Sunday, June 18, 2017
Bill Clinton once said 'Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all.' It is incredibly sad to witness stigma directed at a person who is mentally unwell and it is equally sad to see it happen online. What's perhaps even more difficult is when there is stigma in families, so people suffering are left feeling isolated and unsupported. I count myself lucky in many ways, I didn't suffer like many do with my family but the insidious nature of stigma still raised its head.
When I received a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder in my twenties, my father, a remote man, became visibly upset and told me he understood as there had been 'a woman with bipolar on casualty, spinning around on a plastic swivel chair and doing laps of the corridor.' (Casualty is a long-running drama centered around a fictitious A&E department in England). I suppose I could have been upset by this flippancy but I already knew my parents wouldn't understand. Although on a practical level they may have helped when I became unwell: driven me punctually to doctors appointments, reminded me to pay bills, helped me keep on top of housework, taken me to the supermarket and this practical help cannot be undervalued, what I often wanted more is emotional understanding and support.
During one particular dark period, whilst at a shopping center, I bumped into a friend of my mothers between the racks of M&S. My depression was such at the time that I feel didn't particularity communicative so made my excuses and snuck into an overly hot, overly crowded cafe. My mother upon hearing of this encounter, said “oh good heavens, they will wonder what's wrong with you now – I think I will tell them you have 'a touch of anxiety.' She seemed rather pleased with this inventive excuse – cue a self-satisfied swish of the hand - whereas I simply inquired about the truth, but truth is relative and anxiety is still a mental health issue, just not one that will make others feel uncomfortable. I must add at this point I don't know what a touch of anxiety is, it sounds like a throwback to 'it's just his nerves' or maybe its a god awful rash.
A few years after being diagnosed, I had to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Once I began to feel less bone achingly depressed, I took the kindly offer of occupational health classes, downstairs in a small claustrophobic room. I made Christmas cards – though it definitely wasn't Christmas. I did Tai Chi sitting on a chair – bit confusing. I went for a brisk walk around the hospital grounds. I went for a jog around same grounds in the cold pouring rain. I made an Easter card, though it definitely wasn't Easter. And I made a pink bauble.
After a while, I began staying behind after sessions to help tidy up – the only other option would be to go back up onto the ward – a sort of hopeless green walled, worn carpet, monotonous place or to sit in my room staring up at the bleak barred window or waiting for a fly by visit from my mum. One day, as I stuffed paper and pencils back onto shelves, the lady who ran these sessions, who I thought very nice, asked what I wanted to do with my life. I had just turned twenty three, so a reasonable question, except I didn't know of course, so I told her this and added, as an afterthought, that I might go into the care profession.
'You have to be careful you know, you won't really be trusted.'
I didn't know what she meant. I wondered what sort of untrustworthy person I was supposed to be. I said 'what do you mean?'
'After Beverly Allitt, the nurse, the mentally ill aren't trusted.' (Beverly Allitt killed four babies in her care in 1991, attempted to murder three more and cause grievous bodily harm to six. She is serving a life sentence and it is believed suffers from Munchausens by proxy).
I would like to tell you I had a quick fire response or that I stepped upon my soapbox to defend the mentally ill or that I eloquently tried to educate – although one normally concludes those working in psychiatry, in whatever capacity, will be educated, open, non-biased and not fond of perpetuating stigma. Unfortunately, I did none of the above. I simply skulked away, upset, humiliated, horribly disappointed with tears in my eyes.
It feels perverse to be diagnosed with an illness, any mental illness in fact, and then, whilst struggling/crawling through it, to find one of the most notable and persuasive side-effects is society no longer accepts you. It sounds absurd to put it like this but for many, this level of disregard, is a daily occurrence. We have come so far as a society in accepting a myriad of things - but still can not find our way to destigmatize mental illness. Are we really, beneath all the progress, no farther forward than asylums – a penitentiary for the less appetizing parts of being human – a reminder as T S Eliot said that 'humankind cannot bear very much reality.
I spoke about my experiences (past and recent) with friends a few days ago, those also with mental illness, and I found myself saddened because my experiences are far from unique. People have suffered unbearable pain, and yet had to trawl through hellish stigma – at the very times they needed the most love, kindness and understanding.
With all this in mind, I have begun a hashtag - #NameThatStigma to help raise awareness of the added suffering we have to contend with whether dealing with depression or Schizophrenia. It's a way to show each person they are not alone, we are here and to show those who don't suffer, who may never suffer that there is nothing more absurd than being treated like a pariah because one is ill.
So, please, join me by sharing your experiences of stigma on Twitter using #NameThatStigma – it's time to put stigma where it belongs - in a box called societies shame.
Bio: Hetti is a writer living in Scotland. She is a freelance writer by day, a fiction writer of night, and a very tired person in between.
She is founder of We Are The Beautifully Weird Facebook community - supporting people struggling with mental illness and/or providing an inclusive space for anyone who has ever felt they don’t quite fit in.
Hetti is also adopted and explores this over at Psych Central at her blog, Adoption: Rewriting Our Narratives and runs #AdopteeChat on Twitter – every Wednesday, 8-9 BST.
She is currently finishing her second novel whilst trying to publish her first.
It's a great honour for me to appear on Rebecca's website today. I want to express my gratitude for the fantastic opportunity and thank her for all of her support. She really is wonderful.
Tuesday, May 23, 2017
If I look back at all the times my anxiety has taken over my life, it’s hard to fathom. It started back when I was a kid. I often didn’t want to go to school and developed a stomach ache. It went undiagnosed for years. At age 19, I finally sought treatment, and now at age 44, I’ve struggled for years. I’ve missed important events, lost jobs, and friends because of my anxiety. I take medications that ought to be helping. Perhaps they are, I don’t know anymore. It’s entirely possible I would be worse off without them.
I remember back in my early 20’s, I was just getting used to driving on the highway. I avoided it for as long as I could. I had landmarks that I looked for every trip I took. If I didn’t see those landmarks, I immediately had an anxiety attack. Having an episode like that while driving is no picnic.
I get anxious about appointments weeks before they’re scheduled. By the time the date arrives, I’ve worked myself into such a frenzy that I can’t stop sobbing. Thankfully, I have a supportive husband that can help me work through what I’m feeling. Although, even his support doesn’t make the anxiety go away.
So, you want to know what anxiety feels like to me? You know that feeling when someone sneaks up behind you and startles you? For a brief moment, your heart races and your blood suddenly feels hot as it courses through your veins. Add onto that, you begin sobbing, and you’re unable to breathe because you can’t control the racing thoughts or what you’re feeling. Imagine feeling that for 30 minutes to an hour at a time.
Quite simply, anxiety is completely exhausting. When you finally crawl out of the fire, you’re feeling too weak to do much of anything. Most of the time, my coping mechanism is avoidance. I stay away from situations that could cause me anxiety.
So, you can imagine how frustrating it is to have an attack out of the blue. There may be a cause, there may not be, it’s hard to say. I really never know what to expect. Ironically, thinking of writing this article caused me anxiety. My hands are shaking even now as I type. It doesn’t take much to set me off, and that feels just like a living hell.
For the last couple of months, I’ve been facing some additional health concerns. Not necessarily mental health related, although the stress from them has certainly impacted me in a negative way. My family has a history of high blood pressure and heart disease. Both my parents have/had high blood pressure, my mom had congestive heart failure, and my sister was just diagnosed with it as well.
So, when I started to realize that they were taking my blood pressure multiple times every time I went to the doctor, and it was always at least a little high, I started to pay attention. Suddenly, I was waking up every single day with a headache, and my right foot, ankle, and calf were often very swollen. So, my dad bought me a blood pressure monitor, and I started watching it closely. It was never normal. Literally high every time I took it. The day I went to the doctor, it was 182/99. When I Googled that, they said that was call an ambulance level.
So, I went to the doctor and he just happened to have a couple of young girls there performing ECG’s and EKG’s that day. I got lucky, I suppose. They were nice enough girls, but sometimes when you’re in your 40’s, you forget you aren’t in your 20’s anymore, and that you really have nothing in common with the younger generation, so I did a lot of nodding and smiling. My husband was with me, and went to go get some blood work done, then came back to the room.
They were using the same goop they use when they give you an ultrasound, which I’ve experienced only to look at whether I have an ovarian cyst, not because I’ve had a baby. These young girls chatted away about their appointments, and how I smelled good. I had to roll over on my left side at one point, and I had fallen on it in the shower earlier that week, so it was a struggle.
I watched the screen thinking about all the times I had watched Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant, and laughed about how it looked like a baby. I’m on the heavier side, and I was incredibly self-conscious lying there topless with essentially a large piece of paper draped over myself, as the tech chatted away and poked me with the glowing death stick of pain as I came to know it. I made some kind of comment about how hot it was in the room and being overweight you’re always kind of hot. Nobody knew what to say, so I went on a bit about how I had lost some weight, but being bipolar, I got really depressed and stopped taking care of myself.
The girl poking me painfully actually said outloud, “Oh my God, girl! I KNOW what you mean! I swear I am bipolar. Ha ha ha ha ha ha. Seriously, I had this other job, and every night I would get home from work and be so sad, and my boyfriend was like…you aren’t DOING anything with your life, that’s why.”
I was floored. I went through a million things in my head. The room was dark, but I tried to look over her at my husband, knowing he would be in the corner of the room ready to tear her a new one. I could’ve said a million things. I could’ve told her she was lucky she could work, as I couldn’t. I could have said, you’re in the medical field and you’re comparing your day to day sadness about having a crappy job with bipolar disorder. I could have said so much, and yet I said nothing.
I had many reasons for not saying a word. The first was that based on their previous conversations, it would go in one ear and out the other. However, the main reason was I was just so damn shocked that a young woman trained in the medical field could possibly know so damn little. All she did was further the stigma of mental illness and she was totally oblivious. Usually I’m pretty good with thinking on my feet, but I wasn’t on my feet. I was lying on a table half naked and decided that now would be a good time to practice the theory of “picking your battles”.
Once I got home, I started thinking about starting a petition that all high school and college students be required to take at least a mental health awareness course. I did start that petition, and it’s making the rounds online but not getting the attention I feel it deserves, so I’ll include the link here. Perhaps, if we can get to them early enough, they’ll know not to say ignorant things to people that truly do have health conditions that aren’t humorous.
I hope you’ll consider signing it, and not just for someone like me. For the little girl with Autism or the man with Schizophrenia that can’t fight for themselves. I wish I had been able to speak up and tell that young girl how wrong she was, but I guess I haven’t come to that point in my journey yet. There will be a day when I finally know exactly what to say, and I’ll be sure it gets said. You can count on that.