written for family and friends everywhere
There’s this thing about mental illness. The mind goes to places so dark, it’s impossible to describe the surrounding landscape without being totally absorbed. The brain is Dementor, sucking the soul out of every experience, trapping thoughts in a pit, so they’re processed over and over and over again. Thinking is everything. It’s distorted, it can be deviant and it’s all-encompassing.
There’s another thing about mental illness. We want to fix it. We want to get inside that skull, kickstart the brain like it’s an arrhythmic heart, remove it like a spleen, detox it like a liver. We want to make the sufferer better, so we talk to them until everyone is blue in the face and the hole just gets deeper, darker, more unmanageable.
There’s a third thing about head noise. We suggests things like ‘if only she would get a job, have something to do, then she’ll feel better.’ Or we try ‘if he keeps busy, gets a hobby, has a shave, loses some weight, he’ll feel good about himself.’ That’s what we do. We try to take action, ventilate the lungs, when really the brain is running the show and everything about that organ might be telling the victim ‘I want time alone. I want to be with these thoughts, and work will simply compete for head time.’
And again, about mental illness. We read about the overuse of medication, the randomness of prescribing drugs to a society that will (one day) be Stepford Wife-ish. No emotions, zombified on Anti-Ds, flatlining on SSRI’s without the need for ‘em.
What we don’t state often enough is that this medication saves lives. What we don’t remember is that these drugs can give life to sufferers who may have historically rocked their pockets, trudged towards a body of water or remained interred for the rest of their existence. Drowning in their thoughts.
What we don’t remind ourselves is that yep, this medication might be overprescribed, but those needing it can get well, those not requiring it … nothing much happens or side effects outweigh the benefits. Perhaps it’s like taking angina medication when the heart is working efficiently, or slimming pills for the skeleton with no guts in the first place.
There’s something else about mental illness. It can make the non-sufferer uncomfortable. The schizophrenic talking to herself in the street, the phobic not getting out of bed when he’s due at the hospital, the OCD victim telling us she’s aligning all the things in her house so she won’t act on a certain thought, or that her family will be safe. The depression-ite wanting to die.
There’s still a stigma. There might always be a stigma, but the more it’s discussed and the more stories are shared, the better we will understand. And if the stories make us uncomfortable, we don’t have to listen but we can refer on. Because there’s always help, even in a country where mental health emergency beds are few and far between, there’s always someone who will listen.
There’s a final thing about mental illness. Self-medicating is as common as whiskers on a menopausal lady’s chin. Sometimes we judge. It’s human nature: she’s drinking too much, he’s a druggie, she’s binging, he’s purging and cutting himself. Or, ‘all she talks about is herself.’
Perhaps when you’re duct-taped to the thoughts in your skull and something is available to loosen the diabolical adhesion between brain and tape, you might get drunk or stoned or stuff your face with roast chicken n chips. Anything to escape. Anything.
So we worry about the afflicted. We want to give them Ventolin or Insulin or an enema. It can be difficult to love them and their kooky thoughts, whereas it’s a lot easier to love someone stricken with cancer or prepping for a bypass. And we think a hobby will help (golf helped Gina get over her partner’s death, art class helped Will after he lost his job) but it won’t. Their thoughts are not just the hobby. They are companion, marriage, food, drink, parasite, all-fucking-enveloping and time consuming.
The thing about mental illness. It’s common. It’s always been common, but hidden and shocking and taken into the country for respite. Now, we confront it and try to manage, while trying to remember we’re not alone in the field. We unite and do our best to fight for the soul beneath the sunken cheeks and bludgeoning brain. We are there for the carers and support them as we battle the demon-dark together.
Sounds like a war cry? It is.
artwork by Michael Leunig