It was sitting in a circle of friends (and at that probably the most open-minded people I know), post-festival recently that I had a perfectly encapsulated insight into just how much the stigma of mental illness still weighs on all of us, and just how far we have to go in un-stigmatising it, beginning with lifting the burden of our own shame.
Playing a rousing game of “Never Have I Ever,” we had been shrieking and rolling around in the grass for about a half hour at each others’ responses to such questions as, “Never have I ever had sex on a train,” “Never have I ever been to an orgy, twice,” the vulgarity escalating all the while to much gleeful tittering. A friend then uttered the statement, “Never have I ever been on anti-depressants.” In that split second, you could have cut the tension with a knife. Every single person went silent and looked at the ground. After a couple more seconds of awkwardness, the game was called to a halt as it had become “too personal.”
Why are we willing to discuss our physical and sexual health in graphic and at times, gross detail but totally unable to acknowledge illnesses we didn’t choose more than one chooses diabetes or cancer?
It’s simple. Simmering under every ‘awareness campaign’ Beyond Blue fundraiser and stunted, ‘need-to-know’ conversations with our nearest and dearest is the almost universal belief (almost as prevalent among sufferers as the general population) that those who suffer from mental illness are weak, self-indulgent, lazy, erratic and emotional loose cannons who could ‘pull themselves out of it’ if they’d just try a bit harder.
Society’s fixation on being self-sufficient, self-reliant, excellent time-managers who keep a ‘stiff upper lip’ at all times means that anyone falling short of that benchmark gains a whole new set of problems.
More and more often of late, my Facebook and Twitter feed are peppered with accounts of friends, family and acquaintances who suffer from or are touched by mental illness, be it depression, anxiety, bipolar, OCD, obsessive thoughts and behaviours, the dreaded (and insensitively named and stigmatised) personality disorders and lastly, suicidality.
Often it might manifest in the form of what might be called “VagueBooking.” Eg- “Sigh,” “I don’t know what to do anymore,” “Feeling sad-emotional tag.” Commonly, this sort of thing is met with contempt, “They’re just looking for attention,” “What now?” “Eugh, what a drama queen.”
When did it become such a heinous crime to reach out in the most minimal way possible when one is at their wit’s end and is absolutely terrified to ask directly for help? We all remember being a teenager, when “attention-seeking” was tantamount to self-obsession, being unnecessarily needy and essentially ‘being a drainer.’
Something to bear in mind when dealing with sufferers of mental illness (and you don’t always know when you are, so check yourself carefully) is that they are often frozen forever emotionally as teenagers, often because that was also the onset of their first experience with “emotional problems.” The age bracket of 16-24 accounts for the first onset of mental illness in about 89% of cases.
I have a friend named Sean. I see him almost every day, as he lives right around the corner from me. We share the same atheist beliefs, the same contempt for a government that mistreats the most vulnerable in our society while heaping corporate welfare on our overlords and we take our coffee the same way. Skinny, double shot, two Equal.
We both love to walk along the beach, we both love MoTown music and we both enjoy spending long stretches of time daydreaming. In fact, I often feel a little out of my depth with Sean as he has a Bachelor of Political Science, a Bachelor of Psychology and Applied Sciences, and a Doctorate of Philosophy. Sean is 41 years old.
Oh yes, and Sean has schizophrenia. He lives in a squat, always transient, never having the safety or security of a home, family, food, warmth and above all, dignity. Sean doesn’t drink, use drugs or steal (though he is always surrounded by it), as it’s against his ‘life philosophy.”
He is on one of the very oldest schizophrenia drugs on the schedule and is unable to get the drug that holds promise of being more effective, Clozapine, as it is very tightly controlled by a ‘select handful’ of doctors and is not covered by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme in all cases.
Suffering a schizophrenic breakdown at 27 and in large part due to some VERY large gaps in our public mental health system, he progressively lost his house, his wife and son, his savings and eventually his sanity. Though now medicated, his life is a far cry from what he dreamed of upon coming to Australia as a wide-eyed, nineteen year-old student in 1991.
He gets zero compassion on an average day. Most people just step over him as if they might catch being dirty and homeless. If they stopped for five minutes they would find it most worthwhile. I certainly have. This man has taught me more in a year than six spent in public school.
Now take me, for example.
Music has been my absolute adoration, love affair and savior since I was around 10. It was only with some very forceful prodding that I opened my my mouth and realised I could sing. Not only that, other people thought it was good, too!
I’ve worked in retail, hospitality, entertainment, tourism, administration, social media and public relations. I completed my VCE with extremely high scores in English, Literature and Philosophy and scored high enough to have exceptionally good options for university. Anyone who knows me will tell you that my lack of a degree or ‘serious’ formal qualifications has in no way hindered me in an intellectual debate.
Also, I have suffered from a diagnosed mental illness since I was 16. Prior to that, I suspect there may have been some overlap as I remember a very, very anxious child who had some really bizarre phobias (to name a few, being murdered unless I slept facing the door, my family being murdered if I slept away, sharks in the pool, being unable to step on a crack in the footpath until I was about 12).
There have been long stretches of time in which I was highly organised, productive, engaging, excited, motivated and bursting with creative energy and have been a great team-player and autonomous worker who was well-regarded in the workplace.
There have also been times in my that I was unable to get through a workday without crying. When concentration has been poor. When the vast cocktail of medications I’ve been on at various times hindered my ability to eat and sleep and therefore my accuracy and work quality has suffered. Medical certificates, doctor’s reports, the practice of hiding in the toilet when you need to cry, perfect attendance, accurate reporting, unpaid overtime; it doesn’t matter.
It has long been my experience that once you’re identified as someone with “emotional problems” in a corporate workplace, it’s just a few convenient typing errors, 10 minute latenesses and “wrong attitude” discussions to your position being made redundant or being herded out the door for some obscure reason, no matter how much good work you’ve done to date or how many safeguards you put in place.
I have lost jobs, friends, opportunities, money, family members and at times, a stable home environment. My story is not unique. This is the story of hundreds of thousands of people the world over who are stigmatised within the health system, the workplace, school, sporting clubs, home and most of all, our online presence.
The sickening display of grief and dismay by the corporate media at the death of much-maligned public figure Charlotte Dawson has only been so now we can gloss over her death with cries of “What could we have done?” What we could have done, perhaps, is not create a perfect storm of poison, shaming,” suck-it-up princess,” voyeuristic hand-rubbing at something she didn’t choose any more than her shoe size.
The same magazines now wringing their hands with cries of, “How did we lose her?” were more than happy to instrument the downfall of someone they clearly felt needed taking down a peg or two.
As Jim Morrison said, “Death makes angels of us all.” As does OK! magazine.
But I digress. The point here is that we NEED to be talking about this. We need to talk about it in our workplaces, with our doctor, with our friends. Asking someone how they are mentally need not be some kind of social gaffe or overstepping of emotional boundaries.
Most importantly , we need to laugh about it. I don’t mean in the trivializing sense but I would bet my life savings (nothing-I’m crap with money, remember?) that every sufferer of mental illness the world over has at least a handful of side-splitting stories they can tell in hindsight. What a waste of good conversation!
Because mental illness is fucking hard. We spend our lives apologising for something that we can’t help. We question all the good and bad in ourselves in wondering where the illness begins and ends. We aren’t protected in the workplace. A lot of us are subject to anger, resentment and judgement from our own families, who wring their hands at our inability to be “normal.”
Who wants to be normal? I’d rather have compassion, kindness, humour and decency, thanks very much.
So who’s brave enough to join me? To put your hand up and claim your mental illness and stop living in secrecy and shame? We have nothing to apologise for and I for one am not going quietly any more. Don’t be afraid of the darkness. It’s where the most fertile material lives.