(The things that keep me well – yes people a teapot keeps me well!)
When I began this blog back in 2014 my aim was pretty simple, I wanted to create a platform in which members of the public could ask questions, even tricky and potentially offensive ones, without fear of judgement or reprimand. I felt strongly, and continue to do so, that a large proportion of stigma around mental health comes from fear; fear that we will say the wrong thing and offend someone, fear of the person themselves, fear of the ‘illness’, the unknown and the unpredictability of something that we do not understand and cannot relate to. That’s totally fair enough as far as I’m concerned; when someone in a wheelchair comes towards me I make eye contact and smile because that’s what I do with everyone, then I remember I’m British and people don’t do that and worry they will think It was a pity smile, I then try to slightly ignore them to counteract the smile, they then pass me and I feel both rude and an idiot. Do I actually care about their wheelchair? Not at all! But the fear that I will offend the person drives me into a state where the wheelchair becomes an issue for me. Mental health is often the same; people get so concerned they will say the wrong thing that they don’t know how, or even if they should, talk about it. It therefore made sense to me that if you create a space in which people can ask those difficult questions you can work towards removing that sense of fear and otherness that dominates so many discussions around mental health.
When I was diagnosed with Bipolar in 2012 I felt a huge sense of relief, the experiences I had were nothing like the depression I’d read about, of being unable to get off the sofa or heat up a soup, hell, I was getting off the sofa and running in front of cars on the motorway having downed a bottle of vodka. The intense agitation and fear was an alien concept to me and a diagnosis brought me back to earth to mix with some other little earthlings that shared some of these experiences. Ever the irritating swot I chose to read up on this condition and attend some support groups, this did not go well. The books I was recommended were either filled with science and medical jargon or by people who continued to exist in a state of constant unwellness. Like a horrific thriller novel that you regret starting fifty pages in I dragged myself to the end of these autobiographies waiting for the ‘o yeah and then it got ok and my life got good again’ moment BUT IT NEVER HAPPENED. If I wanted to be told I would feel this way forever and my life would be a pile of poop I would have listened to the voices in my head and saved myself the effort. Support groups were no better, I had wanted a space to meet people who I could connect with but whom I could also have tea and gossip about First Dates with. There was plenty of tea (it came in plastic cups which burnt your hands) but we sat in a freezing church hall in the middle of winter discussing suicide attempts and what a burden we were to our families. I tried to meet the eye of someone to be like ‘yeeeesh this is hardcore’ but there was no one. Where were all the people who had it rough but were also kind of getting on? There was no one!
It occurred to me that if I came away from these meetings feeling strongly that Bipolar was going to ruin and dictate my life then it wasn’t far-fetched for those with no experience of it to feel the same way. The media only reinforces this and the awful Las Vegas shootings are a case in point; although the police have openly said they are still unsure that there were any signs of mental instability the media and the President himself (vom) are quick to jump on his ‘dementated’ state. These acts are terrifying because they are outside of our moral code and we are quick to find a scapegoat in order to make sense of them and put in place actions that will prevent them from happening again. I’m by no means saying mental health and these kinds of crimes aren’t linked because often they are but the medias coverage only reinforces negative stereotypes; what we are left with is celebrities who share their experiences and mass murderers. Whilst there continues to be a small chance I will be spotted in Tesco and asked to star opposite Orlando Bloom in a hilarious rom com which is both touching and witty I am currently not famous, nor am I murdering anyone. This is because I am, like thousands of others, a standard human being. What I wanted to do with my blog is illustrate that Bipolar makes certain things more difficult but it is also something which can be managed and is often irrelevant.
Hilariously (kind of) those with mental health challenges live and walk amongst us every day and you have literally no idea because it’s irrelevant until they don’t feel so good. No joke I tell someone about the Bipolar and they are instantly telling me about the time they had depression after their dad died/their panic attacks/their generalised anxiety or the time they decorated their whole house pink during a bout of mania. The irony is (Alanis Morrisette has confused my understanding of irony so this may not be ironic at all) that whilst those who have no experience of mental health challenges do not talk because of the fear, those with lived experience do not talk because of the fear of the fear. People don’t know how to respond to lived experience which makes talking about it awkward and uncomfortable so those who aren’t in the throws of a mental health crisis don’t talk about it because they are also feeling awkward and uncomfortable. This means what people do hear is the celebrities and the mass murderers, furthering the awkward and uncomfortable feelings -because even I am uncomfortable with something dominated in discussions by mass murderers. The average joes aren’t talking about their everyday mental health because we do not encourage a platform that makes it valuable to do so.
Last week I took leave from work to move home and when I returned my colleague asked how I was doing because I’d said moving was a potential trigger and she wasn’t sure if I had meant to take a week off or if I was feeling unwell. Whaaaaaat!? Dudes this was so awesomely cool to me! Like I had talked openly about my mental health and that person had reciprocated by talking openly about mental health too, like it was NO BIG DEAL. Which it wasn’t aside from how amazing it was to me that we had an exchange about mental health that didn’t feel gross or uncomfortable but felt as natural as asking how my weekend was. I will casually sit in the kitchen at work talking to a colleague about the awfulness of my depression because it should be ok to have these conversations in a public space, and when they are integrated into our everyday life and associated with the everyday people we interact with we create a sense of relatability, which can only be a good thing. I couldn’t count the number of times someone has said to me ‘you’d never think you had Bipolar’, ermm why? Because I don’t look like a stereotype, that’s why. But the more we associate free conversations about mental health with the nanny or our best friend or our super organised Manager the more we associate mental health with everyone.
World Mental Health Day is an excellent opportunity for us all to look at ourselves and reflect on how we maintain our own mental wellbeing, you don’t need a diagnosed condition to take time out, meditate or get a good nights sleep. It is also an opportunity to reflect on how we share those experiences with others, do we talk about having had a bad day (probably not because we’re British)? Or how moving house may be a trigger for us? Or how we are caring for a loved one and it’s super stressful? We should also reflect on how we respond to these conversations and needs, when a friend bails last minute because they’re feeling down do we reassure them its ok or do we chastise them for being a pain in the ass? When our colleague takes time out to eat their lunch away from their desk and have a breather do we celebrate their ability to look after their mental well-being or do we question their commitment to their job? It is not just the responsibility of those with lived experience to help create an ease and dialogue around mental health but the responsibility of everyone to ensure we support, encourage and promote discussion around mental health and the actions people take to maintain good well-being.