I joined a creative writing group last week, which is ever so conveniently located only moments from my front door, so even a broken soldier like me can shuffle along with my massive extra large Tesco hessian bag filled with pillows and cushions of various sizes to see me through the session. One for my arm, which is a pain (literally and figuratively) and aches in the cold, when I move it, when I don't move it...you get the picture; another two for my derriere and my back. It's held in a church hall where we have to choose between the heat provided by a tiny, robot-shaped electric heater in the corner - but no ability to hear what anyone is saying or reading aloud - and my usual experience of church halls which is: chilling to the bone, no matter how many layers you're wearing.
The course focuses on non-fiction and this week our home work is to research something 'we're interested in' and write a 'short' piece about it. We did receive feedback on our chosen pieces. I - predictably - opted for mental health in the work place to enable me to bang my apocryphal drum a little louder to a new audience. This provoked feedback from the teacher that I could of course choose several aspects of this - mental health in general, stress, depression, different eras of work. After three minutes or so of this feedback he considered himself satisfied and moved on.
I neglected to say that Mat is doing this course with me, and it was to him the focus of attention now turned. He explained, "There have been many popular science books addressing the figures and ideas from the scientific revolution of the 17th century aimed at mixing biographical details with scientific facts in a way that is both educational and entertaining. A similar project would envisage taking the ideas of figures at the time more usually considered as philosophers - Descartes, Leibniz, Locke, Spinoza, etc. - and looking at them and how their thinking was revolutionary...". To this the teacher said, "Yes, that sounds very interesting," and moved on. (Translation: "I've no idea what you just said but it sounds erudite and complex so I'll let you get on with it and I'm too afraid to ask for more details.)
This week mental health has once again featured quite prominently in the news. There have been several articles about depictions of the mentally ill on television - both in dramas (like Homeland and Eastenders) and in Broadmoor, a new documentary on the most severely mentally ill people in the UK, some so severe that they have committed terrible crimes and will never be able to be released, such is the gravity of his illness (it's a male institute). The latter programme was only made after five years of waiting and negotiating to be granted permission for cameras to enter the grounds. I watched the documentary and was afraid it was going to make people afraid of mental health again - thinking that everyone with some sort of illness related to mental health was the same as those depicted (though they varied in the degree of severity / type of illness). Let me clear this up right now. No - we're not all like that.
All of the above prompted much commenting in the UK online press, which led me to consider how I perceive myself in society, how I think society perceives me, and what I think the misconceptions are that I struggle with as a result of having (and now recovering from) a mental illness.
Here is a lovely cartoon of misconceptions of mental health, challenged. Then you can read mine.
My top five pet peeves about conceptions of mental illness, from personal experience.
1. "Just get over it." Depression is a real thing, not something in my head whereby I can just 'Pull myself together' and instantly bounce back to my well self from. It also can't be cured in twenty minutes with the right medication. For me - and this is my opinion, not that of any medically qualified person - I need some help from medication at times combined with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to help me to recover. Most of the time I'm fine. And I am trying to be better - all the time. I am not giving up and sometimes it's really bloody hard, thanks, even though you can't see the blood, I promise you, it is!
2. "Your can't possibly be any good at your job if you've got a mental problem." I can still do my job / function perfectly well when I am well (even though I've had depression in the past / still have it as a condition). I'm doing it now. I'm doing it part time, admittedly, because it just so happens that I fell, not down into the rabbit hole but down two stairs and have damaged myself severely so that I need to recover and rest.
3. "Medication doesn't work" OR "Medication is all you need." I need both medication and CBT as part of my recovery process. When I take medication because I need it to be well, I can also do my job perfectly well. And sometimes, yes, I do need medication. I need it to help me to rebalance my brain's chemicals somehow, in the same way someone with a cold needs Sudafed to help a congested nose feel better. It works for me. So I do it. and I trust my psychiatrist. Incidentally, there was some horrible psychiatrist trolling this week. "Psychiatrists aren't real doctors...BLAHBLAH". Really? Mine has several other previous medical qualifications and I can assure he is probably the most qualified doctor I've ever met. Finally, when I see a psychotherapist to talk through various topics that is part of the recovery process and does not mean I cannot do my job well.
4. "Depression is just like glandular fever, ME or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome." I do not have M.E. or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome I do have a symptom of depression which means that I become extremely tired by things that I find hard. I am a classic overachieving under-confident person, perfectly formed for the world of consulting, banking etc. As if hatched from a perfect consulting bird egg, here I am, ready to over perform but oh so unsure at times, and the need to over-perform - to have what is called 'unrelenting standards' of myself, makes me sometimes absolutely knackered before I've even begun. It's a bit like having to go and have a lie down at the thought of doing a little washing up, because you want to do the washing up the best, better than anyone has ever done it before, ever. Yawwwwn. Still, if you look at previous blogs you can see that I've gone running when I've been depressed, and delivered on some massive pieces of work while ill, so I really feel this is not the appropriate way to think of me.
5. "You're always smiling and laughing, you can't possibly be depressed." I can still enjoy things while being depressed. (Or I might be pretending to, true.) But this is a really odd one. I don't understand myself why sometimes I'm crying uncontrollably (well, except while watching 'Up' at Christmas, but then EVERYBODY is crying when they watch that movie) or why I'm laughing. I'm always laughing when Mat makes me laugh because he does silly things like balancing spoons on his head or pulling funny faces. Or I put Mat's copy of Locke's 'Essay Concerning Human Understanding' in the bin, again (hate, HATE Locke) and find this endlessly amusing. But the next minute I can feel the empty feeling inside, the tiredness, the stupor and feel stunned by it again, like a deer struck with a dart.
I laughed and laughed this week when a lunch with friends went from disastrous to hysterical. My friends, two sisters, both thought they were meeting me this week, but then it turned out both had a different date in their diary. I was faced with lunch with each of them on consecutive days, or neither and a future date in January. I suggested Wednesday, which - miraculously - worked out, although I couldn't eat as I already had a work lunch to go to. The restaurant in Waterloo we went to shall remain nameless. Oh, alright then, no it won't. It was Topolski's and it had possibly the worst service and worst idea of menu / timings I've come across in a long while. (I did live in New York, yes, but I'm back now to the reality of British service, and I know that it still, well, sucks.)
(Them) Yes, we had to come to the counter to order [There's no one else here.]
(Them) No, we couldn't just have bread [Bread clearly existed in the place as it was served with other dishes.]
(Them) No, we couldn't have fresh mixed juice as the juicer was broken. [Losers.]
(Them) No, that part of the menu's only available after 5 and before 5.05pm. [Points to 90% of menu]
(Them) Yes, I can reheat your cold soups for you. [More waiting.]
(Me) Yes, I can tip you nothing and smile directly into your eyes while doing it you dreadful example of waiting staff everywhere.
Luckily we hadn't seen each other in yonks so we were chattering away happily as all these foibles went on around us.
Unfortunately all this fun means I need to spend more time this weekend doing more research on mental health. I've opted for mental health in literature and drama so watch this space for that. In the meantime, think of me changing all the time. That's what I'm doing. That's what we're all doing. Ageing, growing (in whatever way). We're changing. And since I wrote that I've changed again, somehow.