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.
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.’
I had an interview with a PhD student from Melbourne Uni last week. It was for a study into what can be done to improve media reporting around severe mental illness (SMI) to reduce stigma. The media is largely responsible for the way people like me are perceived by the general public. So, I was delighted to contribute to this study.
Our trusted news sources are slickly practiced at generating gory headlines that draw eyeballs to them like magnets. If SMI is thought to contribute to a crime, it is either ignored or thrown into the story as a cold, hard after thought. Something that can’t be changed and is barely acknowledged as an illness.
The main characters in these horrific accounts may have an undiagnosed, poorly managed, or unmanaged SMI, but the journalist in the by-line doesn’t dig deep enough to expose the reasons for this:
Society does not care about or for us in the same way they do for others with serious, chronic, intermittent potentially fatal illnesses.
I am giving my eight-week-old son a bath. One hand supports his head and neck, the other gently moves a wash cloth over his delicate skin. He kicks his legs, rippling the shallow water. His dark eyes stare up at me. Pools of trust. I make a minute adjustment to my hand supporting his neck. His head slips under the water, for less than a second before I instinctively lift him up. He splutters briefly and is fine. But I am not.
I hit the call button next to the baby bath and a nurse pops her head in:
‘Are you ok?’
I hand her my baby. Nausea clamps my stomach and works its way up my throat. Black mist hovers in my peripheral vision and I sink to the ground. I put my head between my knees, as red-hot malignant words shoot through me:
I have a somewhat unhealthy relationship with control. I rely on having it a little too much. Throw me an unexpected traffic jam, and I’ll feel no more or less anxious than the next person. However, when control goes AWOL from the bigger areas of my life my stress levels sky rocket.
I have been seeing my psychologist for years now. Some visits neither of us have to work hard to tweak things. But whenever there’s a larger life issue I’m struggling with, my distress almost always comes down to my lack of control over an undesirable situation. For me one of the worst-case scenarios are sleep deprivation combined with the stress of a sick child. The reason this combination is so triggering is that it is kryptonite to my defences against a bipolar episode. (Sleep deprivation especially accompanied by stress is a major risk factor for developing manic and psychotic episodes)
This said, I firmly believe the universe sometimes sits back stroking its chin and assesses where I’m at. And then as though giving me a cosmic performance review, it points out areas for improvement, and gives me the opportunities to practice the life skills I lack. Clearly, I still need a lot of practice accepting a lack of control, because I have been sent the following homework:
I don’t dwell on what might have happened had I been sent home on day five after my daughter was born. But whenever the news throws up sensational stories reporting murder, infanticide, or suicide, and there is even a slim possibility the perpetrator might have been psychotic – then I think about it. Because that could have been me.