The Truth About The Mask Of Mental Illness

So it turns out I haven’t quite finished writing about masks. Today, however, instead of talking about clinical masks, I want to talk about a different type of mask – that is, the mask that society forces people with mental illness to wear.

Sad woman with paper mask over her mouth with a smile drawn on it.
Photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash






It’s the mask of being well – that many of us expect them to wear, even now, in spite of the progress made in terms of awareness.

You see, mental illness is still viewed by some as a made-up illness, or a weakness, or something we should feel ashamed about. And while there are all those wonderful memes that float around the Internet to remind us to be kind and empathetic to sufferers, the reality can be very different.

It might surprise you to know that it is still rare to find a work environment in which you can admit openly that you suffer from depression or a neurological disorder

I’ll be honest, each time someone admits to me they don’t believe in mental illness, I want to scream at them for their arrogance and ignorance. And here’s why. Because, today, with my son’s permission – I’m going to give you an insight into what it is like for him to live with it, and the effect it has on his loved ones.

A few weeks ago, we planned a long overdue family weekend away. It was overdue for many reasons, such as Covid, the cost of taking away a family of four adults (and our very practical concerns about our bar bill), and our annual leave restrictions. However, the main reason the trip was short was because of Kurt, our twenty-three year old son.

He hasn’t really left Sydney over the past two years for all the usual reasons: his bartending job as a casual – which makes it hard for him to make his rent (let alone splash out on weekends away); the organisation involved in planning and booking time away with his ADHD; as well as, erm, certain dependencies he uses to alleviate some of his ADHD symptoms, that are not (shall we say) very transportable.

The main ones, though, are his crippling anxiety and OCD

The outside world may not see what it takes for people like him to leave the house, but trust me, it is no mean feat. There are rituals that his brain insists he must carry out before any transition, there is his fear of change, his laundry (so much laundry), sensory considerations, and an elevated sense of imposter syndrome. In other words, as soon as he steps through the door, our son has to put on a mask.

In other words, he looks like a normal, functioning Millennial, who smiles a lot and converses seemingly naturally. The truth is, however, he would prefer to never have to leave his bedroom.

Few would be aware of the rituals that chain him to his home, his fear of change, or the mental effort it takes to keep himself on track

The reality is, our son doesn’t travel much because his mind won’t let him and last weekend was as much about celebrating mine and our daughter’s birthdays as it was a test for Kurt. It was an attempt to get him to push back from a negative way of thinking that is getting stronger by the day, and as a fellow sufferer (but less severe), I am aware of the dangers of letting anxiety win.

“Avoiding what makes you anxious provides some relief in the short term, but can make you more anxious in the long term. Try approaching something that makes you anxious – even in a small way. The way through anxiety is by learning that what you fear isn’t likely to happen – and if it does, you’ll be able to cope with it. ” Beyond Blue

A few days prior to our departure, he decided not to come and I persuaded him to rethink. Genuinely, I believed the change of atmosphere would do him good. As a result of changes due to Covid, he has spent a lot of time on his own of late – which is not good for over-thinkers – and I was excited at the prospect of exploring antique shops together, experiencing the hotel’s leisure facilities, and enjoying the sense of togetherness that other families appear to enjoy.

I’m his mum and selfishly, I suppose, I wanted him there with us, not only to push back his anxiety, but to help me complete the faux image of the perfect family unit I aspire to

Mental illness is often inaccurately portrayed in film. Many films focus on the quirky charisma of the neuro-diverse or mentally-ill characters, rather than the often terrifying complexities of mood disorders. While we are shown aspects of the darkness, there’s very little of the day-to-day reality of living with the illness – the self-harm, the anger, the police involvement, the desperation and the tears.

When our son is on form, he lights up a room; but when he is overwhelmed, it’s like waiting for the White Walkers to break through the wall

I don’t have any photos of the first twenty-four hours of our trip when Kurt couldn’t look at us or speak to us because he was so angry with me for persuading him to come. He was even madder with himself for “being such a cunt.” (His words).

Ahead of our trip, I thought I had prepared for every eventuality and nothing could go wrong. And yet on our first night, I booked a table at a restaurant in town (because the hotel restaurant was extortionate), and that triggered Kurt’s anxiety. He joined us, but he sat in the restaurant, stony-faced, his earphones in, and as soon as he finished his food, he left by himself. Returning to the hotel bar, he set himself up at his own table and refused to join us when we returned.

I know better than to think I can prepare for every eventuality. The unpredictability is, perhaps, the hardest part about mental illness. The three steps forward, and the inevitable four steps back

That night he texted us to say he would take the train home the following morning.

Even now, he cannot explain what triggered his overwhelm and need to isolate, but it lasted until after lunch the following day, when somehow he managed to pull himself back and block out the voices. He apologised to us profusely, told us how much he loved us and hated himself for his behaviour, and our second night together was memorable – one of the best nights we’ve shared as a family.

When family and friends ask us how Kurt is doing, we put on masks too

We wear protective masks as well – from the judgement of being bad parents, weak, enablers, and pushovers – even though we can’t fully defend our actions, out of respect for Kurt’s privacy.

What I will say, though, is that unless you walked in our shoes, you cannot understand – in much the same way that I would have a limited understanding of how to cope with a child with a physical disability or terminal illness.

A person with mental illness may look exactly like you and I most of the time, until the mask slips

That judgment forces people with invisible illnesses to wear masks, and when they slip, society is unprepared for what lies behind it, in terms of both support and resources. But in the same way that there is no shame in having gastro, there is nothing wrong in admitting that your head isn’t well. Everyone feels sad or anxious at times, but it is the magnitude of those emotions that is so different for people with depression and anxiety, or with neurological conditions that make normal life more challenging.

They can’t “snap out of it” to make the rest of us feel better

Most of the time they don’t ask for our help, nevertheless, they deserve our compassion. My desire to paint a perfect family picture of our weekend away made my son very unhappy and his mask slipped – like he warned us it would. Fortunately, this journey together has made us stronger. We have learned not to blame ourselves (or him) for poor decisions, and I’m certain that sometime in the near future we will give the experience another shot.

The outcome may be similar, but the hope is that each experience is one step further away from surrender, and one step closer to recovery.

The Meaning Of Life: And Why People Who Live In Hot Countries Suffer From Depression Too

Kurt experienced a few personal setbacks a few weeks ago and because I know that many of you follow this blog because you too have young adults who struggle, I thought I’d take you through what we’ve learned from it. Obviously, I won’t go into precise detail about what happened, but suffice it to say that after more than a year of giant leaps towards a balanced, happier life, his world came crashing down around him and he felt unable to cope.

Man looking out onto world.
Photo by Larisa Birta on Unsplash

We’ve all been there – those parts of growing up when it feels like life is conspiring against us, leaving us no way out. But it’s worse when you have a disability and the lack of a good emotional skill set and resilience to cope with it.

His cry for help coincided with my first day in a new position at work – a position that I know is within my field of expertise, even though my anxiety consistently tells me that I can’t do it – so, needless to say, I was already in an emotional tail spin that morning when he started calling me. In hindsight, I think that I may have over-reacted to the situation.

My therapist tells me that anxiety can be contagious in some families, like a chemical reaction, where the molecules keep bouncing against each other, escalating it. Apologies for my simplistic interpretation but I never took Chemistry seriously at school. However, I did manage to stop my eyes glazing over as she was explaining what she obviously believed was a useful analogy to me. And I know that I use this expression all of the time in this blog, but sometimes it really does feel (for a lot of us) as though we will never get our shit together and that life takes some perverse enjoyment out of kicking at us when we’re already on the ground. Fortunately for us oldies, though, maturity and experience help remind us in those moments that we will (most likely) get back up on the damned horse, whereas Kurt is still young. He has yet to understand the difference a year, a day, or even an hour can make to how he is feeling in that moment, or how different those areas of his life that he struggles with today may look in ten years time.

When you’ve been misunderstood and had to fight for acceptance for most of your short life, resilience is hard to build.

However, a week on, I am happy to report that he is in a very different headspace. In fact, a few nights ago the family got together for dinner – Waltons-style (not quite) – I watched the light return to his eyes as he held court at the dining table, and it was almost impossible to believe that this was the same, broken young man from the week before.

Watch any documentary or reality show on the topic of depression or suicide ideation and you will see that most people regret their attempt if they survive to be given a second chance at this crazy thing called life.

We live in a crazy world, and not even maturity hands over all the answers to our reasons for being here. So it’s understandable for an over-thinking twenty-two-year-old, whose brain is still developing, to lose his way; to question if the pressure and suffering are really worth it, and (perhaps, more importantly), why the shit seems to be dealt out so disproportionately.

Hence, the rise in mental health issues in our youth.

I constantly question what we can change for this boy of ours to help him believe that overall the good outweighs the bad. That is the problem with depression – it is not something that you can fix by throwing money at it. On paper, Kurt has everything he should need to be happy. He has family support, a job and that sort of energising personality that Robin Williams had. ie. a convincing mask.

When the old man and I watched Chernobyl this week, I found myself looking at the bleakness of the Russian landscape in disbelief, wondering how any population could enjoy their lives beneath the heaviness of those grey skies and such an unforgiving political regime – let alone a dodgy nuclear reactor – and I decided that it is because they have known no different. But I was wrong. Happiness doesn’t come from the tangible stuff in our lives. It has less to do with blue skies and much more to do with living in a supportive community and having friends. It’s why the poorest in Africa and India are still happy. Seriously, Indian people are the most rounded, happy people I’ve ever met.

Blue skies help, but people who live in hot countries suffer from depression as well.

I keep telling Kurt that dealing with life’s crap makes you more resilient, even though I’m still trying to convince myself. I’m not comfortable using “stronger” in this instance – there are many days when I feel far from strong, but I hope that he builds the resilience to hang in there long enough to experience the good bits about this world. Ie. the myriad of wonderful relationships and experiences that are within his grasp if he allows his stars to align. But then that does require a certain level of positivity, hence the Catch 22 fuckery of my parental wisdom.

I suppose that the real crux of the matter when it comes to the meaning of life is that, in truth, there is no real alternative.

Why I Cried In A Star Is Born

For those of you who know me and my need to spew verbal rubbish at least twice a week as a means of therapy, you might have guessed that my past few weeks of silence has nothing to do with laziness or writers’ block.

However, this time, it is not my story to overshare. Instead, I want to talk to you about “A Star Is Born”, because it is rare for me to cry in a movie.

Admittedly, I cry each time I watch “Terms of Endearment” – who doesn’t? – but usually, I’m pretty hardcore when it comes to movies – even tear-jerkers. Be it emotional defensiveness or a block, I am lucky that a history of brutal initiation ceremonies at boarding school, a family tree that resembles the Ewings in “Dallas”, and the numbing effect of anti-depressants for my anxiety – all contribute to protecting me from the lows.

(I should also point out, in my defense, that – spoiler alert – BRADLEY COOPER DIED in the movie).

But sadly, while those are all highly plausible reasons for my ugly sobs at the loss of that perfectly chiseled and landscaped chest beautiful hunk of a man (and the hero of many a middle-aged woman’s fantasies), in truth, the reason for my public blub was the content of the movie. It was just a little too bloody close to home.

Anyone close to a person who suffers from depression, anxiety or alcohol and substance abuse will understand the sadness and sense of helplessness caused by their struggle.

The devastating effects of these conditions radiate throughout the inner and outer circles of the people close to them, provoking a fear that never truly goes away.

Unfortunately, mental illness is not something that can be fixed as easily or as quickly as a broken limb. Indeed, I am beginning to believe that perhaps it can never be fixed – although some people do learn to manage it.

I am not a psychologist or doctor, but I would like to explain in simple terms the “depression” I have witnessed. Due to a myriad of reasons, there are some people who don’t feel that they can ever be happy or slot acceptably into society. Particularly, a society that expects the same from them as everyone else – that views them as a problem rather than a group of people that need support. Modern society is a meritocracy that is not inclusive to those with a disability, and when these people can’t meet normal expectations, they start to feel inadequate or a burden and they isolate themselves. This is when many of them start to dance freely with the notion of death.

Inevitably, their behavior can leave their loved ones in a perpetual state of fear – a fear that is hard to understand when you look from the outside in. For while there is empathy for people who are physically sick with those illnesses of which we have a greater understanding, such as cancer, there is less for those who suffer with invisible illnesses.

Added to which, the desperation they demonstrate in their behaviors and choices in life is easily misunderstood. For example, a common misjudgment about homeless people is that they are lazy addicts that abuse the system -rather than victims of mental illness, neglect, or abuse, who have hit rock-bottom. Addicts are viewed as the dregs of society or irresponsible pleasure-seekers, rather than people suffering from a disease.

I’ve used the analogy of a game of “Snakes and Ladders” many times when I’ve written about caring for someone in this situation. To support a person that you love to the end of the world and back, who won’t seek professional help, is similar to playing the game. You take ten steps forwards, and just when you think they are finally making progress, they slide back down a snake.

During their better periods, you fool yourself into thinking that this time they will stay well. You pray that the new job, new house or new partner will provide them with the change they need to provide them with the purpose they need to live. But you never breathe freely.

You despair at the way they abuse their bodies as a coping mechanism – which, obviously, it isn’t. You know that they self-harm to feel something – anything – that they drink to forget or to find the courage to function in such an unforgiving world. You know that the alcohol and drugs – the very things they abuse to feel normal – are just a catalyst to greater heartache as you watch them spiral helplessly towards their own self-destruction.

So what can you do?

You can look out for the signs. You can listen to them without judgment. You can empathize. You can remember that depression is not the same kind of sadness that many of us experience from time to time. And yes, it is possible to function with it – which makes it even harder to spot. Eventually, you may have to acknowledge that you may not be able to save them.

If the statistics are to be believed, we have a massive problem on our hands with the number of “troubled kids” and men out there. The choice made by Jackson Maine in “A Star Is Born” is becoming more common as our kids are placed under greater pressure from advanced telecommunication, social media, and fears about their future in terms of climate change and housing. Many of them are reaching their tipping point. When that silent growth of fear linked to not being good enough that has been eating slowly away at them starts to spread – like the Melanoma in those scary skin cancer ads – it distorts the reality of their situation. And ultimately, without the right support – and even WITH the right support – it can lead to devastating, irreversible decisions.

To help prevent these tumors from growing, we need more funding in schools and mental health services. We need greater awareness and better education. Above all, we need more empathy and understanding. So please consider carefully who will best serve the future of our kids when you place your vote at the next election.

For the carers of these people – who love them unconditionally and who for the most part are at a loss for answers or solutions about how best to help them – the fear that they will make Jackson’s choice is all-consuming. That is why I cried in “A Star Is Born”.

Managing Anxiety and Depression: The Trick Is To Find Happiness In The Small Things

After the cabin fever brought on by the Armageddon of a dodgy weather cycle in Sydney over the past 24hrs – totally unrelated to climate change, according to our government – it was a relief to get out of the house this morning. 

After almost a month of holiday excess, I decided that I would make my comeback to fitness with a morning jog with the old man – although for those of you conjuring up an image of beautiful blogger with handsome, virile husband pounding the pavements, please take note that the image below is far more representative of the truth and I am not about to metamorphose into a wellness blogger. 

Our jog – (roughly) 1.2k to the north end of the beach (which feels like 7k) and then back again, which is driven solely by the thought of the steaming bowl of porridge waiting for us back at home – is a strategy to get us focused for the day ahead. But the truth is that typically HE runs back to the house while I stagger back, on all fours, like some crazy woman in search of the nearest defibrillator.

This morning, however, I couldn’t even manage a stagger back. Two weeks of partying in London have turned muscle into lard and it was as much as I could do to throw off my runners halfway around and pad back along the deep sand of the beach, the ocean swirling at my feet.

A choice for which I am eternally grateful .

The point is that my failure to complete the circuit didn’t affect anything other than my pride, and that walk back along the beach turned out to be one of those rare moments of unbridled happiness that can appear unexpectedly in a moment of defeat. Kathy Lette commented about such experiences on Twitter recently:

‘Society is so obsessed with happiness. If you were happy every day of your life you’d be a brekky telly weather presenter. The trick is to find happiness in small things.’ 

Kathy Lette, Twitter

In truth, it’s hard to visualize Kathy having bad days if you judge her from her social media pages. Vivacious, successful and always in the company of the type of celebrities that most people would die to be in the company of, the writer is usually papped with a glass of Champagne in one hand – one of the many reasons, (writing and humor aside), that she remains an icon to me, even if my own glass tends to be full of Aldi Prosecco rather than Cristal. However, the truth is that Kathy, like everyone, has faced her challenges. Raising a son with autism is not exactly a walk in the park.

Finding happiness in small things has become something of a mantra for me this year. I’m currently reading Matt Haig’s “Reasons To Stay Alive”  – who isn’t? – and the message that runs through the book, (and coincidentally, has always been the advice of my doctor), is the importance of building up reserves of mental strength through activities such as exercise or creativity, or whatever floats your boat, really. Everyone goes through stages of life that aren’t easy, but once you survive a bout of depression or learn to manage your anxiety, that resilience will better prepare you for the next time. 

“Wherever you are, at any moment, try and find something beautiful. A face, a line out of a poem, the clouds out of a window, some graffiti, a wind farm. Beauty cleans the mind.” 
― Matt Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive

I might be in a bad place physically at the moment, but I’m mentally okay – well…okay by my standards, thanks to Zoloft! – and I believe that it is my focus on those small things, such as the love of family, writing, peering up into a cloudless sky – I’m in Australia, Matt! – or enjoying the sensation of sand running through my toes on the beach are what keeps my silly brain in check.

Continuing to grow is also important.

‘Continuing to grow’ is a phrase that can reduce the old man to a quivering wreck since the time I accused him of ‘waiting to die’ in an argument. Now, every time he agrees to do something that he wouldn’t choose of his own volition, he feels obliged to remind me of how much he is ‘growing.’ I equate my request that he keep on ‘living’ to the compromise I make each week when I am his target practice on the tennis court.

At 53, I continue to learn and grow, through my writing, through my work, through friendships and relationships. I continue to be curious about the world around me and about my place in it. Don’t get me wrong, our life isn’t perfect – who’s is? – and yet, finally, I’ve come to realize that it’s how we approach our problems that truly matters.

‘It’s lucky I’m a happy person,’ my uncle said to me on holiday as he drove me to the 24hr care home to see my beloved aunt who suffered a serious stroke last year.

Honestly, I don’t know what gave this gorgeous, generous and humble man such a gift of positivity, for he hasn’t had a particularly extraordinary or successful life – depending on how you measure success, of course. Indeed, he has only ever truly cared about one thing in his seventy-odd years – the love of his wife of almost half a century.

So, is he lucky?

I don’t think so. But I do believe that he chose to live his life a certain way, and it’s the right way.

Living One Day At A Time And Being Content With What We Have

4939a1e96f466bb6214bb62cd62c9e12A successful designer, seemingly with the world at her feet, takes her own life. Her body is found in her New York apartment with a note that will devastate her family and change the course of her young daughter’s life forever. One thing is certain: she achieved success in the way that the west determines success, and yet, something was still missing. She didn’t ‘have it all’.

We will never know or perhaps understand the demons that led Kate Spade to make the ultimate sacrifice, but if there is one thing to take from this tragedy, it is that happiness cannot be bought, a belief shared by a young eighteen-year-old boy in another section of the news today. Jake Bailey was diagnosed with cancer at the age of eighteen – discovered in the dentist’s chair following a pain in his jaw – whereupon he was given three weeks to live, without treatment. He survived, and his experience has taught him the invaluable lesson of embracing life, each hour, each day, each tiny, magical moment.

 

To take one day at a time.

 

Meanwhile, Matt Haig, whom I’ve quoted on this blog before  – author of “Reasons To Stay Alive,” “Notes On A Nervous Planet” (out in July), and advocate for increasing mental health awareness – is considering removing his presence from Twitter due to the abuse leveled at his comments about positivity, gratitude and empathy for those struggling with mental health issues.

 

He wrote this comment on Twitter this morning, which resonated with me after reading of the tragic death of Kate Spade.

 

‘We need to radically change the idea of ‘having it all’ so that it includes contentment. Without it, ‘all’ is nothing.’

 

Most of us are guilty of jumping ahead of ourselves, planning for the future and not living in the now. The old man and I do it. We tie ourselves in knots, worrying so much about whether we’ll have the money to retire, that we forget to “live”. We wasted many years aspiring to meaningless symbols of materialism, that for the most part didn’t make us happy – (Apart from the Lexus – the Lexus made me happy!). And then, when finally we think we have it all and yet somehow still haven’t hit the sweet spot of contentment, we question why.

 

Imagine if all we had to think about was our survival? There are many examples of tribes and cultures around the globe that only have to consider living from one day to the next, that live a happy, fulfilled existence. Whereas globally, one person suicides every forty seconds, according to the World Health Organization, and the occurrence of “depression” is highest in the US – ‘the land of opportunity and dreams.’ It is lowest in Japan, a country that has adopted a simplicity in their approach to life, such as its practice of Kintsugi – the art of repairing broken pottery with gold rather than replacing it with new.

 

‘While the general Western consensus on broken objects is that they have lost their value, practitioners and admirers of Kintsugi believe that never-ending consumerism is not a spiritually rewarding experience.’ (Make)

 

Or as Val Jon Farris says in the Huffington Post:

 

‘It is the practice of focusing one’s intention on life’s hidden beauty and power.’

 

Fundamentally, is loving ourselves, valuing and being content with what we have.

 

 

Broken People

Wow! ‘Manchester By The Sea’.

 

sad-505857_1920It’s unlike me to enthuse about movies on this site. Truth be told, it’s getting much harder to walk away from a movie and feel truly motivated these days, (Hidden Figures is an exception), so exhausted am I by the blatant ageism, objectification and sexism that Hollywood continues to get away with.

 

But then a little film like this comes along.

 

Admittedly, it had my name all over it. Grief, depression and dysfunctional relationships are the sort of dark ingredients that get my blood pumping, although hardly the ingredients of a Hollywood blockbuster, even when they are blended so beautifully together that it’s impossible to take your eyes off the screen. Even the visual is bleak, as the storyline is set up in a backdrop of snow, sleet and the sort of bitter cold weather that makes the characters appear even more vulnerable and our heart ache even more viscerally for them, before anything awful has actually happened.

 

You might not go and see this movie because of the controversy surrounding the lead actor, Casey Affleck – sexual harassment allegations from some years back which have tarnished the production because they were settled out of court, leaving inevitable question marks. NC refused to come with me, and I had to overcome the sour taste in my mouth because the theme of the movie is so important to awareness about depression and, well frankly, personal.

 

I won’t spoil it for you by giving away the storyline. Suffice it to say that this is a ‘real’ film about broken lives, shattered relationships and fragmented families, hence no solution and no happy ending where you walk away with a smile on your face and a good feeling in your heart. I commend the filmmakers for that, because when it comes to depression, it’s a falsity to think that anyone fully recovers or that they wake up one morning and are miraculously fixed.

 

Below are some thoughts I wrote about on a bad day:

 

Do you ever think about doing something easier? Until you realize all over again that nothing is easy.

 

Do you ever think that everything is too hard? That no matter how many times you re-invent yourself, you’ll never be truly happy?

 

Do you often feel so tired that even your most reliable friends, coffee and wine, can’t get you through the day, can’t lift your mood any more, and your only solace is buried beneath the bedclothes with your anger and self-pity for company?

 

Does that voice of self-pity become so loud sometimes that the only way to keep it in check is through thoughts of escape?

 

Does that grinding ache of impending panic in your belly take over every waking thought some days, and do you hate yourself for being such a loser, for being so pathetic, so spoilt, when you have more than most people would ever want?

 

Do your relationships and interactions with close ones feel two-dimensional? Do you feel like they ask too much of you one day and not enough the next? Do you feel that you can’t give back what they need from you and that what you have to give, isn’t enough?

 

Is the visual of happiness in your head completely different to what you thought it would be? Is it closer to a small room, these days, by yourself, where you can do what you want, eat what you want, the only place where you feel in control of your destiny?

 

Friends, don’t worry because I’m fine, and reading this back today I realised that it is the voice of the typical creative who has a platform where she can explore, through words, all dimensions of self-pity.

 

Sometimes, I think I suffer from ‘perfectly hidden depression,’ a word made up by Dr Margaret Rutherford, which she explains in her piece When People With Depression Function Too Well. Most of us suffer from this some of the time, I suspect, mainly because it turns out that life is not the fairy tale stories we were brought up on.

 

I function well, but as Dr Rutherford so cleverly describes, sometimes I feel as though I don’t have the vitality for life that I should have, and the closest I get to it is via pills and self-medication, aka wine.

 

It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Many of us are ‘broken’. Some by trauma; some by inherited mental illness.

 

And some will handle it better than others.

 

What I love about ‘Manchester By The Sea’ is the rawness of Lee, the main character, and the honesty of his depiction of ‘the black dog’, which is a real dedication to nothingness, because the trigger to his illness has left him barely functioning. He continues to work in a non-challenging environment, but the only way he can function outside of this distraction is to isolate himself, self-medicate and not have to explain why. Trauma has changed his life irreparably, in spite of society and his family’s expectation that everything will be okay in the end.

 

Casey Affleck deserves an Oscar for playing a ‘dead’ character who will never go back to the person he was before, no matter how much others want or try to coerce him to. Sometimes the pain doesn’t go away and I don’t think that Lee really wants it to. He sees it as his punishment.

 

Most of us find a way to move forward after trauma; to appear normal on the outside, at least. It is assumed (or hoped) that we will get through whatever triggered the depression because no-one wants to talk to the sad person at the dinner table when they’re hellbent on having fun.

 

Sadly, many don’t get through.

 

 

‘Pretend You’re Good At It’

I’m reading “Furiously Happy” by Jenny Lawson, (aka The Bloggess) at the moment, upon the recommendation of Lana Hirshowitz, and although I initially struggled to decipher the twisting maze of her brain patterns, I’ve since tapped in and have found myself identify with the author’s self-professed craziness and daily struggles with anxiety. joy-233380_1280

The book is laugh-out-loud funny but one snippet I want to share with you is the day Jenny goes to a studio to record the audio for her latest book, when fear renders her voice a croak and she can’t get through it, so she calls her friend Neil Gaiman for help. As you do.

 

His advice to her is to ‘pretend you’re good at it.’ And on this occasion it works.

 

If only it were really that simple.

 

The old man and I had our usual ‘how we can change the world’ chat, or more poignantly, ‘how we can change our world and find fulfilment’ talk over a curry last night. I don’t know why, but both of us struggle to identify true contentment in our lives even when it smacks us squarely in the face. The most likely reason is that we’re both anxious people as well as privileged (see previous post), or perhaps it’s because we over-analyse everything, hence find it difficult to be happy with what we have, but it’s a trait I despise in myself, yet can’t seem to change.

 

As you know, I’ve erred close to the dark side over the past month or so and the old man has been victim to the brunt of my symptoms and last night his patience went out the window and he did his best impression of the asshole who refuses to accept that mental illness is little more than a state of mind and suggested that I suck it up and put on my happy face.

 

To pretend.

 

I don’t know how many times I’ve reacted to that sort of comment during these periods, that if he can indeed see inside my brain and really does know exactly what I’m thinking, perhaps he could fix it while he’s there. But having suffered at the hands of depression within his own family, I know that the ramifications of it scare the shit out of him and his enforced bravado is rooted in fear.

 

This morning I lay in bed and listened to him potter about the house, whistling and interrupting my lay-in occasionally with inane questions such as ‘where do you buy pegs?’ or ‘when are you going to get up?’

 

‘Why do I need to get up?’ I replied, rolling over lethargically, ‘it’s Sunday’. I had settled in between the covers with The Princess for the day, because I’m becoming increasingly aware that to prevent myself snapping at him all the time (his accusation last night), I need to enforce my own space. He, on the other hand, has changed into some sort of battery-operated toy that continually marches around the new house looking for things to fix and recently signed up as a lifetime member of the local hardware store.

 

I wish he could fix me.

 

I’m tired of pretending. I’ve spoken before about how I believe that we all ‘fake it’ to some degree at different junctures of our lives, but it’s different this time. In the past I faked being good at things for the purposes of my ambition, such as career progression, or in relationships – for example, the old man never realised how much I hated golf until after our honeymoon – whereas at the moment, I have to fake being happy, I have to pretend I’m interested in life, when a lot of the time it feels meh. For my marriage to survive. And so I don’t frighten my kids.

 

Fortunately, when I work, the distraction of meeting new people seems to dilute the doubts and they wait outside the door. Being busy prevents my tendency to over-think, the very behaviour that drowns out my responsibilities when I’m at home. Perhaps, in fact, this whole period is symptomatic of something greater, of this era of (near) empty-nesting, and I’m simply adjusting to having more time on my hands and finding some new purpose in my life.

 

Writing distracts me too. I’m sitting on the deck right now and the sun is streaming through the trees and the breeze is gently fanning my face and I know I have no right not to feel happy, which is why I’m going to try Neil and the old man’s advice and pretend I’m really good at being happy.

Those ‘What’s It All About?’ Moments

mandrill-1194343_1280I’ve been having a lot of those ‘what’s it all about?’ moments recently.

 

I changed my medication recently so it could be that, or simply a residual post-sickness tiredness that has sapped me of the energy to exercise, socialise and get out of my yoga pants.

 

Then again it’s probably the hormones, the tail end of winter, the move or a million other fucking things that I can’t put my finger on, but that make me feel as anxious as fuck.

 

 

I’m okay, but I’m kind of not. An unsettled feeling.

 

One of my good friends thinks it’s our age, that we all feel a bit out of kilter at this stage of our lives, when we’re beyond the disappointment and acceptance of ‘this is it’ that we went through in our forties, but ahead of the ‘fuck it’ financial gloriousness of retirement and our twilight years.

 

I just feel overwhelmingly tired most of the time, which might be because the old man keeps waking me up rudely in the middle of the night because I’ve begun to snore and then I can’t go back to sleep, but not even wine and Netflix can seem to restore my Tigger bounce.

 

A woman, probably in her sixties, walked in front of my car on the pedestrian crossing today with a huge grin plastered on her face and I said to the old man ‘that’s how I want to look all the time.’

 

‘Probably not going to happen with me,’ he replied dolefully, because even though I feel that we’re on a rare plane of closeness at the moment, we exacerbate each other’s anxiety and the impending move has begun to play on our minds.

 

I feel a sense of sadness deep down in my marrow that I can’t explain. Even Bridget Jones barely raised a smile.

 

Thank God for friends.

 

I know I have no right to be sad when there are refugees fighting for their lives and acceptance and inspiring stories such as the one I read this week about the two kids with Cystic Fibrosis who married each other even though they knew that to be together would ultimately kill them. I never realized before that people with the condition can’t mix with each other because of the low immune system caused by CF, and the ability for bacteria to grow easily on their lungs. But it doesn’t work like that.

 

How lonely AF must it be if you can’t even moan to your closest friends about how much life fucking sucks sometimes?

Anxiety, Hope and Earning The Olympic Gold For Worrying

If they handed out an Olympic Gold for worrying, I’d get it.

 

I’ve skirted around the void of depression many times, when my anxiety has gnawed away at me like some flesh-eating bacteria, so close to the bone that I’ve felt like it was all too much. directory-466935_1280 

 

Unlike many people out there who wax lyrical about alternative methods to “cure” depression, medication has been my saviour, the only treatment that has worked consistently for me and allowed me to function relatively normally. Exercise helps, but it wouldn’t be enough on its own.

 

But even medication isn’t an antidote, and so sometimes I get caught out when the black dog begins to circle.

 

In the first weeks after we moved to the suburb we live in now, which is close to the Harbour Bridge, a young man took his life by jumping off it. It was an event that affected me viscerally at the time because we were fighting to stay alive in a zone of wall to wall fear for our son Kurt. That poor boy’s death became personal to me. I was angry with him, visualised myself shaking him and promising him that with time he would feel better, I cried for him and couldn’t get him out of my head or imagine that level of despair. I catastrophized his death and convinced myself that it was a sign.

 

Suicide is becoming more and more common, not just in middle-aged men where it has always been prevalent, but in our young, who on the surface should have everything to live for.

 

When you’ve found yourself close to the level of negativity where you give up hope and question your reason for being, no amount of ‘but look at what you’ve got to live for’ talk can help. Whenever I move into a bad period of anxiety like I did recently, I always end up sitting with the doctor, tears of shame streaming down my cheeks at being so miserable when my life is near perfect.

 

But there are a multitude of triggers of depression and anxiety, many of which the experts have yet to understand.

 

I read many articles about suicide, not because I’m some weirdo but because it’s one of the main themes of the book I’m writing. What has stuck with me are the number of articles from survivors and how, so often, their attempt has been enough to change their outlook. It’s only afterwards that they can see through the clouds of despair, acknowledge that there is some hope, that they are loved, and that some simple changes and support in their life could provide a very different outlook.

 

When you are immersed in that thick, obscure soup, you think that nothing will ever change and it is the overwhelming fear of failure and letting people down that prevents you from embracing what life has to offer.

 

But the patterns of our lives twist and undulate constantly – something you realise with middle age but the young person with depression will find hard to see. For example, twelve years ago, I would never have believed that I would be living in Australia now, doing a job I enjoy, and that the kids would have survived my unique brand of parenting. The bi-product of a divorce, I might also be quite surprised to see that my marriage has endured all the dramas I’ve thrown at it, and I would never have believed that parenting could hold so many challenges or shape me so indelibly.

 

Three years ago, if someone had told me that things with Kurt would eventually get easier, I wouldn’t have believed them. Back then I saddled myself with blame for his behaviour, held myself personally accountable that my little boy wasn’t happy in his own skin. I now see that he has to take some responsibility too.

 

And here we are, making baby steps towards some light.

 

One of the best bits about life is its unpredictability; that nothing has to stay the same. Each day we grow, develop and begin to understand more and more deeply why we were put here. This short period on earth can be a difficult tenancy but we are the landlords of our destiny and if things don’t go to plan, it’s reassuring to know that we can move on. If only everyone was given a second opportunity to realise that.

Talking Publicly About Trauma

Anna Spargo Ryan has written a riveting and widely appraised book called The Paper House, and I’m thrilled for her success (if not a bit jelly) because I’ve followed Anna on Twitter for a few years. She is intelligent, witty and an advocate for mental illness awareness and I was particularly keen to read her book which deals with the topic of grief, because I knew that she would treat it as empathetically as it can be. 

Caucasian woman feeling sick flu illness
Talking Publicly About Trauma

 

Because, let’s face it, “grief” is not everyone’s cup of tea; not everyone is prepared to open up about a topic that is so intrinsically painful and personal. But it just so happens that I have, and the subject is at the core of the storyline in my own manuscript; another reason I was keen to see how Anna treated it.

 

Very differently to me, it appears, because Anna is one of those rare writers whose fingers drip melted chocolate onto the keyboard and create literary genius.

 

I admit that these days I rarely read what would be categorised as “literary” books, and my own work will fall into the category of women’s fiction – more Jilly Cooper than Graham Greene – with its own treatment of mental illness, although it is similarly symbolised by a central, dysfunctional family whose experiences of death are treated in a more black and white, in-your-face, Big Brother style of writing.

 

Since having children or reaching middle age, (I’m not sure which), I suffer from what I know to be a common problem of not being able to stay awake longer than fifteen minutes through pages of descriptive prose, clever metaphors and stunning imagery, no matter how breathtaking it is. 

 

Although that is not The Paper House. No, Anna’s book is so much more than that. It is more akin to putting on a ball dress for the first time in a long time, when you feel typically more comfortable in jeans. It forces the reader to think about her purposeful choice of every word on the page, their beauty and their poetry in spite of such gut-wrenching subject matter, as she takes you on a journey of flora and fauna and emotion.

 

Anna drags you into Heather’s world of visceral pain, not in a maudlin, heavy-handed way, nor does she allow you to wallow and fret for her loss. Although not trivialised, “grief” is touched upon delicately, and decorated with a heavenly backdrop that helps describe the outer body experience of living, the shell of her former self that she is reduced to by her grief.

 

There is dysfunction, humor and realism too, brought to life by a sister who refuses to allow Heather to fall victim to self-pity and absorption, and a husband whose view is typically more black and white, more ‘life goes on’ as well as a handful of quirky instrumental characters who pass through her journey and contribute to her recovery.

 

Anna’s book tackles the difficult subject of recovery of the mind, body and spirit after trauma.  As is often the case, this new trauma in her life – the loss of a child – triggers the pent up grief of her earlier loss of a parent, which I recently identified as an aspect that has unwittingly crept into my own writing when I talked about my blog at a local library a few weeks ago.

 

To be honest, I never realised before just how much my own personal trauma has infused my writing. But grief never goes away completely.

 

Not trauma on the scale of heinous, newsworthy trauma, obviously, nevertheless the sort of low-level domestic trauma that we all go through at certain junctures of our lives, that is impactful enough to put a pin in our happiness, take a toll on our relationships and affect how we function.

 

Anyone who follows Anna’s blog knows that she suffers from anxiety and she wrote a post for Daily Life recently entitled Can We Not Shame Women For Writing About Their Trauma?. The article discusses how certain women writers have recently been accused of capitalising on their trauma in their blogs and writing. Some people believe that these writers should be reminded that not everyone is interested in reading about abuse, infertility, death or mental health issues.

 

But in Anna’s own words, ‘Critics accuse us of being self-focused and overly dramatic, but it is in relating these stories that we find our commonality. We are not isolated. We are not one person climbing a mountain on her own. We are women who, for the first time in all of history, can hear and be heard’. 

 

I tackle “depression” in my book, as well as suicide, loss and the effects of mental illness on a normal family. These aren’t light topics that can be trivialised and I hope I treat them responsibly – but identifiably too – because I know that there are many people out there living those experiences right now, who are not being supported.

 

I used to co-run a support group for parents of kids with ADHD and sometimes our meetings would attract up to a hundred parents, all coming to be educated, supported and reassured. Due to the stigma surrounding ADHD, many of those parents chose to remain anonymous, yet still came in their flocks.

 

Talking and writing about trauma publicly does help others, which is why TED is such a success and literature such as Anna’s has such reach. We are fortunate to have choices in our democracy, and if we don’t want to hear about it, we don’t have to listen.

The Story Of Amy Winehouse: Mental Health, Misjudgment And An Immortal Talent

Amy Winehouse performing in Berlin in 2007
Amy Winehouse performing in Berlin in 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A movie must be truly outstanding for me to engage in it these days. Like everyone else, I am time poor, tired and intolerant most of the time, and there are just too many other distractions.

But occasionally you watch a movie that leaves you staggering in the gulf of an emotional meltdown. Think Sophie’s Choice, Terms of Endearment, Saving Private Ryan – just a few movies that have wreaked havoc on my self-composure, caused me to snivel embarrassingly loudly in a public place and yanked at my heart-strings over the years.

This week I will add the movie ‘Amy’ to that list.

This is not a review of the movie, but for those who haven’t heard of it, or who don’t know who Amy Winehouse was, the movie is a biography of British singer Amy Winehouse. The movie is in her own words a chronological recording of her brief ascendency to stardom, before being tragically and prematurely taken away from us at the age of 25, due to the long-term abuse of drugs and alcohol.

The movie’s rawness, the singer’s incomparable talent, made all the more poignant by her mental instability, the sad yet blatant message conveyed about drugs and the vulnerability caused by inherent mental health issues struck a painful chord with me. I would recommend that all parents of older teens force their kids to watch this movie with them as a duty, even if their kids have never heard of the singer.

Amy Winehouse will be remembered not only for her voice, but sadly for her place in the 27 club; a group of famous young musicians who all died at the age of 27 and who shared the incredible talent that sadly too often goes hand in hand with self-abuse and mental illness.

With her death in 2011, she joined the ranks of Kurt Cobain, Jimmy Hendrix and Jim Morrison.

Yes, Amy Winehouse was a drug addict, who towards the end of her life was publicly derided for her dependency and the behaviours it provoked, by many who should have known better. But it wasn’t just the excesses of fame that damaged Amy, for she had been a victim of the tricks of the mind from an early age. She admits in the movie that she was taking antidepressants from the age of fourteen, and I imagine that drugs became an extension of the help she needed to ‘live’ a normal life – a form of self-medication to soften the edges of those feelings of isolation that we now know all addicts share, as they become sucked into the vortex of drug abuse.

Like many successful people in the public eye, Amy loved to use and explore her creativity, yet feared and deplored the ‘celebrity’ that her success exacerbated, and became anxious and petrified of the 24-hour attention from an unrelenting British press.

That side to her vulnerability is difficult to watch in the film.

Even when she tried to get well and disappear from the media circus, she was to became the innocent victim of a father so hell-bent on maximizing what he saw as their joint celebrity, he became blinded to her needs and forgot his prime responsibilities as a parent – to create a safe zone for his daughter.

I have witnessed that dependency as a form of release, sought by people who feel they don’t fit into society’s limited scope of acceptance. ‘Amy’ made me feel a mix of emotions: sadness for the loss of such an innocent, talented spirit; anger at the misjudgment and mistreatment she received, (not only at the hands of the public but at the hands of the allies she should have been able to depend on); and a sense of loss for the woman-child who sought a simple life, a great love and acceptance in her life, yet whose talent projected her into a world of corruption and unfair criticism.

I also understand how impossible it is to help people in the grip of addiction who are not ready to be helped; and the waiting game for them to crash and burn so they are ready to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.

The hope is that the crash is not the final one.

As a society, we are quick to judge those who make what we determine as ‘bad life decisions’, and it is only with the wisdom of age that we understand that people are not all created equal, given the same opportunities or the same shot at happiness.

In spite of what may appear to be a tough exterior, many people are more fragile spirits than we realise because they haven’t been given those same opportunities or a measure of the love needed to develop properly; to grow the armour they need to protect them through adulthood.

That is why they need our support, not our condemnation.

The Stigma Of Mental Illness and Medication

With World Mental Health Day on the horizon on the 10th October, and R U OK day recently passed, it seems an appropriate time to admit to you that I see a therapist.

Mental Health And The Stigma Of Medication
Shape of heart made of pills

Was that a gasp of surprise echoing through the small principality of Midlife Mayhem within the kingdom of WordPress?

I doubt it. I imagine it was fairly obvious that the ‘Kurt apple’ had to have fallen from some equally loony tree.

Not so long ago, admitting that you suffered from mental health problems would have put you in the crazy box, like when you mentioned the C word – akin to telling the world you had something icky and a finite amount of time left.

Luckily for us, attitudes about illness, medication and awareness are changing for the better. One benefit of social media is that people now have a forum on which to talk about their problems, share their stories, and create a community at the touch of their keyboard.

Anyway… occasionally I go a bit crazy and need help. And my ‘crazy’ is not the funny, Robin Williams type of ‘crazy’ that fools everyone, it’s the ‘Fuck off, I can’t face the world’ type.

My personal need to spread awareness about mental health problems has also come from Kurt’s journey with ADHD, depression and anxiety. I have advocated for my son and watched his progress through the education and health system – note that I use the word ‘progress’ with tongue firmly placed in cheek. I have learned that in spite of a generally better level of acceptance, we still have to advocate for people with mental illnesses because the majority of the population appear to need highly visible symptoms as evidence before they believe that someone is ill. And people with mental health issues are a) very adept at concealing how they really feel (Robin Williams) or b) often in no position to advocate for themselves.

With the arrival of the nirvana that is Netflix, to my computer, I’ve been watching this old series called Friday Night Lights over the past few weeks. I can strongly recommend it if you too are immature and drawn to high school puppy-love, good winning over evil and a feel-good factor without having to think too much. One of the main characters is a successful high school football player who is paralysed in a game, early in the series. I know it’s fiction, but the amount of support he garners for his disability is how such an earth shattering, life-changing condition should be handled.

The mentally ill are not treated in the same way.

NOTHING gets on my nerves more than having to continually justify ADHD all the fucking time and the use of medication to treat it. The skeleton might be out of the cupboard but many people still discuss mental health issues in the hushed tones they use for STDs or lung cancer. There is shaming and blaming and the use of medication, that helps people with what can be treatable illnesses, is often stigmatised and over-sensationalised.

The use of medication for ADHD must surely be one of the most contentious topics there is, about which, it seems, everyone has an opinion.

I hold my hand up and admit that I have been guilty of surrendering to that stigma in the past, too. When applying to schools for Kurt, I often questioned whether to mention his ADHD. Even now, as I try to access clinical institutions to help him, I have been advised not to mention his depression or dependencies. You get a record with mental illness, like some common criminal, that can be used against you later in life in terms of employment.

On a personal level, I bloody love the power of therapy. Not for the self-obsessed reasons you might imagine, although as you can probably guess, I am quite partial to the sound of my own voice.

Despite what you read in the papers – how everyone and anyone can access antidepressants these days – ‘therapy’ is actually the preferred treatment and precursor to medication for the treatment of depression and anxiety. During therapy, patients work through their issues with an expert, and learn management and coping strategies which may resolve their problems without the need for medication.

Therapy wasn’t enough for me, but I feel no shame in taking medication to control my anxiety. It has turned my life around over the past few years, from a dark, threatening world, which I no longer wanted to engage with, to a place where the sun still rises. I now experience what I imagine is a normal cycle of emotions, as opposed to waking up to blackness and fear. To my mind, there‘s no difference in using a medication to treat the brain or to alleviate symptoms in the rest of the body.

And yes, I am aware that medications carry risks. As do most illnesses, when left untreated.

No-one feels the same need to criticize my use of Statins as management for a genetic cholesterol risk, but everyone has an opinion about whether I really need anxiety medication. I am often told that anxiety and ADHD didn’t exist twenty years ago; interesting, when I have a brochure dated from the seventies that outlines strategies for teachers to use in the classroom for children with ADHD.

I understand why people are afraid of mental illness, when the only time it makes headlines is when some crazy is responsible for a shooting or locks up young girls. But it’s a wide spectrum. We’re not all sociopaths and psychopaths, but there are more and more ‘damaged’ people out there – whether that’s due to nature, nurture or the modern pressures of society – who need more help than others to make the most of their lives.

As we’ve seen with the refugee situation in Europe, we’re quick to judge people in a weaker position than us, to blame them in some way for their own shortcomings, when often social, political, physiological and economic factors are at the root.

Then again, it could just be down to luck.

Mental Illness: Out Of The Closet And Into The Fire

http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/487729559

Yes, I’m talking about mental health issues, because…well, at last we can.

Like cancer, mental illness has finally been let out of the closet and is halfway to being accepted as a bonafide condition.

In fact, these days it’s almost in vogue to have a mental illness.

We’re finally talking about the different conditions, educating ourselves about them and discussing how we can get to the root of them early enough to prevent escalations such as depression, suicide and even murder.

Did you read the recent article by Mia Freedman, ‘I’m Finally Ready To Talk About My Anxiety’, in which she came out about to her own battle with Anxiety Disorder?

Mia, being Mia, and sadly judged as a lightweight ‘blogger’ by certain circles of superior up-their-own-arses, old-school writers, has taken a lot of flack for the article; even though her admission may, over the course of time, help thousands of women get help for their mental health issues.

But her article was followed by a war of words and condemnation from Guy Rundle at Crikey in his piece ‘Depression confessional culture obscures the true nature of mental illness’, in which he castigated Mia for her over-sensationalism of what he views as minor ‘nervous breakdowns’, endemic of living in a competitive Western culture.

He makes valid points about the pressures of the society we now live in and the effects on mental health those pressures can have on certain people:

English: An anxious person
English: An anxious person (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

‘But it is also competitive, setting people against each other, hyper-individualistic, repeatedly dissolves grounding meanings — where you grew up, how you lived, etc — and all of it driving many people to work very hard with no meaningful purpose. When the going is good, it’s great, when it’s not, you can fall for a long way.’

Rundle recognises that depression exists and requires treatment but he is wary of the over-prescription of the SSRIs that are used today, often without adequate follow up from GPs and psychiatrists – he believes that the fault lies with the influence of the drug companies and a lack of funding by governments to fund alternative treatments.

However, while we need to be aware of the dangers of medication, we mustn’t stigmatise it or the people who will most benefit from it won’t access it.

What hit home most for me in Mia’s piece was that she was demonstrating to her readers that mental illness can affect anyone, even to someone as publicly successful as she is. In her admission, she was attempting to lift the shame of mental illness.

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to understand when you read a Mamamia article that invariably it’s going to be an article from the heart, a shared experience, not some medical discussion with big words that might be better suited to a medical journal and may not be easily comprehensible to Joe Public.

As a fellow sufferer of Anxiety Disorder, I wholeheartedly applauded Mia’s honesty in relation to her own problems. I myself had dog-paddled frantically for several years in an attempt to keep my head above water until finally a single trigger threatened to sink me after years of ruminating anger, self-doubt and jeapardising family relationships.

But I also have to agree with what Guy Rundle highlights about some of the potential side- effects of medication on the brain chemistry and perhaps, as he implies, I too wasn’t really suffering from anxiety or depression, but some self-imposed pathetic condition brought on by the stresses and strains of living amid the competition of middle-class over-expectation that I was ill-equipped to deal with.

But it felt real enough.

If a force affects your health to the degree that you can’t live a normal life, or the quality of your life is compromised to the point that you consider ending it, you need help. I have watched my own son grapple with his demons and every day I worry about the long-term effects of medication on a brain that is already vulnerable – although it is his choice to take them now. But I also know of parents who have lost young people to suicide, from Bipolar Disorder and Depression; kids who might have been helped if the systems in place weren’t so flawed due to lack of funding.

What’s the point in advancement in medical knowledge and treatment if we don’t use it?

I don’t agree with Mia’s public recommendation of anti-depressants as the solution, necessarily, or of naming her particular brand of medication, because I know that there are many other treatments that are not invasive to our brain chemistry that can work and should be considered first. But in my experience, GPs do not provide scripts for SSRIs without a detailed look at family history, the history of symptoms, a trial at therapy or a change in diet, until medication is the final resort.

And whatever your thoughts about medication, it does save lives.

Just like the medication debate over prescribing drugs to kids with ADHD, there is a similar stigma about supplying anti-depressants, and the more knowledgeable I become about mental illness, the more I believe that the use of drugs for depression, anxiety and ADHD is stigmatised not only because there has been abuse leading to over-prescription, but because many people still don’t believe these conditions are real. That if an illness is invisible, it probably doesn’t really exist – even though the side effects of that illness, when left untreated, can prove fatal.

Other drugs are never as over-analysed.

HELLO! We know that all drugs carry health risks and have side effects, and most of us would try every alternative treatment to avoid them. But why do some people think that where mental health issues are concerned, we have a choice? That’s a shallow, naive level of patronisation, that demonstrates a lack of education and understanding.

It’s also true that those people with a history of abuse, loss, addiction or a mental health condition are probably more prone to anxiety and depression, just as people who are overweight are more prone to diabetes and those who smoke are more prone to lung cancer.

But should we feel guilty about belonging to those vulnerable target groups?

Does being that unfortunate mean we don’t deserve help and should just buck the fuck up, (like we’re told to, so often)?

Mental Illness and Grief: Stories That Need To Be Written

It’s an interesting decision of mine, to carry on writing my book, when due to it’s subject matter, I know that my chances of ever being published are about as high as Glenn McGrath’s invitation to MC an RSPCA conference.

Grief
Grief (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And no, it’s not because the subject matter of my never-to-be-published book is some X-rated erotica where Christian Grey actually gets his penis out, or a threatening feminist tale about how women will ultimately rule the boardroom.

It’s about ‘grief’.

You see, I have it on good authority, (thank you Kerri Sackville), that the topic of ‘grief’ is not saleable – even though ‘death’ is something that affects all of us, no matter which party we vote for, demographic or country we live in.

In short, the first chapter of my book opens with a suicide – SHOCK! HORROR!– because no-one wants to be reminded that suicide happens, even when the number of cases has almost doubled in certain age groups over recent years; and with the increase in drug use and impact of social media and cyber-bullying, we are certain to witness a huge surge amongst young people).

In a year where suicide has been highlighted in Australia due to the untimely deaths of celebrities Charlotte Dawson and Robin Williams, how can we still be pushing education about mental health issues under the carpet?

But back to the book. So how exactly did I get my book so awkwardly wrong?

Well mainly because having spent the past thirty-plus years grieving, I know a little bit about that topic and the ensuing mental illness it can provoke. And as a friend (who is still grieving and feeling misunderstood) pointed out recently, no-one can really understand grief unless they’ve been there themselves; so suggestions from naïve do-gooders to ‘move on’ can be highly inflammatory.

I mean, I get it…sadness and anger are uncomfortable emotions to be around in this world where we are supposed to spray a mist of happiness around us, and pretend to be upbeat and personally successful all the time – to fit in.

But grieving is an exhausting preoccupation, and like depression, the uninitiated can interpret it as a type of self-flagellation. But let me assure you, it’s even more exhausting having to pretend not to be sad and in pain, simply to appease the undeveloped senses of those around you.

Spookily enough, depression is a huge theme in my book, too.

(Definitely a bestseller on my hands!)

Depression is another wrist-slapping/don’t-go-there topic in the world of publishing, I imagine?

The point is, my book is therapy for me. It’s a story I needed to tell. It’s a story that will force my readers to deal with skeletons in closets, mental illness, guilt, family dysfunctionality and self-development head on.

And you’ll know if you read my blog, I happen to be an expert in all of those areas.

But I don’t view my little piece of never-to-be-published fiction as a sad story. The death of a loved one changes the future of those closest to them, but it can also create a sense of awakening.

‘Growth’ can emerge from the isolating cocoon of grief.

And there are some funny bits in my book, too, because I find it impossible to be serious about serious stuff most of the time. Humor and self-deprecation have always been strategies to help me cope with blackness.

We’re not all afraid to confront our emotions, in spite of what those silly publishers believe.

Did I ever tell you about how my foot slipped on the wet mud at my mother’s funeral and I nearly plunged headfirst into the hole dug for her coffin?

She would have laughed her head off.