The common cold: A mental health analogy

Trying to get people to understand what it’s like to have a mental health problem who haven’t been there themselves is often a frustrating ‘banging your head against a brick wall’ experience. Understandably, people find it a very difficult concept to get there head around and stigma and invalidating, ill-informed senseless comments still linger around mental health such as ‘just get over it’ and ‘stop being so selfish’ etc.

Imagine yourself having a cough/cold. Or the flu,what you percieve to be the flu. Fluctuating between being bunged up and that endless stream of tears and (to be frank) snot (where does it all come from?!). How tiresome life becomes. How hard simple tasks can be. To you, you feel awful. You don’t want to do anything but get better. That is your body’s insticts kicking in. Rest, please rest. I will fight this illness if you rest. 

Now try and imagine how other people view you. Have you ever heard people say it’s ‘just a cold’ or ‘get over it’?

Imagine how you perceive other people with a cold? A bit of you may feel sorry for them, but is there some part of you that thinks ‘We all get colds, can’t you just get on with it?’.

My point is, what you see from the outside, is rarely what it feels like from in the inside for someone else. A cold is obviously different, in that every one has had a cold. Hence the ‘common’ cold. So empathy is a little easier.

Trying to empathize with something you have never felt is near impossible. It works with physical illness too. I am fortunate enough to have never suffered from cancer, or a heart attack or a stroke etc. etc. I don’t know what it feels like to experience these, I can’t even imagine. BUT what I can do is listen. Not judge, I’ve not been there. Try and let go of my preconceptions. The closest you can get to understanding something you haven’t experienced is to listen to the words of someone who has.

Listen. Take it for what it is, not what you think it is.

‘Light at the end of the tunnel’

After ten years in and out of various therapies, I had two months of freedom. Two whole months. I had two months where the wicked monsters and demons of borderline personality disorder weren’t wittering in my ear, judging everything I did. It sounds silly, but I felt like I was part of the world. Like I was ‘in it’. I felt the ground beneath my feet, I felt the warmth, the cold. I didn’t react to it, I just felt it. I had an eerie sense of calm and quiet that allowed me to get on with my life for once.

It sounds great and I suppose it was. But two months in ten years feels a bit harsh. I couldn’t tell you what got me there. I keep thinking, if I could just remember the route I took I might find ‘it’ again. I might find wellness and I might stay there for a little while longer but it seems to have gone. And I just feel frustrated that I lost that path so quickly after finding it.

As a positive, one thing this experience has enabled me to see is there is ‘light at the end of the tunnel’. Sometimes the tunnel is so long and so dark we can’t see the light, but it is there. And that, I suppose, is hope. And I will hold onto that hope now whilst I navigate the twists and turns of this dark tunnel.

“‘I have to go back, haven’t I?’ said Harry. ‘It’s up to you’ replied Dumbledore. ‘I have a choice?’ ‘Oh, yes!'” – J K Rowling (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows)

The monsters inside your head

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I stumbled across a post on a blog the other day that featured an artists interpretation of various mental health diagnoses as images or ‘monsters’ to be more specific. The drawings were wonderful and the idea inspirational.

I started thinking about monsters, an idea I probably haven’t considered in the physical sense in many years. When someone mentions the word monsters I often think of dark shadows and thoughts and feelings rather than a physical monster itself.

I had an image in my head of a few child- like monsters, I started to draw them out in all different colors. They all looked fairly non-threatening and bubbly albeit slightly ‘strange’ and ‘weird’. I initially had the image of a pile up of monsters and someone fighting there way out of them, but my imagination ran thin pretty quick and I was fair few monsters short of a pile up. So I gave them a rock, or an island, and left them all there instead. I captioned the image ‘friend or foe?’ unsure of how I felt about the presence of these monsters.

I then began to think about monsters inside someones mind, pulling at cables and wrecking circuits and pulling the person all out of sorts. This seemed fairly accurate to me and an image I’d like to have tried to draw. But those bubbly monsters just weren’t going to cut it here.

So, that is when this figure started coming into play. Originally I saw a man type figure with long hair holding dozens of reins in his left hand, all linking to parts of my brain and a whip in his other hand (as is in this picture). I then saw the man on a 6 legged creature similar to the one in the image holding reins over that, instead. I’m not sure how the man or creature are controlling the mind now, since they’re not actually attached, but I imagine they still are somehow.

I suppose the thing I like about this, is now the man can be removed along with his creature from the brain, where before he was attached.

The man remains faceless for one because I couldn’t decide what emotion to put on his face. But also because as I drew and rub out various versions of his face I started to see a blurred image of all occurring and I kind of liked that. It made me feel as though the monster was more universal and could be inside anyone’s head.

Black and white thinking

Today got me thinking about black and white thinking a lot. As one of the criteria for BPD, you’d think I’d have given it some consideration before given I carry that diagnosis. But I wiped it aside, presuming I didn’t do that or feel that as I do with most things. But then I was talking to my DBT therapist today about continuum’s and where people may stand in them. Specifically, she described one end of a continuum as people who trust completely and approach everyone with open doors. Then she spoke of the other side, where people become isolated and untrusting of everyone. I thought, yes, that makes sense. Then she added a bit, about the middle and said ‘it was probably the best place to be’. Where you trust people who earn your trust, and don’t the others. I guess you learn how to scale it for yourself and judge it. She said just because you’re in the middle, it doesn’t mean you can’t be betrayed. But even if you are, the affect of having trustworthy people around you may buffer the betrayal. This all kind of made sense to me.

I realised how rarely I thought of this middle ground. Hell, I’m not even sure I remembered it existed. I either love my job and it’s my world, or I hate it. I spend whole days participating in hobbies, or none. I exercise religiously and ‘excessively’ or I barely move. I do or I don’t. I can or I can’t. I’ve known I’ve acted this for a while, but I’ve never considered just how black and white it is. It’s never occurred to me that having a bad day at work doesn’t mean I should quit, up and go travelling or do something reckless and damaging. Things aren’t as black and white as that. Things aren’t just good and bad, there is a middle ground. I can see it now. It is possible to trust someone without trusting them with your life. To be a friend without being a best. This is strange territory for me, but I think it might be helpful that I have seen it.

‘I want you to listen to me very carefully, Harry. You’re not a bad person.[…] Besides, the world isn’t split into good people and death eaters. We’ve all got both light and dark inside us.’ J. K. Rowling.

Where to start..

‘That’s quite common with.. borderline personality disorder’ The words fall of my therapists tongue slowly and awkwardly. She watches me closely to see how I react to her words. I nod, knowingly.

Two years ago, a young doctor diagnosed me with borderline personality disorder (BPD).  He sat but a yard from me in his pristine shirt and tie, tucked neatly into his lined trousers with one leg bent at a right angle, balanced almost arrogantly on the other. I suppose trying to appear relaxed in this rigid setting. His face was sincere and agreeing.

I could tell as I spoke and answered his questions his mind was whirring at a million miles per minute, putting things together. Figuring me out. He was an intelligent man and when at the end of the hour he came to his conclusion, I actually felt a little relieved. He explained the disorder to me, he explained the feelings associated and referenced some of the things I had mentioned to him. The diagnosis fit where no other had before and actually made some sense to me. I nodded, solemnly, trying to hide the chaos from my face. I’d heard of the disorder before and I wasn’t sure if this felt like a conviction or an explanation at the time. He escorted me out of the room in silence, him pleased to have found a diagnosis and me weighted by it.

Now, two years later as my new therapist uses the word’s so uncomfortably, I realize just how alive the stigma still is. How reluctant even mental health professionals are to use the words, afraid of it’s implications.

I slip in and out of denial and acceptance so readily with this disorder. I know it is me, it fits like a glove. But the stigma drives me away from it from time to time. That frightens me. The disorder doesn’t, I am not actually ashamed by the disorder but society forces me into retreat and secrecy over my diagnosis.

‘Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.’ J. K. Rowling.