This is Mental Health/Mental Illness Awareness month, and I have a new friend on Facebook, a young lady who has led a very difficult life and describes herself as a ‘warrior’. She’s prone to anxiety and panic attacks, and has Complex PTSD (post-traumatic stress following multiple traumas). I have it too, but I don’t manage as well as she does. When I have a panic attack, I pace up and down, wishing I could smoke because it relieves me (but there’s no smoking in this motel). She writes a short article to let other people know exactly what she’s experiencing, so they understand. She educates and enlightens, and very often people respond with comments like ‘thank you, this is exactly how it is for me.’ It’s not at all uncommon for people like us to think no one really knows what it’s like for us, and that’s sometimes not true. In an odd way, it’s a delight to discover we aren’t the only ones with these feelings and experiences.
It might help if, instead of talking about mental illness, we talked about mental health. When we talk about mental illness, that word calls to mind melodramatic movie scenes of dark, dank buildings like castles, with wide-eyed inmates screaming in terror while chained to the walls of the dungeon-like mental hospital. If we talk about mental health, we put conditions in a different perspective. I have multiple physical disabilities, and yet I am a healthy individual. I walk with a cane, I have limitations, and you certainly don’t want me driving your motor car, but I am healthy. I also have PTSD, chronic depression and anxiety. I don’t think the CIA is following me, aliens from Space are not reading my thoughts, I am not Napoleon, and I know that my feelings and responses are not always an accurate reflection of the world. Things are different for me, and I am healthy. However, what it takes to cope with my trauma may make it difficult, impractical, or even impossible to function with the grace and ease that non-affected others do.
The term illness gives false hope. Illnesses generally can be cured. The woman in Room 293 is ill—she has a cough and a fever. She will take medicine, rest, and be fine in a few days. The man in Room 145 has been having intense flashbacks to a time when his safety and well-being were in jeopardy—and the best he can hope for is finding a way to keep the memories at bay. She is ill, he is not. She will get better; at best, he will find ways to manage. Both are whole people.
Our priorities are different, our perceptions may be different, but we are as sane as the next person. Like people with physical disabilities, we are not ill, but our (mental) health has been affected by something outside of us, something that has left an indelible mark. Just like the person who is badly burnt, or who loses a limb in an accident, we are left with a permanent injury.
I’ve heard people say they know what it is like to have a physical disability because they once had a sprained ankle, or broke an arm. Bluntly, they had a glimpse, but they know nothing. I’ve also heard people say they understand depression and anxiety because they are occasionally depressed, they worry some times. They had a glimpse too, but they know nothing. Many times, symptoms are a normal and healthy reaction. You have an infection; you develop a fever because the body is fighting the infection—it is a natural defence. Someone walks into your office waving a gun, you are anxious and afraid—it’s a normal response. When you have the ‘mother of all bad days’ and you go home feeling defeated and depressed, that is a reasonable and realistic response to your disappointment and frustration. You reasonably expect this to be over soon.
When you still have a fever, or are feeling anxiety and depression six months after the event, then you’re looking at something entirely different. When you understand you have a chronic condition, you have to take a different approach to accomplishing the same things, or accept there are some things you are unlikely ever to accomplish. We will not be cured, we will learn to cope and maybe even thrive, because that’s what mentally healthy people do.
It will not help to say to us, ‘Get over it. Get a grip. Chill out. You’ve got this. Are you still on about that? Let it go. Move on.’ If it were that easy, we would have done it ourselves. (And if you were talking to someone with a permanent physical injury, you wouldn’t say it at all.) Don’t try to reason us out of our panic—panic does not respond to logic, often because the panic itself is not logical. And don’t tell us we choose this, that we have control. If you actually knew anything about our conditions, you’d know it wasn’t so.
I admire that new friend, that woman who writes about her panic attacks and educates people about mental health. I would like to have her strength. I already know we share many of the same frustrations, and many of the same hopes. Yes, we’re a lot alike.
But she looks better in a skirt.
Paul TN Chapman
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