I am very angry right now. These past two weeks have been tough for me, both in a physical fatigue kind of way and an emotional frustration way. Anger is a curious emotion I find. It arises from many things, such as when someone takes something we want or we feel we are being persecuted in an unfair way. These destructive furies are all about the self and what ‘I’ can do for ‘me’. My kind of anger has come from observations outside myself. This is a self-less emotion as it usually comes from a worry or a hurt over injustice done to others. I believe this anger is harder to deal with because the cause lies in a situation we usually cannot resolve by simply slamming a door or shouting at nearby people. My anger makes me sad and I feel a weight in my chest as it brings up all sorts of buried emotions from my past. I am of course going to write about what caused me to feel this way, a topic that is of burning importance in the world right now and, in Ireland, is undergoing significant challenge and change. This is the area of mental illness. I have been working as a student nurse in a psychiatric unit recently and I have come out of the experience frustrated, a little frightened and also ashamed at myself and at society. I am disappointed in myself for the preconceptions I didn’t know I had and that I, of all people, had no right to possess. I am especially angry at Irish culture for the ongoing stigmatisation and negative treatment of people who struggle with mental health issues. An interesting fact I learned about Ireland and mental illness, at any one time more than 450,000 Irish people or 10% of the population are affected by it. We are one of the worst nations of Western culture in our treatment of mental illness. Ireland has always been a bit of an anomaly in the way we do relationships, drink and deal with the world and most of this arises from our many years of being controlled by the British Empire and the Catholic Church of the 50s and 60s. Despite the leaps and bounds our nation has taken in the last decade towards becoming more globalised and multicultural, we still have a backwards approach to dealing with people who are different in any way and there is a strong, national reluctance to address these issues fully. It is of pressing concern now that we actively begin having conversations about these illnesses, about the devastating consequences it is having on our economy,our families and most importantly our sense of identity and ability to function in this world. The pain of going through an illness such as this is so consuming and devastating and yet, traditionally the physical maladies of humanity have been dealt with in a more active and critical way.
There is a very famous saying that encourages people to ‘practice what they preach’. The whole reason I write these writings is because I want to encourage honest conversation, and move people to change the way we interact with one another. These are really the beginning steps in fighting mental illness. I think that people don’t usually like to take advice from others who only have an objective, outside point of view or don’t have a personal understanding of the issue and so I am taking a cautious step here in the hopes of encouraging others to do the same. Why am I so passionate about this issue? This is not something I have ever admitted lightly and I am not going to divulge too much here but part of my healing process involved admitting and coming to terms with the fact that I do struggle with mental illness. I lived through one for years as a teenager, I am still in recovery over a second resulting one and I am living in the presence of another in a close family relative. These things, these clawing, rotting prisons we trap ourselves within are horrific and leave scars that eat away at us for a long, long time and if they go unresolved they will cause us to lose ourselves entirely. It is so difficult to face your problems especially when living in a culture that operates on a surface, ‘ah sure it will be grand’ level. The Irish are a people that derive meaning from appearing as if everything is ok and not letting our problems be known for fear of retribution or rejection. Stereotyping and social stigma has caused a lot of damage, a lot of regression and unfortunately a lot of death. We do this horrible thing where we forget the identity of the individual and join it with their illness leading to negative ideas of the worth of a person and reactions to them even before we have met them. Even I, who has struggled with mental illness, went into work in a psych unit afraid of the ‘crazies’ and assured in myself that I was never ‘as bad as them’. What utter nonsense. The media has fed us sensationalised images and ideas of these illnesses that suggest violence and promote fear and wariness as well as an ‘us or them’ attitude. Terms such as ‘schizos’ and phrases like ‘gone in the head’ have been coined and are used interchangeably with the name of the individual as if that is all they are. Society convinces a person that they are lacking, they need to withdraw and hide away because they are different. We tend to accept the belief that if you are mentally ill you have a weakness in your character, a lower intelligence. I always felt afraid of the judgement, afraid that people would see me differently and think less of me so I never sought help for my problems and that only escalated them. Mental illness is a faceless anonymity that people daily are living in, people who wish to live a life of dignity and normalcy and to be accepted. Is it any wonder that people turn to mind-altering substances to numb and escape their reality? Interestingly mental illness and substance abuse walk alongside one another, people with depression are often found to end up becoming alcoholics. Nothingness can often seem like a welcome release to the inner storm particularly in Ireland where the culture of drowning your sorrows in the local pub permeates daily life, even for people in good mental health.
Relationships have a huge affect on surviving mental illness. Conversation in Ireland is characterised by the term ‘banter’. This is a particular way of relating to one another where we laugh and have a great time, we drink a lot and it is all very easy. Our bonding is shallow, we tend to berate and tear ourselves and each other down for fun and we moan about the weather. Relationships never really go much deeper than that. Interaction rarely goes as far as one person letting down their barriers and seeking help, assurance and meaningful conversation in the other. This type of relating is especially lacking between men. For women it’s a bit easier as we have social expectations of being emotional beings and it is more acceptable for us to seek solace in other women. For men though it is very difficult to take that first step. Social roles are powerful, binding things. Us women can be guilty of perpetuating expectations placed on young men, leading them to feel ‘less than’ when they can’t live up to our ideals. In Ireland there is a socially accepted role for men to be strong, masculine, able to deal with crisis and not very emotional. Friendship is characterised by drinking, having good banter and a good time and being a strong character. Deep conversation on their insecurities and emotional stress is left to the women and men fill their time trying to be the loudest, funniest and toughest lad in the group. This is a generalisation of course but the sad truth is that for the most part in this country this is the truth. We don’t encourage guys to be more open about their feelings and that is why men struggle more with depression. During the summer I had the privilege of experiencing some real friendships between guys that had accountability, wisdom, emotional sharing and a concerted effort to better one another and it was fascinating. I hope to encourage my brothers to take these same standards into their friendships as I think we all need that in our lives to assure us of a stable, reliable comfort during difficult times and a person that will help us grow in who we are.
Asking another person for help involves a setting aside of pride. Irish people are not very good at humility, we are very passionate and proud people and will readily start on someone (in a physical, beating up kind of way) if they even hint at a flaw in our character. We have been brought up with a subconscious desire to reject any kind of person or institution that attempts to control us. Being real with one another and opening up to someone requires a submission of sorts, a conceding of your image that you have it all together and a giving of yourself into the confidence of another person. This is just not done in our culture and if you confess to struggling with mental illness it is seen as abnormal and shameful and thus, we don’t feel like we can openly confess to people how hard it is. There is a warped sense of comfort in hiding in your illness, we feel we don’t have to deal with it or confront it and if nobody knows then we are safe. The facade continues, our image is unblemished and we are not truly as bad as this illness is telling us we are. We are perfectly satisfied living a lie and convincing ourselves that we are ok as long as ‘the neighbours don’t find out’ meanwhile at home we are trapped in a spiral of self-destruction. I was recently very touched by an interview that went viral in Ireland with a man known as Conor Cusack. He is a well-known sports figure and he wrote a blog about his experiences with depression and recovery. It was a powerful piece that honestly made me cry it was so poignantly written. He was so frank, so much more honest than even I am being and he had powerful words of encouragement for people going through the same thing. He wrote this because he wanted to address the isolation experienced by others, to provide a comfort and encourage us to live free and unburdened by the stigma associated with mental illness. He, as a man, was taking a huge step in opening up and it has already led to a breaking down of many social barriers.
The realisation that you are not alone in these struggles is the first step to moving past it. Of course there is medical management but unless there is active healing of the fragmented self, a restoration of the person’s self-worth and a support system of non-judgemental friendship then medicine can only take you so far. One of my favourite films is ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’. Completely hipster and typically indie this film may be but it perfectly captures what it is like to try to grow up, make friends and find your identity while living with mental illness. My favourite scene is where Charlie, the main character, has been hospitalised and it is revealed the things in his past that led him to this place. His father, who before was distant, walks in and without saying a word gently kisses him on the head. It is this fleeting glimpse of total acceptance and apology that made me hurt deep inside. This is what we need now, not literally kisses on the head, but the creation of an environment of acceptance, release and honesty where we can be who we are, live without fear and pursue true relationships. This is what it felt like for me with God when He came to me and carried me in His arms from my prison. For me I found my healing, and an ability to trust people again, through a working relationship with God. He continually leads me to a place of peace and when I am struggling He shows me people in my life who are willing to share my burden, who are hurting alongside me and who tell me that I am an individual worth knowing. Coming into a relationship with God out of the darkness has been like walking from a dark, choking forest into an open field of wildflowers. Light touches every corner, I can breathe, run around and be myself and accept a new, gentler and clearer perspective on life. This is an ongoing restoring of myself from my Father. Recovering has been a long and often relapsing process but when the branches threaten to suffocate me again I always feel that breeze of God’s voice calling to me and drawing me into the reality of His love for me. I feel this way a lot of the time and sometimes I don’t and I don’t feel guilty for admitting that. I don’t want to live ashamed of my past because it has given me so much learning and perspective. Seeing the sufferings of others and intentionally seeking to talk through it with them is how I intend to live my life now. God has seen my crushed spirit and He saved me, He is close to me when I am broken-hearted and I am so thankful for that freedom (Psalm 34:18). I really believe that open communication needs to be encouraged, freedom to stand in our weaknesses accepted and a reliance on true friendship that strengthens one another sought after in order to generate change.
We need to change our perception of what it is to be mentally unwell. This requires education, willingness and an emotional investment within us to fight. We can’t let ourselves be a ‘put your problems in your pocket’ people. Our world today is so much more informed, spiritual, political, activist and globalised than the generations that came before us and we have a duty to improve the world for future generations. There is a worldwide movement towards tackling mental health issues and I for one am egging it on. Conor Cusack, in his interview, made an excellent point that it actually takes courage and is a display of strength to admit a struggle. So let us be strong and admit when we are weak.