Where before your face was constantly animated, eyebrows precisely displaying the second-by-second details of your mood, now the skin hangs off your face like a lump of dull steak. You might idly wonder whether it might not be simpler just to tie an extension lead around your neck and jump out of the window rather than face the effort of going downstairs, but you can't quite be bothered.
Being depressed has no benefits whatsoever that I can see. I have read that in some hypothetical tribal situations where an alpha-male threatens to dispose of any rivals, a depressed individual could be more likely to survive than someone potentially successful-looking. But that's not much help if you're the one who's being dragged down by it now – doubly so if only a couple of weeks before you'd been top dog ready to fight off all contendenders.
Well-meaning family and friends often ask how you are. It feels dishonest to say 'I'm fine thanks' when you aren't. You might be looking at them through a veil of people tumbling off cliffs, or out of a trench you're hoping will soon be filled in. If you say you feel sluggish and have no energy they sometimes respond 'it can't be as bad as all that' or 'you're probably just tired' or 'I had a virus last week and I was exhausted, it might be that.' I am sure this is an attempt to be helpful, though in my experience it just reinforces the feeling of uselessness.
I don't know why people feel uncomfortable around depressed people, and want to explain it away. Perhaps they mistake depression for dissatisfaction. It really isn't that. I am usually satisfied with my life, even when I am severely depressed. I just can't see the point of continuing it. Existence seems so completely futile and requires such an effort. Life is wonderful gift – but sometimes nice gifts can be unwanted. It doesn't have much to do with external circumstances either. Although everything you have to do makes you want to hide under the duvet, and quite possibly suffocate yourself with a pillow, those things themselves aren't causing the depression. It is a mysterious experience which talk of serotonin re-uptake inhibitors doesn't shed much light on.
Medical books talk about depression and bipolar as 'mood disorders'. To me, this misses the point. Being happy because team GB won a medal or frustated with the traffic in the rain alters your mood. Depression and mania are much more fundamental and physical than that. Do please be kind to anyone you know who is suffering mental health problems. It isn't just a case of snapping out of it, or pulling yourself together. 1 in 4 of us are likely to suffer a mental illness at some point - and that's just those who admit to it!
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