[we’re all mad here] on the other side of now

It’s August 2014, and as I write, for the first time in my life my mental illnesses are countable as being in remission.

I’ve more or less abandoned this blog of late. It’s a shame, and I shouldn’t have, but the girl who wrote the other [we’re all mad here] entries feels like a different person. I don’t recognise her voice. I remember writing them, but six months out of the trenches and I feel like I’ve left her behind.

The past is a foreign country.

I’ve mentioned a few times, to the friends who’ve only known me as being well, that for the last five years or so I’ve felt like half a person. Clearing out my old folders last night – preparing to move cities for uni – I was struck by a powerful sadness at all the things I’ve missed; all the things I half-remember. I was so absent from my life. The first half of my twenties more or less disappeared into the fog, and the people I’ve loved and lost only got parts of me. I was so unaware of how ill I was. I was so unaware that it was even possible to live differently.

I’m not kidding myself that I am free and easy in the land of the mentally healthy. Not until recently have I dared to describe this as remission, and as for the other r-word – recovered – you won’t find me saying it any time soon. That would be invoking the Wrath of the Whatever from High Atop the Thing. It will come back. I know it will. I just feel like now, I know it can be different. I can let it wash over me, but I know that it need not necessarily consume me. For the first time I understand that the power struggle does not have to end with my concession.

It’s been awful. But I’m here. I’m alive. I’m enjoying people. I’m nervous, excited, but not petrified about starting another degree, and I’m attached enough to my life and my friends that moving is bittersweet. I need to stop starting stories with the phrase ‘so that was after my mental breakdown – well, one of them…’ – but on the other hand, it’s my history and I’ll keep talking because openness is the only way to show that it’s not shameful. Painful and at times, embarassing, but not shameful. Just one part of who I am.

Thanks-Offering for Recovery, by Robert Lowell

The airy, going house grows small
tonight, and soft enough to be crumpled up
like a handkerchief in my hand.
Here with you by this hotbed of coals,
I am the homme sensuel, free
to turn my back on the lamp, and work.
Something has been taken off,
a wooden winter shadow –
goodbye nothing. I give thanks, thanks –
thanks too for this small
Brazilian ex voto, this primitive head
sent me across the Atlantic by my friend…
a corkweight thing,
to be offered Deo gratias in church
on recovering from head-injury or migraine –
now mercifully delivered in my hands,
though shelved awhile unnoticing and unnoticed.
Free of the unshakeable terror that made me write…
I pick it up, a head holy and unholy,
tonsured or damaged,
with gross black charcoaled brows and stern eyes
frowning as if they had seen the splendor
times past counting… unspoiled,
solemn as a child is serious –
light balsa wood, the color of my skin.
It is all childcraft, especially
its shallow, chiseled ears,
crudely healed scars lumped out
to listen to itself, perhaps, not knowing
it was made to be given up.
Goodbye nothing, Blockhead,
I would take you to church,
if any church would take you…
This winter, I thought
I was created to be given away.


[we’re all mad here] reading material

Yesterday I read Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan, which is an excellent book and thoroughly recommended. It got me thinking about my predilection for psychiatric memoirs (despite not, in the end, being a psychiatric case history at all – but spoilers, sweetie).

I read a lot of first-person abnormal-psych accounts, and I think I have maybe three main reasons for it.

Firstly, somewhat obviously, in search of kinship. Often when you get several people with mental health problems together, we tell war stories. Therapy courses, hospital stories, destructive behaviours: talking it out is both entertaining and reassuring. Despite feeling very alone in my head, I find it helpful to know that I’m never alone in my illness. When I don’t feel able for friends and sociability, books are always there and they are undemanding in a way that no conversation, even between the closest friends, can be.

Secondly, I find the phenomenon of self-reportage entirely fascinating. You and I may be united under good old 296.30, but your experience could be totally unlike mine. No two depressions are the same; no two depressives are the same. A good writer can convey the destruction involved in the tornado of a depressive episode, but a skilled writer on mental illness can also discuss how their behaviours relate to the diagnostic criteria and how their illness manifests itself.

The need for a bit of inspiration at times is my final reason: it’s good to know you can succeed even with chronic mental illness as your personal albatross. Kay Redfield Jamison is one of my favourite authors. She’s written some of the best mental health writing I’ve ever read – Touched With Fire, on bipolar disorder and creativity, and Night Falls Fast on suicide. She’s a professor and an honourary fellow at several universities, and she’s dealt with bipolar disorder type 1 since she was younger than I am now. Her personal memoir, An Unquiet Mind, shows her to be an amazing lady who’s evolved her own methods of dealing with and fighting her illness.

Oddly, I don’t read an awful lot of depression memoirs. I would probably read more anxiety-related books if there were many (I cried my way through The Woman Who Thought Too Much by Joanne Limburg because she describes the horrible thought-spiral of anxiety disorders better than anything I’d ever seen). Depression, though, seems to cut too close to home. I find stories ending in ‘and I’m fine now!’ trite – and I’m entirely aware that that judgement comes from a keenly felt envy of anyone whose depression cleared up and went away after one or more major episodes, while mine drags on in a horrible dysthymic* malaise that feels like it’s going to last forever. Good writing about depression is a gut-punch to one who knows the state. For instance: I’m currently reading Darkness Visible, by William Styron, and this early section floored me in its stark truth:

The most honest authorities face up squarely to the fact that serious depression is not readily treatable. Unlike, let us say, diabetes, where immediate measures taken to rearrange the body’s adaptation to glucose can dramatically reverse a dangerous process and bring it under control, depression in its major stages possesses no quickly available remedy: failure of alleviation is one of the most distressing factors of the disorder as it reveals itself to the victim, and one that helps situate it squarely in the category of grave diseases.

Sing unto me a new song, Bill, for I fear I know all the bloody words to this one already.

* Dysthymia: a chronic depressive state, often described as ‘low-grade’. Sometimes it’s described as being like a cold as compared to the flu (a major depressive episode). This is rubbish. Dysthymia is to major depression (and cyclothymia to bipolar disorder) what a grindstone is to an avalanche: its nature is insidious and lasting, not sudden and violent, but eventually it wears you away.

[we’re all mad here] keep on keeping on

I write a lot about mental health. I do so for a few reasons: the ever-prescient advice to write what you know; the fact that I’m declared generally unfit for the real world by virtue of illness; sometimes, a feeling that there’s a dearth of information on a particular topic.

But mostly, I write about mental health because I don’t have a lot of it.

I’m chronically mentally ill. I’ve been in treatment for depression for six? seven? years, and experiencing symptoms for a long time before that. I deal with levels of anxiety that are only offset by a carthorse-stunning amount of anxiolytics. I’m on my third species of antidepressant – not third brand, third type of drug. I’ve been therapied into the middle of next week and back.

And I still operate at only about two-thirds of ‘normal’ functionality on a good day.

I write about mental health and mental illness because they take up a lot of my thoughts. My own, clearly: but also my friends’, my role models’, the people in the books I read, the PhD I someday want.

I write about mental illness because I just can’t relate to a lot of the dominant discourse in mental health writing.

For example: I don’t believe that a so-far treatment-resistant set of problems dooms me for life, but nor do I believe that I can snap out of it or work it off with exercise and vitamins.

I can’t relate to the unbearably trite ‘sunshine and showers’ metaphor. There are lots of people for whom depressive episodes come and go a few times in a year, and I can see the value of comparing it to April showers if that’s your experience of your illness. Mine feels like a wet month’s holiday in North Wales, personally. Drizzly. Grey. A neverending trickle of rainy annoyance down the neck of your coat.

I can’t relate to the advice to ‘talk about it’ or ‘start an art journal’ because yes, thank you, I’ve thought of that by now. Lots. After a while you bore yourself and you bore everybody else too. Starting out on the path to recovery from a first, or a first diagnosed, episode of mental illness? Talk about it all you want. Write awful poetry and rip it up and enjoy the catharsis and my god, paint or shout or whatever you need to to get yourself past that first awful hurdle. It’s just that after years, depression doesn’t feel like something you can exorcise from your system. It feels like turning up at a dead-end job.

So maybe, the real reason I write so much about mental illness is this: there isn’t much of a voice for people who’ve long since accepted mental illness as part of our lives. Creating awareness, and offering avenues and outlets to people who need help for the first time, is so important, and it’s probably right that most of the media around these Awareness Days focuses on that. Articles aimed at removing the stigma of mental illness, actions taken to open people’s minds to the possibility that their friends and family may be suffering and may need help – wonderful. Seriously. I’ve written a few.

It’s just that there’s a lot of us around for whom awareness is unavoidable.

So here we are. It’s World Mental Health Day. It’s not just for people who’ve never navigated the choppy waters of seeking therapeutic help before. Rather, it should give the rest of us a kick in the backside to remember to ask for help when we need it, and to try lift ourselves from a routine-shaped rut, and to keep looking outward. Someday we’ll be able to look back at this and laugh.

(And someday, I’ll be able to look back on my Eeyore-like blogposts and laugh, too.)

[we’re all mad here] are you nuts, or something?

A couple of months ago I tweeted about having been waiting, somewhat impatiently, in a psychiatrist’s office, most of the morning. I wasn’t expecting a response aside from ‘doctors, eh?’ sympathetic irritation. It’s not like I keep it a particular secret that I have mental health difficulties. I often find myself having to self-censor to avoid annoying the bejesus out of my Twitter followers on a bad night – the temptation to fire 140 characters of misery into the ether is great, and mopey tweets are the gateway to mopey blogposts, and after that, I may as well give up and become a one-woman misery machine.

Checking my replies later on, I was shocked/amused/a bit of both to find one that just said ‘psychiatrist? are you nuts or something?’

And I cracked up laughing, first, and then sent a serious reply that perhaps the tweeter might want to refrain from calling psych patients ‘nuts’… and then resumed laughing.

Am I nuts, or something? Well, a bit of both, I suppose.

It’s hard not to feel a bit stereotypically nuts on a day like today, when I’m writing through a meds-induced fog and having trouble remembering synonyms for most words. Mind you, it’s better than yesterday, which I spent alternately asleep and wishing I was asleep, because wakefulness was hurting too much to be kept up for too long.

Right now I’m trying to work myself up to go for a run, but I’m afraid I might lose my way. On a treadmill.

I am lucky enough to have friends who understand all this, who’ve been there themselves or been around me long enough to understand that this sort of decreased functioning comes and goes by the day. That depressive episodes happen, but that they end eventually. That sometimes I cancel plans because I’m feeling too agoraphobic to leave my room. That, if they’re reading this, they’ll forgive the dreadful writing.

Part and parcel of that familiarity is that we speak about mental illness among ourselves in a way that would seem very irreverent, even ableist, to an outside onlooker. Sorry, having a crazy day. Are you having a BPD moment? The brainbats are acting up. Can’t go out right now, too much Outside already today. It’s not my fault I’m mentally interesting. Did you take your meds today?

Like most minority groups, those of us with mental health issues reclaim the words that in other circumstances would be insulting or dismissive (coming from outsiders) and add them to our own vernacular. Not everyone, of course: some of those who’ve experienced discrimination will always associate the slang around mental illness with bullying and fear, and that is both a very understandable and a very sensitive matter.

In first-year torts class we learned about the eggshell-skull plaintiff.  The legal definition isn’t particularly relevant here, so, in real-world terms: if you do something negligent, like dig a massive hole without putting up a warning sign, or fail to secure a heavy sign on your property, you are liable to be sued if your negligence causes somebody else harm. However, you don’t get to say ‘well, a grown man wouldn’t have been injured by the sign that fell on the little old lady, therefore I shouldn’t have to pay her compensation.’ If Mrs Murphy in all her frailty is the one injured by your negligence, then you’re liable for whatever injuries she has. Poor Mrs Murphy.

I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this. When you’re talking about mental illness, you never know who’s going to hear your words, or what state of mind they’ll be in on the day. Something that on a good day wouldn’t hurt me (haha, yes, I am a bit nuts) could, on a bad day turn in to ‘I’m not nuts, I’m ILL, and it’s RUINING MY LIFE’ followed by a certain amount of invective about the goddamn internet. Unless you know the person very well, you just can’t tell what sort of day it is, or what amount of mental resilience they’ve got.

So, summing up:

– Good friends who understand you are like hen’s teeth. Rare, amazing, and just a bit weird.

– In the case of H. Dumpty v R, the liability would fall entirely on All the King’s Men, and the egg would make bank in compensation.

– Don’t ask strangers on the internet if they’re nuts. Please.

on Art, not Apathy

There’s a sticker on my desk which I found recently, while sorting through some old books. It used to live on the door of my wardrobe in my teenage bedroom. ART NOT APATHY, it says, like that, in stark white capitals on a black background. There is no punctuation, no forgiving comma lending the sentence kindness. It’s not an entreaty or a question. It’s a command.

It used to be something of a motto of mine. I found the sticker in a short-lived leftie bookshop in Dublin that my schooldays best friend and I used to frequent. It had a brother, a similarly-sized READ BANNED BOOKS. That one was stuck on the outside of my bedroom door (a move that, in retrospect, I don’t particularly understand, as the only person in the house who had any interest in the emancipation or reading of banned books lived behind that door).

I should throw it out. It’s been sitting on my desk for weeks, and I have no intention of doing anything else with it. At 23 I am certainly no artist, and not a particularly great advertisement for the redemptive powers of Belief in Art, either. At 16 I believed that if I wrote hard enough and sang loud enough and loved a dozen hairy indie bands with a fervent enough love, I could keep the nascent depression at bay inside my head – that it just wouldn’t have enough space to work its claws into my brain.

Seven-almost-eight years of therapists and breakdowns and meds and sputtering brain outages later, I think I can declare that strategy a failure.

I’m not sure where to go from here.

Most days I feel like a cloud of apathy in the rough shape of a woman. I am currently what I believe is referred to as a ‘functional depressive,’ or, as I was recently told by a mental health professional, ‘well, you’re eating and sleeping, so you should be fine’. It might be more accurate to say that the depression is the only thing functioning. The rest of my brain has grown somewhat dormant (as it will, if the only neural pathways one is exercising are those that relate to pain: experience and avoidance thereof).

I could do – couldn’t we all? – with regaining some of my bulletproof teenage exterior, where the only reasons that people didn’t believe in the same Very Important Causes/Media/Figures that I did were that a) they hadn’t been converted zealously enough, or b) they were just incontrovertibly stupid. I want to go back to that sixteen-year-old and tell her to bottle some of that idealism while she still has it. I wonder what she’d think of her slightly heavier, infinitely more under-eye-bagged self from almost a decade on. I get the feeling she’d be awfully disappointed.

So there’s the reason I haven’t thrown out that sticker yet: it’s a goad, a self-inserted thorn in my side refusing to allow me to fall complacently into this greyscale rut I’ve had built for me. I’m not aspiring to anything as grand as Art, for right now. For now, I just want to try and shake off this apathy.

[we’re all mad here] on slightly reneging on a promise

I currently have the following drafts on here: ‘James Onen at SITP’, ‘Fernando Blasco @ Alchemist’s Cafe’, ‘Murderous Mathsweek’, and a couple of other nebulous semi-ideas that may see the light of day. Eventually.

Probably not today.

I know I said I didn’t want to talk about mental illness all the time on here, and I won’t, but I would like to say one thing. On behalf of the above, and all the other projects lying around my hard drive and my brain that will never get started/finished/out into the world: if depression had a corporeal form, I would find it and punch it until I ran out of arms.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some drinking tea and sniffling to be doing.

[we’re all mad here] i see a darkness

This post is was meant to be written on World Mental Health Day, the 10th of October, or four days ago now. It’s a post that’s been somewhat recursively delayed. I want to write about mental health, but I find it hard to write because I’m too anxious, which makes me feel like I shouldn’t be writing, which makes me more anxious…

Because I am not  a Mental Health Blogger, but I am a mentally ill blogger. I suffer from simultaneous major depression and generalised anxiety disorder. I can’t remember a period in my life before anxiety, before fatigue and isolation and perfectionism and all the other fun side-effects of these disorders – and that’s before I even think about the medications.

In the past I’ve thought about writing a journal of my life in (and out of) mental health, but on more thorough reflection I abandoned that idea for one main reason: being mentally ill is really boring. I get up, I wish I hadn’t; I eat meals, I wish I didn’t have to; I start projects and abandon them halfway through; I leave the house only when I have to; I sabotage my own life over and over and I sit here and watch it happen – and I’m one of the lucky ones.

At least I have access to a psychiatrist, and to the medications that keep me somewhat functional. I have a brilliant counsellor, who’s been obstinately trying to convince me that I’m not the dire failure I feel, for the past three years now. I have a partner of four years, who hasn’t yet reached the point of throwing up his hands and heading for Australia. I don’t have a very wide social circle any more, but the friends I do have are amazing people without whom I couldn’t have gotten this far. I have a family who, although they may not understand everything I go through, have always tried to help me out, and educators who have been incredibly supportive. Lastly, of course, I have the internet, which is everything from the deepest of educational resources to a 3am therapist to a supportive international web of friendships.

I’m getting through this. I don’t feel like I’m getting better, yet, but I’m getting through. Thousands don’t.

According to Aware, over 400,000 people in Ireland experience depression at any one time. There are roughly four hundred deaths from suicide every year (in a country of less than five million people). 11000 visits to Irish emergency departments each year are caused by self-harm. This country is too small to see numbers that large.

If you suffer from mental illness, please know: there is someone out there who will take you seriously. There are people who will listen. Even if it is – as it was for me – only names and words on a blogging site, you are not the only person who has experienced pain like yours. You are not the only one who is down this hole. There are hundreds of us, and we’re all fumbling around in the dark without a map. Every so often someone will happen on a rope ladder and work their way out, and the rest of us are left to wonder however they managed it, to bitch a bit, and then to get back to the business of living.

And my next step is not backing out of making this post.

(PS: Mental Health Ireland has a campaign called Building Resilience for this week, which has tips from ‘have the courage to be imperfect’ (helpful) to ‘laugh out loud every day’ (teeth-grittedly aspirational at best). Worth a look.)