The other day I realised that whenever I talk or write about mental health or people with lived experience that I talk about it as ‘other’. Like people with mental health issues are not me. Of course I speak with compassion and love and understanding, but I still notice how I make sure that it is known that I am speaking from a position of mental wellness.
I noticed that while I have many friends with lived experience, a grandmother who had lived experience, and a daughter with lived experience, that I don’t really own my lived experience. I guess like a lot of people I minimise it. While I talk of walking out of the shadow of shame and stigma – I don’t actually own mine. I have never been entirely comfortable with it. It doesn’t match my picture of happy Mandy. I hide my darkest thoughts and my insecurities behind this robust mask of confidence and capability. Everyone is fooled. Especially me. But it’s still there.
These days I no longer see it as separate from me. It’s part of me, it’s just not the part many people get to see. There are those dark days of self-loathing that catch me by surprise. The days when my body feels like lead and all my bubbling joy and optimism just drain out my psychic plughole. If I were a bath all you’d see is a high-water mark of scum where the joy had been.
These are the days when I can touch my sadness. It’s a big human sadness of futility and hopelessness, where one negative thought spirals until all my thinking has been infected with dread. I know now this is part of my creativity, part of who I am. I lived through extreme violence and trauma as a child, and you don’t get a free pass out of that shit. It stays with you forever. Like a stain that won’t wash out. If my mind were a tablecloth I’d put a vase or something pretty on the stain so I wouldn’t be reminded. But it’s still there.
There have been long nights when I’ve sat up painting or writing where I have welcomed the sadness in – where I have felt weirdly content and alone in the vast wordless place. Long dark nights where I am sure I can psychically feel all the other sad people in the world. They’re weirdly beautiful sometimes.
These fogs settle on me but only for a few days or at a time. Once it came for about six months. I didn’t tell anyone. That’s a habit of mine. Silence. If you don’t give it voice then it hasn’t happened. I had OCD as a kid, which I now know came on from my childhood trauma. Weirdly I didn’t know I had OCD until I was at a psychiatrist detailing my family history.
There were the stories of the great-grandmother who wouldn’t drink out of glass in case it broke and she swallowed it, who wouldn’t touch door knobs… the grandmother who took valium for 20 years, the grandfather who locked himself in a room and then didn’t talk for 40 years, the other grandfather who tried to commit suicide and was given shock treatment.
Then there were these curious years when I was a kid. I didn’t tell anyone about what was happening at the time and no-one noticed. I guess I was around nine years old. For at least two years I experienced intrusive and disturbing thoughts (mainly of my baby brother’s penis being ripped off in his bike chain). I obsessed about poisons and contaminants and engaged in constant handwashing. I had panic attacks where my heart would race, everything would go spotty and I couldn’t breathe.
I calmed myself by counting. I counted everything. The steps to my front door, the buttons on my shirt, the stars I could see from my bedroom window. It was the only time at school I did well at maths. I grew out of the flagrant OCD and in its place I was just left with some mildly compulsive behaviours, manic amounts of energy, a constant low-grade anxiety and unrealistic expectations about the levels of household cleanliness that best suits my mental health.
I am manic. I work all the time. Being busy actually calms me. Being still makes me anxious. It’s how I get everything done. People say, ‘Mandy you are amazing’. I’m not. I’m actually a bit nuts. But so, I think, are you.
October is Mental Health Awareness Month. Instead of looking outside, perhaps it’s time to look in and realise while you may not have an enduring mental health issue, we are all in this together and I doubt you experience mental wellness 100 per cent of the time.
We need to stop ostracising the mentally ill and accept the whole world is insane. You need proof? We elect sociopaths into government and expect them to make compassionate decisions. Now that’s crazy.
And so am I. And so, my friend, are you.