This one has been a long time coming… I have been dealing with grieving for 16 months now and for the last 6 – 9 months living with depression. Depression is a mental illness. People sometimes misunderstand the term “mental illness” and think that it applies to the big name issues like Psychosis and Schizophrenia (and all those associated disorders in that realm), Bi-polar Disorders, Borderline Personality Disorder and so many more with long names and scary sounding diagnosis’s. But if you pick apart the term you see that it simply refers to any illness that affects a person’s mental state. It’s like saying that a broken leg or a cold or a heart attack is a physical illness. They are; they affect a person’s physical well-being. So, very simple really, a mental illness is an illness that affects a person’s mental well-being.
Now that we have that clarified…it’s easy to broach the subject a little more. For the sake of this writing I’ll be using depression to discuss my point of view and the issues that I have encountered. This is because for me, personally, my mental illness is depression. I’ve struggled with the stigma of saying that it is a mental illness. I’ve struggled with admitting to myself that I can’t make myself “better” by sheer will power any more than I could make myself better if I had pneumonia just by wishing I was better.
That brings me to the issues I have that I feel need to be brought out in the open. I am surrounded by a lot of friends and acquaintances here in Victoria and back on the mainland. Pretty much everyone knows about Willie and his death. A lot don’t know the details and many don’t know how he died, but almost all of the people in my life know that my son died last year and that I am grieving. Most of them also know that I am dealing with depression. Not many know the extent of it or the impact it has on my day to day life, but a few do. I have been fairly open in this blog about how far the depths of it go and how I question whether it will get better.
But this is about them, not me. This is about the people in my life, whether they be close friends or people I know only casually. This is about the strangers even who I don’t know but who may read this and get the point.
The point being that depression – mental illness – is not something that the person can just “get over” and make themselves better. It is not an illness that is “all in their heads” even though it is. This is about the misconception that a person who is depressed is remaining that way because they just simply aren’t “getting on with life”… or that they don’t want to get better.
I have been told, by well-meaning friends, that I can choose to either have a good day or a bad day. That “your attitude is like a pair of trousers you put on in the morning” That all I have to do is decide that I’m going to be happy, that I won’t be drawn down by letting myself wallow in grief. I have been accused of being deluded with a skewed sense of self-importance that it is “all about me” when I say that I don’t want to impose my bad mood and tears on an outing of friends – that I am caught up in a “pity party” and that I need to stop making myself upset by looking at pictures of Willie and thinking about him. When a friend asked me why I was sad and I replied that it was the first of the month and that date is hard for me because Willie died on the first of the month I was told that it was a hard day because I was MAKING it a hard day. That the first was a day like any other… that I needed to just push that away and not think about it. Seriously? I can tell you that I’m pretty sure there are a few thousand loved ones that feel that September 11th is not just a day like any other, no matter how hard they would like to forget.
I had a friend interrupt me recently when I was talking about Willie to say “how are you going to get better if you keep upsetting yourself by talking about him?” and then tell me to drop it and he changed the subject. I was livid. I was not upset; I was not crying or distraught. I had been talking about a fun event to do with my family in the past and Willie was a part of that. I have had people tell me to stop “dwelling” on my loss…that I need to make an effort to not think about it and just get on with my life. Well… having pushed everything away for many months and lived with shock and denial, I can assure that that is not the answer. Eventually, it all bubbles up and demands to be dealt with.
What infuriates me is this…saying that a person can chose to be happy is like telling someone who has lost a leg that when they wake up every morning then can chose to have that leg be there and just get up out of bed and walk. Ridiculous. Yet we do that all the time to people suffering from depression.
Telling someone who is depressed that they can chose to be happy is implying that they are choosing to be UNhappy…and that’s wrong. It re-enforces the stigma that mental illness has associated with it … it exacerbates the problem of people being ashamed of their perceived weaknesses of mental fortitude and capacity for wellness. If we all believe that we should be able to just make ourselves “ok” then what happens when we can’t? We suffer the guilt and the self-hatred of failing at what we feel we should be able to do.
Would I be angry at myself for not being able to will a broken leg to mend just because I really want it to be healed? No. Yet I have beaten myself up over my inability to just get better mentally. Why? In large part because of the misguided notions of my friends who may be trying to help but are just making matters worse. Can I just push it all away and be ok and smile and laugh and be the old “me”? Sometimes, yes…and many times I do just that. I smile and fake it and pretend because I cannot take the well-intentioned comments and pep talks and moral boosters that do nothing but essentially tell me that I am my own problem.
When I am having a day of smiles and happiness…or a few moments of it, I do not want to be told “see… You can be happy… Just decide to be like this instead of being depressed”. Or telling me that I just need someone to come over and take me out and show me a fun time and “make me snap out of it”
And people wonder why I’ve become so angry lately ;). Although on the upside, anger is an emotion other than sadness. Maybe it’s not happiness or joy but it is passionate.
My mental illness will heal…with time and the proper care. Just like any other illness or disease. You might not be able to see it but it doesn’t mean it’s any different from a physical illness…so enough with the “helpful” advice about how to make myself better. Thank you very much.