I’m always thinking about mental health. Mental illness has been a significant undercurrent throughout the second half of my life story so far and my experiences have left me deeply fascinated by our noggins, how they work and why often they don’t work in the ways we think they should.
Much of the reason behind this fascination, I think, may be self-preservation. I want to understand my mental health and that of others because I hope that leaves me in the strongest possible position to face whatever may be coming my way. For me the scariest prospect about my mental health has always been that I don’t understand it.
“Why?” is a very popular question for those figuring out how to deal with a mental illness. Whether it be their own or that of someone close to them. To coin the very popular phrase, if only I had a pound for every time I’ve asked myself WHY I’m feeling a certain way or can’t stop thinking certain things.
But of course we ask WHY. To understand WHY is to figure out HOW to make it feel better.
So I also talk openly about my experiences out of a sense of duty. I feel a distinct camaraderie with anyone and everyone when they are discussing their mental health, and I feel proud of them for doing so. Even when I don’t really know them. And I feel it’s my duty to do the same.
Because I’ve come to see that I’m very lucky to have teetered on the edge of breaking down and pulled through. That I had at my disposal, just when I was good and ready to engage in it, a fantastic, free, accessible counsellor who helped me to understand that there’s nothing wrong with me and more importantly, how to cope when I’m thoroughly convinced that there is. How to ride it out. How to learn from it. How to make sure it’s my approach to mental illness, and not the fact that I’ve suffered it, that defines me.
So anyway, I’m always thinking about mental health and about the personal and societal minefield that surrounds it.
Mental Health Awareness Week 2015 is wrapping up today and I’ve been so encouraged by a lot of what I’ve seen over this past week. It’s clear to me that we’ve come so far in our approach and attitude to mental health and I truly think that we can continue a significant way down that long road during my lifetime.
One thing that has struck me lately though, is the gulf between levels of acceptance across different mental health conditions.
This particular bee found it’s way into my bonnet when I was watching that programme, you know the one, where people who’ve self-identified their cleaning regime in their home as obsessive compulsive, are merrily sent off to take to task the homes of hoarders. Great. But the problem I have is that while the ‘cleaners’ are identified as having obsessive compulsive behaviours, the hoarders largely aren’t. Yes, the events in their lives leading up to them living the way that they are, are touched upon. But there is most often very little understanding or empathy employed. The obsessive compulsive cleaner rocks up and quickly proceeds to tell the obsessive compulsive hoarder that they’re lazy/disgusting/insert generic insult here, and as the dramatic music plays over close-up shots of piles of unnecessary junk taking up the place where the bed should be, we agree. Because that environment is disgusting, and we can’t imagine how anyone could want to live that way..
But let’s stop for a minute and take a look at the hoarder’s situation from a different perspective. Through the open-minded, empathetic eyes with which we observe the ‘cleaner’ explaining the cleaning regime which, in a lot of cases, impacts considerably on their quality of life. The motivations behind their cleaning behaviours are undoubtedly complex beyond measure, as are the hoarding behaviours of their co-star. But if we strip it all back just for a moment and look at both on a very basic level. These are the behaviours of somebody seeking control. If my personal experiences are anything to go by, they’re both scared.
So why are our levels of sensitivity and empathy so different? Why do we nod in stern agreement while the hoarder is forced, with no psychological or emotional support, to throw away things that – no matter how hard it is for us to believe – mean everything to them; whilst we’d (rightly so) be absolutely horrified if the roles were reversed and the hoarder was let loose on the cleaner’s home in muddy wellies then encouraged to tut and tell them they’re too uptight, forcing them to ignore the mess and go about their day, no cleaning allowed!
Breaking the cycle of debilitating obsessions and compulsions is about learning what thoughts and emotions are causing them and how those can be better dealt with. And this applies no matter what those behaviours are. There can be a place for being forced to learn that not carrying out your obsessive compulsive behaviours will not result in the negative repercussions that you’re so terrified of. And sometimes the only way to do that is to have someone not allow you to do them. But that has to go along with the proper emotional and psychological support.
The first behaviours through which my anxieties presented themselves to me were very much based on cleanliness. It involved all sorts of things but centered, as for so many others, on washing my hands excessively. This is what I got used to and thought I understood. So when I managed to curb these behaviours, get my hands to look ‘normal’ again and stopped spending excessive amounts of time in any bathroom I walked into, I thought I had ‘cured’ myself.
The anxieties at the root of those behaviours though, have gone on to present themselves in many different ways in the last decade and when I finally sought the dreaded ‘professional help’ last year and commenced cognitive behavioural therapy, we focussed on the root anxieties and I realised how closely linked all of my supposedly different experiences were.
I’ve been the obsessive compulsive cleaner but I’ve also struggled with compulsive eating and believe me, that one’s a much harder sell to others when you’re trying to make them understand; and to yourself when you’re trying not to feel ashamed. After all, being clean – socially accepted. Being greedy – not so much.
So that’s what’s been bugging me lately on the subject of mental health awareness, but I’m so encouraged by what I’ve seen over the last 7 days that I’m confident we can close the gap between our understanding and acceptance of various mental health conditions through stopping and asking WHY.
Does that person that you’re watching on TV want to live that way, in a pile of their own filth; dangerously overweight; dangerously underweight; with no time to do anything but try to satisfy heir need to clean; drinking a bottle of vodka every day. Of course they don’t. So instead of judging the behaviours, let’s stop and wonder WHY the individual feels like they have to carry on doing them.
I don’t imagine that I’m coming from some place of divine transcendence here and am exempt from having preconceptions, I just try to recognise and confront them as much as I can. After all, while writing this I repeatedly had to go back and change ‘his’ or ‘her’ to ‘their’ because I kept unwittingly assuming the genders of the imaginary ‘cleaner’ and ‘hoarder’. The obsessive compulsive cleaner I saw in my head was a woman, and the obsessive compulsive hoarder – a man.
I don’t know why?