Last week was Mental Health Awareness Week in NZ, which coincided with Mental Illness Awareness Week in America, and the World Mental Health Day.
This blog post has taken me numerous attempts to write, mainly because I haven’t known where to start. Mental health has been a big part of my life, and I want to open up about this to encourage others that they are not alone.
During my years of university I continuously cited the World Health Organisation’s definition of mental health,
“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 is able to make a contribution to their community.”
During these years at uni, I found that society’s focus on ‘mental health’ has been centered on ‘mental illness’ resulting in a common negative view, or the notion that mental health is a problem. However, positive mental health and wellbeing is extremely important, yet rarely talked about.
Personally, I have seen the benefits of sustaining positive mental health, and believe raising awareness of the positives of good mental health is vital. Despite keeping good mental health for a large portion of my life, more recently I have also suffered from a variety of mental illnesses, which have impacted my life significantly.
Like one in five other NZers with a mental illness, when you meet me, most people would say I was a happy individual who is “constantly positive.” Whilst I’ve tried very hard to keep good mental wellbeing to stay ‘healthy’, my physical wellbeing, as well as my emotional wellbeing have been battered over the last few years. Along with other circumstances out of my control, I have realised that my mental wellbeing has also been affected.
I constantly felt (feel) like a burden to those around me, and this led me to painting layers and layers on a mask to tell the world I was happy all the time. Of course, this is not-humanly possible, especially in light of my circumstances.
For me, the turning point for not coping was after my most recent surgery. I had such a traumatic time in hospital: I had to fight that I wasn’t “crazy” (which is hard to do when you start to feel like you are), had my 6th major invasive spinal surgery, three drug overdoses, two psuedoseizures and two code blues; mostly happening with my friends watching me. I was breathing at four breaths per minute for 12 hours, so am superbly blessed to still be here. And to top it off, I lost my memory from about two weeks of my life, which was (is) insanely scary.
Recovering from the surgery was not like previous times. I was fighting with nurses, not obliging to rehab and getting upset very easily. Because I was so confused and upset from the whole admission, talking about it with friends afterwards brought back all the bad memories and I slowly pulled myself away from my friends so I didn’t have to talk about it or re-live the moments. I also stopped volunteering for St John Youth which I previously loved, and felt as if I had no energy whatsoever. I started making excuses for not going to parties and events, and kept my distance from anyone who would ask questions (including missing doctors appointments)
When my extremely patient and caring fiancé finally convinced me to seek help, I heard that I was most likely suffering from post-traumatic stress. This may seem logical to you reading this, but an important aspect of mental health that I have learnt is that it is not logical at all. When you have a mental illness, there isn’t an easy-fix, or a pamphlet from the doctor about how to cope. Generally, mental illness is not a tangible thing that can be clearly defined or diagnosed.
For non-sufferers, it is extremely hard to understand or give credibility to this mental health struggle. I can’t count on my hands and feet the amount of times I have been told “It’s all in your head” or “Chin up, we can choose our happiness.” Whilst the best intentions from these statements are meant, the condescending notions are detrimental to a person with mental illness.
I have recently read a great explanation of mental health relating to identity that some one with a mental illness wrote.
“It becomes a part of you in the same way that eye colour and hair-style are a part of us — or at least, a part of how we identify ourselves. And if we can shield ourselves from the shame of feeling inadequate or broken, we might be able to accept our illness as a matter of chemistry and biology and environment, not of weak spirit or will, or of fluctuating moods.”
Acceptance is key, and often the first step. Whilst I am now accepting of my mental illness, I often still feel “stuck in the mud” feeling that I have no right or reason to feel the way I do. This leads to the idea of giving up and believing it is all in my head. But luckily for me, an amazing support crew surrounds me and reminds me that this struggle is ok, and I will get through it. They are also able to point out when my thoughts have become extremely irrational, and encourage me to keep on moving forward.
One of the most valuable things I am currently learning about through counselling is “thought spotting” where I need to recognise and change my negative thoughts as they emerge. Because there is no ‘logic’ to this struggle, one thought often creates a domino effect where I create totally absurd scenarios (although these are often rational to me)
The road to recovery from mental illness is unique, long and hard for each sufferer. This road is definitely made harder by the stunted understanding of mental health in society and stigmatisation. But it won’t make me give up. I have realised that mental illness can literally affect any one at any time, and that it is often not predictable, and certainly not a personal choice.
This week I got a new tattoo of a simple semicolon on my finger. This was to join the thousands of people for the semicolon project- a project created for those going through struggles with self-harm, anxiety, depression, and suicide, who could have stopped moving but didn’t.
The reason that the semicolon is the symbol, is because in a sentence it is the punctuation mark that separates two different ideas. It could be easily swapped out for a full stop, but the author wants to continue that thought. In this way the project represents not stopping when you can keep on moving.
So I hope you have managed to follow my musings on a topic that is close to my heart. This will always be a part of my journey, but just like Marfan, I will do the best to use it as a positive, and I know the lessons I am learning from it shape the person I am today, and will help me become the individual I want to become. I try to see the positives in each day, and believe I will live a long and fruitful life, regardless of mental illness.
Until next time….