Here’s a paradox: My mental health improved after I developed a mental illness. When I am not symptomatic (which is a lot of the time) my mental health is fantastic. It is possibly better than that of many people who don’t live with a mental illness. Here’s why:
Mental illness can teach you a lot about mental health, because it confronts you with the choice to change the way you approach your life.
Have you ever tried rescuing someone who doesn’t want to be rescued?
There’s the itchy frustration of being able to see they need help. You do everything in your power to help them, but they want none of it.
We had the following teachable situation take place in our household recently:
My daughter loves birds and started feeding the sulphur crested cockatoos in our garden. Word of the new food source got around. Each day more arrived. One morning the cohort included a scruffy straggler. He was bullied by the others. His point of difference was a plastic cone around his neck, almost identical to the Elizabethan collars we put on dogs and cats to prevent them chewing out their stitches.
But this was a school sports marker. The cockatoo had poked its head through it. I assume out of curiosity or to get to food in the middle of it. And now it was stuck. It could still eat, but not well. We thought hard about how we could help this bird. I suspected removing the cone wouldn’t be difficult if we could only catch it.
It flew off as soon as we got anywhere near it. My daughter phoned Australia Zoo who referred her to a wildlife organisation, who referred us to the RSPCA. I explained the dilemma and sent pictures of the cone headed bird. The RSPCA delivered a large metal dog crate and we rigged the door with string, so that we could close it remotely.
It started on the paper bag that the breakfast toast came in. First, I shook out the crumbs to give me an even writing surface. I had no other paper. I was inside the SCU (Special Care Unit), in a psychiatric hospital in August 2006, emerging from my first psychotic episode. And as the medication slowed my boiling brain, a miniscule part of me, took in my environment and thought:
‘I am one step away from a padded cell. Unbelievable. But while I am here, I will record as much as I can, because not many people experience this.’
So, I made my words tiny to fit as much detail as I could onto the toast bag.
Over a year later I wrote an account of my psychotic episode based on that bag and some diary entries. My supervisor for my Master of Arts in Writing Editing and Publishing read it.
‘This is really good writing. You should consider expanding it into a memoir.’
In the beginning I struggled to accurately identify the source of my discomfort. First, I felt cranky. Then defensive. Sentences coiled through my head, arguing my case to non-existent judges.
And then the fantasy started:
The sanctity of an operating theatre. Me doing surgery. A space where competence is nonnegotiable and where logic rules supreme. A space where superfluous emotion is rinsed off in the scrub sink. The flat mineral smell of iodine, hands held up, so drips go down. The linearity of actions. Being handed packets – the hand towel, the gown and gloves, instruments. All sterile. A clean slate for this one patient, this one surgery. The fantasy is not about wanting to re-enter veterinary practice. It is about control. The thought of having that degree of control over a situation makes me shiver with longing right now.
Have you heard of ‘the mental load’ (also known as emotional labour)?
The term is bouncing about everywhere right now. Google it if you like, but this is my understanding of it:
The mental load is carried (predominantly) by women. It comprises the things that (they believe) are essential to the welfare of their relationship or family, for example meal planning, remembering relatives’ birthdays, or buying toothpaste before it runs out. The carrier of the mental load often feels overwhelmed or resentful because their partners don’t share it.
Now, I am all for the equitable distribution of work, including paid employment, childcare, chores, and general life admin. However, my sympathy for people who complain about their ‘mental load’ nose dives when I hear or read this:
‘My partner should know what to do without me having to ask them. Me having to ask adds to my mental load.’
I’ve been told the first time we met I was shuffling slowly up and down a blue carpeted corridor. Slumped body. Empty eyes. I barely registered being asked how I was with a slowly exhaled
‘Not so good.’ before moving on with my pram.
I say ‘I’ve been told’, because I don’t remember our first meeting or the following weeks. I was sicker than I’d ever been. Not many people would have repeatedly made friendly conversation with someone as unresponsive as I was.
She did. At a time when she wasn’t well herself.
When I finally re-emerged after several months of illness, I was delighted to find I had a new friend. A friend I never would have met in my geographical or professional circles. A friend who, like me, had spent the early months of first-time motherhood in a psychiatric hospital instead of at home.