I've had to live with mental health issues most of my adult life. The good news is, the experience can be a positive one and put to good use.
Everyone has a bad day, right? For those of us who’ve lived with mental health concerns for a lifetime, our bad days take some beating. I had a Bad Day on Wednesday, which consisted of lying awake in a depressed state until 2 in the afternoon, dragging myself out of the house to look at the internet for 3 hours in the library before dragging myself back home. I couldn’t be bothered to cook and made do with the cholesterol busters of a bacon sandwich and a bag of chips. I was back in bed with a Kate Atkinson by 8.30 (and no, that’s not a euphemism).
Sounds dreadful, doesn't it? Who in their right mind (if you’ll pardon the pun, but I think I’m qualified to make it) would waste a day like that? In the past I've done worse, like sleeping the whole day around until the next morning. With my rational head on and having spent all of Thursday very productively, only a day later such behaviour seems absurd, but when you're in the thick of a depressive funk it's hard to get out of unless you really force yourself; also, the level of chemicals in your brain that improve your mood are at their lowest first thing in the morning, so shaking off a black mood is doubly hard. Why are some people affected like this and some not?
|(Image: Bill Brenner)|
From 2009 I’ve been stable for the most part thanks to the right combination of industrial strength drugs though, as I’ve noted above, the Bad Days can still sometimes seep through the chemical cosh. At the moment that’s not surprising, as I’ve been unemployed for over twelve months, and sometimes the battle to find work and make ends meet can just floor you for the whole day. This is going to sound ridiculously simple, but I've found the thing that's always worked for me in beating off depression is forcing myself to get up, feed the cats and make some breakfast. Once I've done that, I'm into the rhythm of the day and can usually get on with things and, for me, doing something creative like writing helps too. Sounds easy, but it isn't always.
At least now the depression lasts for a day rather than six continuous months. For all the trashing that the NHS gets, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be around now – the goodwill of friends and relations aside – if it hadn’t been for the NHS’s overworked and criminally underfunded and underrated mental health services. They supplied everything from respite care to home visits when I was really ill and, although my condition has taken several years to diagnose, eventually they got me on the right medication. I’ll probably have to stay on it for the rest of my life, but that's preferable to the alternative.
There’s a certain gallows humour to my personal situation at the moment, as I’m currently part of two stigmatised minorities, the mentally ill and the unemployed. The first is – still – almost taboo in today’s Britain (unless you happen to be a headline-grabbing micro-celebrity, apparently) and the second is the subject of demonising in the media. I’m not the stereotype of either minority, and though of course I don’t like being out of work, I can stand up and say I’m not ashamed of my mental history: despite – or because of – the crippling downers, I know how to cope and can lead a normal life and be creative, productive and sociable, and that takes strength. There will always be Bad Days and I'm resigned to always having them. But as I managed to survive all of last year on Job Seeker’s Allowance and be reasonably productive in terms of writing, helped out with events at the British Film Institute and stayed socially active, I think I’m almost at the point where me and my dark shadow have finally come to terms with each other.
It’ll be interesting to see how the Befriending goes. I’m sure it won’t be easy some of the time, but as something that couldn't be more different from the media where I usually work, it’ll be intriguing to see how it changes my perspective on life, the universe and everything. The best thing, though, is knowing that I'll be helping someone's quality of life improve.
Despite my sarcastic comment about certain publicity-seeking celebrities above, Stephen Fry, bipolar himself, and Ruby Wax, who suffers from depression, have done a lot of good work in promoting awareness of mental illness and raising funds for MIND. The organisation is always on the look-out for voluntary workers, so if you fancy giving it a go, please take a look at the website: http://www.mind.org.uk