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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  1. This was probably the best personal explanation of mental illness I've ever read. I was really touched by it and just wanted to tell you that. Wishing you all the very best! Christina

  2. Thanks!

    A few people have got in touch to share their stories which I'm very grateful for. I've been asked a couple of questions, which I'll attempt to answer.

    Am I on any medication?

    Yes, in consultation with my GP and Psychiatrist. I'm not qualified to advise anyone else on the best course of action for them so I'd rather not publish details. I can say though that the stabiliser I take is a bit like carrying Indiana Jones's lassoo. It won't stop you falling into a pit if you aren't looking where you're going. It might help you climb out though, as long as you learn to be skillful with it.

    You say "I don't know why people feel uncomfortable around depressed people, and want to explain it away." ...I think it's just coz people feel a bit useless when confronted by something they don't understand, and it's hard for them to empathise when they've no experience of it... does *anything* anyone says help?

    Two things stand out as having been useful. When I was first in a pit of suicide my mental health caseworker asked me what had changed in my life since I had been feeling fine. Then months later when I was feeling better he asked me what had changed since I was in the pit.

    I didn't have any answers, but thinking about the questions helped me realise a few things. When you are down it is tempting to blame it on everything that is going on around you. When you are up, life is a marvellous privelege and you are the luckiest person in the world.

    I think now that any circumstances are neither good nor bad, they just are. You can choose how you feel about them, and what you do about it. The Dalai Lama doesn't let the oppression of Tibetans and their culture get him down. He sees it as an opportunity to spread messages of compassion across the world. There is always a way to find good in any situation, no matter how black it seems on the surface.

  3. Great post mate, thank you for the valuable and useful information. Keep up the good work! FYI, please check these depression, stress and anxiety related articles:

    20 Ways to calm your mind – How to calm your mind

    22 Ways To Become More Positive – How To Become Positive

    25 Ways To Forget Unwanted Memories – How to Forget a Bad Memory

    Top 25 Ways To Reduce Stress – How To Reduce Stress

    21 Ways To Get Rid Of Anger – How To Get Rid Of Anger

    How to Know When Depression Is Serious

    21 Ways To Get Rid Of Anger – Alcohol and Depression

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