We need to change the way we talk about Mental Illness and we need to normalize getting help.
There are days when my temperament is abysmal and getting out of bed is impossible. I don’t like labels and what they do to one’s sense of self so I try not to use any. I know that my therapist would call what I go through depression, but I can’t let myself believe it. The diagnosis is limiting. Instead of fighting to get out of bed, forcing myself to shower, to write, to accomplish, I find refuge in my brain’s torment, lean in to it. Depression, the ultimate excuse to do nothing. I was depressed so I took time off work to be depressed. I let myself rest in it. I didn’t fight it as hard as I could. Or maybe I did. Maybe that’s why I’m still here and not sleeping next to my late grandparents in Badagry. What caused it? Was it a chemical imbalance in my brain, or was it the stress of life? Dealing with my parents and their lofty expectations, dealing with work and its unending pressures, dealing with my then partner and the tangle of emotions? And if I had died, as many people do, in the throes of this mental torment, who would you, the people that know me, the people that don’t know me, the people that know my parents, the people that hear my story, blame? Me? My parents? My ex? My boss?
People fall ill. It’s a fact of life. Malaria, Typhoid, Covid 19; they happen to us all. Who falls sick? Who doesn’t? It depends and it will always depend. What is it that makes some of us susceptible to disease, and others, resilient? Some people get exposed to HIV, and don’t get it. Some people live with Malaria without ever succumbing to its symptoms, fever, shivering, and vomit induced dehydration. For some it’s like the flu, and for others it’s fatal, resistant to quinine, or other anti-malarial drugs. The same is true of Covid-19, for some it’s a flu, for others it’s death. The same is true of addictions. I’ve heard people say, “Oh! I won’t try x, y or z, because I’ve got an addictive personality and if I try it, I’ll get hooked.” Those people know nothing of addiction, the illness that’ll make you do anything, and I do mean anything, for one more line, one more sniff, one more smoke, one more injection. I’ve heard it said that the answers to who gets what lie in our DNA, and our genes, a subject that humanity knows pathetically little about. Who gets cancer? Some smokers, some drinkers, some sun bathers, but not all of them. Some people live vice free and still end up with it. Some people do all the bad things and get away Scott free. What is it that makes some of us susceptible to disease and some of us resilient? Who knows? Who cares? But what we do know is that we are all fools of fortune. No matter what you do, or how you live, shit will arrive at your doorstep. This is how I tend to think about Mental Illness.
Some people are battered by tragedy. Mother dies, father dies, murder, rape, violent assault, unemployment, ailments of body, and they find it within themselves to face everyday without fear or anxiety or crippling sadness. Some people are not so lucky. They could date a tolerably abusive person and come down with the most violent case of PTSD. They could pick up a bottle of vodka and find themselves completely unable to put it down. We tell them that they are weak, we blame others for their circumstances, without ever taking the illness that has arisen into full consideration. Maybe they’re at fault for exposing themselves to the things that could make them ill, and maybe they’re not. Is HIV caused by a virus, or is it caused by promiscuity? Is depression caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain that we can treat, or is it caused by shit landing on your doorstep? It doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is the illness. That’s the true problem that needs solving. Sometimes the solution is a change of environment- trauma eradication by distance, some pills, time. It varies and it will continue to vary, as long as we are human, everyone of us uniquely blessed and uniquely flawed.
We need to accept that mental illnesses are illnesses, just like Covid 19, just like HIV, just like tuberculosis. Once we accept this the problem becomes easier to solve. Depression loses much of its fatality, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, with appropriate help becomes a manageable condition, Borderline personality disorder loses its sting. It is difficult to defeat life, place all of its many variables under your control. It may be more effective to exert our limited powers of influence on ourselves. Do you know your triggers? Do you know the traumas you’ve likely sustained? Do you know the factors adversely influencing your behavior and delivering undesirable outcomes? Have you gone to therapy? Have you met with a Counsellor? Is your illness the reason why you’re an unbearably toxic person? Who do you talk to about these things? Your friends? Do they have the range to help?
The other day I got an email from a reader. He said that his boss was a toxic individual and believed that quitting would would alleviate his depression. Maybe it might. Maybe he’s right. But, there’s a chance that he isn’t. Sometimes we eat undercooked chicken and we get food poisoning as a result of salmonella. Sometimes the disease passes after a day or two, and sometimes it stays, requiring an appropriate dose of the appropriate antibiotic to treat. Maybe it’s the same for depression. Removing yourself from the situation that made you depressed may not be enough. You have to treat the illness itself. You have to blame the illness itself. We need to change the way we think about mental illness. Identifying cause, isolating effect, attacking both.
The truth of life is that everyone has a reason to die, a trauma they’ve suffered, a thing that makes them feel useless, a voice that says it isn’t worth it, give up! It is the nature of life. When you’re healthy, mentally, it is very easy to bat these voices away, affirm yourself, to go forth and achieve. When you’re not healthy it can become impossible. So the question is do you know when you’re ill?
Mental illnesses have symptoms. They are many and varied: insomnia, tiredness, delusions, hallucinations, aggression, low energy, substance abuse, excessive mood changes, changes in eating habits, trouble socializing, excessive hostility, trouble focusing or paying attention. If you see the symptoms, you must get help. When mental illness descends you either fight or you die.
We need to normalize getting help, professional help. We need to end the stigma that surrounds mental health, because if we don’t we’ll continue to lose people. I think I’m going to get therapy again, check myself in for a nice little exam. And I’ll listen, I’ll pop the pills, I’ll take the advice, I’ll do the work. Now, nothing’s particularly wrong with me - not anymore. I’m good, but could I be better? That’s the question. I don’t want to be just good. I want to be great. Every day, sunshine and every day rainbows. So I’ll do the work till I get there.