New content coming September 2017. What do you want to read? Let me know in the comments.
New content coming September 2017. What do you want to read? Let me know in the comments.
I can’t remember the first time I was harassed on the street. I was probably a teenager. I always kept my head down and my eyes looking away from people who passed me, so I probably didn’t notice any stares early on. I was also a late bloomer, I think that’s what you’d say. I do remember that it bothered me, the way other girls would shake off the leers and the catcalls with a half smile, while no one called at me. Such a messed up world, where that is something I would wish for.
When you walk home, you have to keep your eyes down, but not too far down, or people will think there’s something wrong with you, that you’re vulnerable. If you can fix them in the middle distance without accidentally catching someone’s gaze that’s good. You have to look behind you every so often, but not so often that people passing by might think that you’re scared. Showing weakness is a big no no. I have learned to master the art of looking sober even if I’m not.
I was sheltered from a lot of this as a child. I suppose neither of my parents wanted me to know too soon what kind of a world I was growing up in. Mum and Dad never suggested that I should change before I went to a social event or a party. They put a lot of emphasis on personal responsibility, and it was just unfortunate that so many people I grew up with didn’t.
The first time I learned what rape was I was about ten years old. It came up on the 7.30 Report, and Mum was never one to shy away from difficult topics. She told me it was when someone had sex with another person against their will. To me it was shocking, unfathomable. In my limited conception of sexuality I always saw it as something happening between two people who wanted to be with each other. I didn’t understand why anyone would want to force that on another person, how they could stomach such a violation. In the years to come rape came up more and more. It wasn’t always explicitly mentioned, often just vague allusions to the dangers of the streets at night and “getting home safe”. The first time I knew of it happening to someone in my sphere was year ten. There was a lot of chatter in the locker room about a girl who had passed out at a party and been raped with a glass hammer. I tried to block it out. I didn’t even go to parties.
A lot of things pass through your mind on the walk home. As well as a certain vigilance, you play through scenarios in your mind. What would you do if that man passing you tried to grab you? What if a car pulled up at this intersection and someone tried to drag you inside? Will that guy hurt you if you object to his sexual harassment? I often think of the scenes in the Miss Congeniality movies where Sandra Bullock is demonstrating what to do if someone attacks you from behind. Instep, groin, solar plexus, nose- something like that. A boy tried to pull me onto the dance floor at a party on the weekend. He pulled me by my hair. It’s been a week and my neck still hurts. My psychologist told me that I should learn self defence. She tells me not everyone is like that, and purses her lips when I say I have trouble trusting men.
Things intensified when I turned sixteen and started socialising more. I was naive to say the least. I think it’s also fair to say that I got lucky. I had a relatively good group of friends. But my Mum and my sister became more and more adamant about me not walking around alone at night. I defied them I suppose, the way teenagers often defy their parental figures. I remember my Mum telling me about a family friend who had been attacked on her way to the taxi rank. Two men forced a bottle inside of her, then jumped on her stomach until it broke. The hospital staff told her she would never be able to have children.
Things changed a little when I went to college. In our O Week all the girls got the “don’t let boys tell you what to do” talk and all the lads got the “don’t rape” talk, which was relatively progressive. No one would let me walk home from parties alone, which I thought was worse than asserting my independence and risking my life. Besides, I felt more wary of drunk college boys than any strangers on the street. I didn’t go out a lot that year, after suffering through the tediousness of waiting until young men wanted to go home so I could get to bed. When I did go out, it was with other friends who were less concerned about my nocturnal movements. Part of me hoped the boys I spent time with would ask if I wanted to be walked home. Part of me knew I would never accept. What kind of a world is it where women have full rights, right up until the sun goes down?
When you’re walking home you have to be extra cautious around intersections, alleyways and cars that slow down as they pass you. These are the danger zones. Of course, you never know what might provoke some one. Maybe your makeup, or the colour of your hair, or the cut of your dress. Who knows what it could be. Wear your hair loose. Don’t have heels that are too high. Don’t dawdle. Don’t drink too much. Don’t walk alone. These are the things girls are told as they grow up. They are systematically taught how to avoid provoking men in public. How to demonstrate that they are not “asking” to be assaulted. All they are really being told is “don’t let it be you. Let him rape the next girl”. And if you are the next girl, then you should have been more careful.
I have always been a bit of an idealist, and I have always been very dogged in my assertion of human rights. I choose to walk home alone sometimes because sometimes I choose to be alone. Sometimes I enjoy the exercise or the chance to clear my head. Sometimes I would rather save the money on transport. Sometimes it’s convenient. Whatever the reason, I feel I have a right to do so, to walk through public spaces without the risk of being molested. In an ideal world I suppose, that would be true. As it is I take multiple precautions. I am hyper vigilant of my surroundings, I keep my bag close, walk swiftly and quietly, pretend to talk on the phone as people pass by, keep my eyes down and always, always look as self possessed as possible. I strongly believe that if you don’t exercise your rights then they will be taken away. But even if you do, people might take them from you anyway.
It is always a relief to get home safe, be able to lock my bedroom door behind me and collapse into bed. This is the place I feel safest, behind a closed door where no one can come near me without my consent. But the truth is, the worst violations in my life have occurred in place I should have been safe, with people I should have been able to trust. The first time I was sexually assaulted I was two years old. The next time I remember was with an ex boyfriend at the age of eighteen. Most women are hurt by people known to them. The most dangerous place for a woman in Australia is in her own home. So while walking home is a fearful and carefully negotiating experience, it is nothing compared to the terror of living in close quarters with men.
I’m tired. I’m tired of being tired. Anyone who tells you that mental illness doesn’t have physical symptoms is a filthy liar. Even when that fact is recognised, the raw physicality of say, a depressive episode is downplayed because its “all in the mind” and should therefore be more easily overcome. I call bullshit on this argument. Just because my pain has a mental rather than physical source doesn’t make it less real- and depression does physically hurt. Beyond the headaches and the exhaustion and the muscular pains and hunger pangs and indigestion, there is a dull ache at the core of your being that comes from the world forcing its demands upon you. Mental illness hurts. It is just as real and as tangible as cancer, although a hell of a lot harder to cut out. And no-one tells you you just need to get over cancer, that if you just stay positive it will get better, that you’re your own worst enemy. These misconceptions do nothing but add to my exhaustion with the world.
Winter makes me tired. Seasonal affective disorder is a recognised condition that affects many people to varying degrees, most severely in Nordic countries. Sunlight is essential to good health, and not just to prevent rickets. My first psychiatric admission was two years ago today. There just seems to be something about the middle of August that brings out the worst in me. Maybe its a self-fulfilling prophecy, maybe its the pressure of a second semester, maybe its just the weather- whatever it is, I struggle. And I start to wonder if its all worth it.
This isn’t just a matter of being mentally ill- its about being alive and aware in a world that doesn’t much care if you are either. The longer I continue at university the more I begin to despair that it is an institution that accepts any new forms of ideas or discourse or structure or thought, at any level. The longer I continue the less interested I am in providing that. Every time I am forced to scramble to back up a truly innovative notion with a quote from a dead white man I die a little inside. The only institution worse suited to creative thinkers is school, and luckily I outgrew that relatively quickly. There is simply not enough flexibility in terms of subject matter or course organisation for anyone who falls outside the arbitrarily defined neurotypical norms.
Outside academia things don’t look much better. I’m not someone who is ever going to be able to or want a 9 to 5 job. It’s just not going to happen. And in a capitalist driven society, finding an alternative arrangement is extremely difficult. The world is geared towards those with regular sleep habits and a reliable work output. Even though I know I can do the work of a neurotypical person in a lot of cases, it can be difficult to convince other people of that- especially when I am so determined to be open about my condition. So the more I think about the future, the more tired I feel.
A depressive episode on average lasts for no more than 18 months. I’ve been doing about the same for the past three years. You can imagine why I might be losing hope that I’ll ever be ‘normal’. The thing is, that might not be such a huge deal if I wasn’t living in a world where the odds are stacked against the mentally ill, and anyone who doesn’t function in a neurologically typical way is seen as dead weight. Most truly remarkable people throughout history have not seen the world the same way as everyone else- this is what makes their contributions so remarkable and worthwhile. If everyone continued thinking according to accepted doctrine, we would never move forward. But I have enough humility to know that I am not Einstein or Picasso or even Plath. My contributions will be suitably modest. And that’s the kicker: people who are different for whatever reason are expected to significantly outperform their more pedestrian peers just to receive the same respect and human dignity.
And that’s what is really getting me down. Not only am I fatigued by my illness, I am exhausted from having to fight that much harder than the average person just to get by and be even marginally accepted and seen in society. Being heard is probably too much to ask for. So what keeps me going? Only the sure and very certain knowledge that I am not the first and I will not be the last disabled person to fight for recognition and equal, equitable treatment. If this was about me I would have given up a long time ago. But it’s actually about millions of people in this country alone who are struggling to articulate exactly the same message. That’s why I try so very hard to get out of bed every day.
Postscript: Although this was about my personal experience of discrimination which is largely lived through my mental illness, I know that many women, LGBTQIA folk and people of colour might find some resonance in my sleep deprived words. This is for you too. Discrimination is intersectional and we’ll make a better world together.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about ritual, and how its something we’ve lost and discarded to a huge degree in the West. Certain religions and cultures still have a wealth of ceremonies to draw on, but my heritage has largely been lost. With no tradition to draw on we make our own: for me self harm was always a sort of cleansing, an act of contrition. Repentance for my sins. My family is Protestant, so I have never been to Confession. We understand a personal relationship with God, and must ask Him personally for forgiveness. This is a lot more difficult than saying Hail Marys. There is a lot of guilt in my family.
I am reminded of Sylvia Plath’s poem Lady Lazarus:
Dying Is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well. I do it so it feels like hell. I do it so it feels real.
She describes the theatrical nature of a suicide attempt: it is a consciously performed (and performative) act, not a natural occurrence. Suicide is never private. The audience is a given. Perhaps more than most people in my situation I understand the public nature and shared burden of mental illness. For better or worse my suffering is rarely private, and I afford you all a window onto the scene in the hope that it won’t be in vain- that even if I can’t save myself I might pave the way for someone more worthy.
Suicidality is complex and mutable. Everyone will experience it differently. For me part of the draw is a desperate desire to start again, to shed my skin like Plath and emerge reborn, free from the guilt and the pain that is weighing me down. You burn a lot of bridges when you’re unwell, and you burn a lot of people. Even if they forgive me I know I can’t. I’ve lost too many people, too many friendships, too many opportunities, and I’ve scorned every scrap of comfort that was offered to me. Like so many diseases, this operates as a vicious cycle- the more I tell myself I don’t deserve love, the more true it becomes. I insulate myself from humanity because I know I am an emotional timebomb, and I would never let what scant regard I have left for the wellbeing of others get in the way of a really spectacular self destructive episode.
At the back of my mind though I know that even if I did have a reset button, even if I could go through a baptism of fire and be welcomed back into the world again, renewed and reborn, it would only hold for so long. Eventually I would start to slip back into myself. Try as I might, I keep making the same mistakes and the same poor decisions and I continue to let myself down, not because I am too hard on myself or even because I set myself up for failure, but because I am not good enough. I was never meant for this world. The faculties most people are born with I simply lack. Plath had to hit reset once every decade. I do it every August.
These are all things people have said to me when I’ve tried to open up to them about how I’m feeling. If you’re guilty of one or more of these don’t be dismayed: this isn’t an attack, just some advice on how to phrase things better. When you’re in a depressed or suicidal state of mind you become hyper sensitive, and libel to take everything the wrong way. It can be very hard to find the right words even if you know the person extremely well, so hopefully this should help.
1. Keep fighting
Like, what exactly do you think I’ve been doing all these years? I don’t need to be told, and I don’t need anyone to take the effort I put every day for granted.
Try instead: “I know how hard you’re trying and you’re doing such a great job. I’m going to do what I can to make this easier for you.” This expresses the same sentiment but in a more supportive way.
2. Stay safe
Sometimes this isn’t something I can manage by myself, and telling me to isn’t going to make it happen. If I’ve reached out to you, try to do something to make sure I am safe rather than putting all the pressure on me.
Try instead: “How can I help you stay safe?” If you can before it gets to this stage, try to work on a safety plan together.
3. Ask for help if you need it!
If you’re telling me this then I AM asking for help, you’re just not hearing me. Don’t put the onus on me to ask for help- I’m exhausted enough without putting myself out there. Offer help, don’t make me beg for it.
Try instead: “Can I come over/bring you food/take you to an appointment?” Offer something concrete.
4. I’m there if you need me
You might be there for me, but I need people to be here. And I do need you, there’s no if about it. If you really care, do something.
Try instead: “I’m here for you, is there anything I can do?” Again, try to offer something concrete. It can be hard to believe anything will help but if you suggest something I might take you up on your offer.
5. Don’t do something stupid
Don’t invalidate my feelings. What I’m going through is very real and while my behaviour might not make sense to outsiders, it makes sense to me. When you label my behaviour as stupid, you make me feel stupid too.
Try instead: “Are you thinking about hurting yourself?” Studies have shown that asking this won’t put the idea into people’s heads. It’s safe to ask and it could save a life.
6. I know how you feel
No, you don’t. Even if you have gone through a mental illness its different for everyone, so you should never presume to understand how much pain someone is in. Different people experience different symptoms and intensities of suicidal ideation, and they need to be supported in different ways. Some of the most unhelpful responses Ive got to my illness have been from people who have gone through it themselves.
Try instead: “How are you feeling?” It’s an open question and you have to be prepared for the possibility that I/whoever doesn’t want to talk about it. But really listening can give you a better insight and help determine what level of care is needed.
7. Don’t feel sorry for yourself
There is so much stigma and guilt attached to mental illness that it can be very hard to remember to care for yourself. Saying things like this only adds to the problem and makes people feel worse. If you wouldn’t say it to someone with cancer, don’t say it to me. Besides, even the best of us feel self pity from time to time.
Try instead: literally anything else. If you’re trying to remind someone of their strength, play up their achievements rather than putting them down.
8. You need to exercise more
This is related to ‘have you tried chamomile tea?’ and ‘meditation does wonders’. Believe it or not unsolicited advice is not very helpful, and chances are I’ve tried those things already. It’s hard to exercise when you can’t get out ofbed and gives us yet another thing to feel guilty about not doing.
Try instead: “Has your treating team given you any advice on what to do in this situation? Do you have a safety plan?” This can help remind the person of any strategies that are already in place. It can be hard to remember sometimes when you’re in that state of mind, so give them a nudge in the right direction.
9. This is really difficult for me
This is difficult for you? You’re not the one with a life threatening illness that robs you of joy, so please take a seat. While caring for someone close to you can take its toll and you need to take time for yourself, telling them they’re a burden is no way to show your love and support. Mentally distressed people know we’re a drag. It’s one of the only things we think about, along with the sweet release of death and television. You need other people to talk to about this. Don’t pull focus- this isn’t about you right now.
Try instead: shutting the hell up.
10. You brought this on yourself
I have a medical condition, but luckily it’s treatable, which is more than I can say for being a douchebag. I know it can seem like sometimes people do things that are counterproductive or unhelpful, like they don’t want to get better. But recovery is a complex process, and guess what? Mentally ill people don’t deserve your crap.
Try instead: going far far away from me.
For me there is a small window of time between realising how unwell I’m getting and no longer being able to care or communicate about that. I’m taking advantage of that window now but it will close fast. I’ve already lost the ability to talk about it. The words just feel heavy in my mouth, reluctant, awkward lumps of clay that I find impossible to shape. I’m starting to lose the desire to keep myself safe. It doesn’t seem to matter anymore.
My point is not to natter on about my own suicidality, although this is a personal post. Through research we’ve confirmed that almost all people who attempt suicide tell someone about their plans or feelings. There is almost always a cry for help, even if it seems out of the blue to some people. It is so important to listen to your friends and learn their emotional cues. I for example find it very difficult to just bring up my state of mind- I think a lot of people would say they are the same. I’m not one to initiate the conversation so it helps to have friends who do check in on you and really listen, without dismissing your feelings or changing the topic to something more palatable. I can’t think of a worse feeling than feeling ignored when internally you’re just begging for help and support. It leaves you feeling very desolate.
I know that it can be very tiring to care for someone with a mental illness so you do need to take time for yourself to avoid emotional burnout. You don’t want to be taking out your frustration on the person you love. Another thing you can help with is a safety plan. This is a plan for what to do if a person feels unsafe. You can find templates on the interwebs and it can be as simple or as detailed as you like. You can start off with some de-stressing and self care activities, moving up to contacting friends or support services if the need is great enough. Safety plans work best when they become a habit. It’s something you have to work at together. Above all, don’t over commit yourself. Don’t say someone can call you day or night if you’re not going to answer the phone. That will leave them feeling more alone than ever.
I feel like I’ve slipped back into the same thought patterns that plagued me in high school. Being back in my home town has not helped. It seems like I’ve lost a lot of friends, and the ones I do have left seem pretty tired of this whole depression thing. I don’t blame them. There was a honeymoon period where so many people offered their support, but it’s old news now. People just want me to get over it, move on, be healthy. I wish I could. I feel like the girl who cried wolf. It feels like the only way to make up for all the pain I’ve caused and all the mistakes I’ve made is to end it all. I don’t know how else to let people know that I’m sorry. I crave forgiveness but I know I don’t deserve it. I don’t deserve anything really.
It’s hard to keep going when your very existence makes some people angry, and talking about your experiences makes them even more upset. I wish I could be different. I wish I wasn’t such a burden to my family. This isn’t a cry for help. This is just me rambling about how I feel. There are still some things tying me down. And whatever happens, happens. I always knew that I might not make it. I am suffering from a chronic and sometimes deadly illness. All I want is for you to keep each other safe. There are people much more worthy of love and protection than me.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the connection between mental illness and art. Visual art has long been used as a form of psychological therapy, especially for institutionalised people. The aim was never to produce commercially or artistically valuable work, but to use the artistic process as a tool to better understand and tame the mental state.
Writing does not have the same history as an accessible medium for the mentally ill. There are notable exceptions- Byron and Plath spring to mind- but the problem is twofold. Publication is a privileged position awarded to a privileged few. Even if a writer’s work is published, the impact that their mental health status has on their work is often ignored or erased. But there are barriers even before that: those suffering from a mental health condition do not always have the capacity or the concentration to document their experiences. Even in periods of good health it can be difficult to recount those experiences- they are too painful or too deeply hidden in the psyche.
There is still an enormous stigma attached to mental illness, and a risk to those who disclose their conditions. Of course there are many writers and published authors who struggle with these conditions, but there are very few who write about them. While people have turned their pens to many previously illicit topics, mental illness still remains a taboo- and some more than others. A typical mental health narrative details an episode and the ensuing recovery. Writers want to share a success story, speaking about their struggle in past tense. Those with ongoing issues and more stigmatised and misunderstood conditions are shut out from this acceptable template.
Prose especially is not an easily accessible medium for the mentally unwell. Stringing together a sentence requires a certain amount of concentration that can be difficult to muster in one’s darkest moments. This is exemplified in the schizophrenic symptom of word salad- when a patient is unable to form coherent grammatical sentences. There can be a certain art to the disjointed thought patterns of the psychotic and neurotic, but it is not very accessible to the reader. Most mental illness is characterised by disorganisation or dysfunction, whereas prose prides itself on unity and careful arrangement- even if it is not immediately obvious. Visual art is often more forgiving to the unorganised mind. It is more capable of expressing multiple notions at once, without them getting lost in each other.
I don’t think that we should give up on writing as a medium by any means. I think we need to continue to test the boundaries of what can be expressed with the written word, and how. Writing is not a dead art, and with greater input from mentally ill and neurodiverse communities I believe it can continue to grow and flourish as an art form. All we need is support and interest from the general population- and each other- in our diverse perspectives and expressionary styles.
There’s a choir of voices living inside my head. Some days they are louder than others. Sometimes they speak in my own voice, sometimes they sound like others. The line between intrusive thoughts and psychosis is blurry for me, and I’ve had experiences that fall on either side. The important distinction is between thoughts and feelings that you take ownership of, and those which represent a disruption or an intrusion. Just because a thought is framed in the first person doesn’t mean its yours.
Today is a loud day. Sleep is the only real escape, and the better rested I am the better prepared I am to defend myself against the onslaught. The only effective way I’ve found of dealing with the voices is just letting them be- not engaging with them, not fighting against them, but not accepting them as my own either. It’s a loud day. The thoughts aren’t just voices but a cacophony of images as well. A typical cascade goes along the lines of “I’m useless, I’m worthless, I hate myself, kill yourself, hurt yourself, die, end it, everyone hates you, you’re unloveable”. This is accompanied by a slew of violent images of self harm, abuse and suicide. Now imagine that on a loop for every waking hour, with the memories of every cringe worthy moment, every angry word ever hurled at you, every fight with your friends, every single time you ever felt low, unloved, worthless, betrayed or embarrassed. Then imagine trying to live normally through that mental onslaught. That is my life.
Some days are better than others, but this is not one of those. It can be difficult to identify a trigger, if there is one. Even if I do it doesn’t solve the problem. Critically assessing and tapping into these thoughts so that I can better understand and communicate them is not casualty free. It goes against my usual strategy of letting them be, letting them pass through my mind without latching onto them. Even that strategy is flawed- if there were some positive thoughts to balance them out it might be okay, but there is only negativity. Without engaging with those critical voices it can still be overwhelming having them be the only thing I hear day in and day out. I do need external reminders that I’m not a failure or a bad person. It takes a lot of those to cut through the chorus, but some of the nice messages do get through.
I have made progress with this symptom- and while it is a symptom of my depression, it can be a daily reality for countless people without a diagnosed mental illness. Even a year ago if I had an intense day of suicidal ideation I would feel compelled to act on it, and I wouldn’t feel safe. Now I can experience those thoughts without having to act them out, and I know that they won’t last forever. This kind of knowledge has to be lived and experienced, its not something you can be taught. You need to have been through those moments before and survived them to know that you can do it again. I’ve learned that the thoughts I experience aren’t necessarily my thoughts, I don’t need to take ownership of them and they don’t always reflect how I feel or who I am. I can have suicidal thoughts without being suicidal. I can have the thought “I hate myself” even thought actually, I don’t. Not every thought needs to be absorbed or acted upon. I like to think of it as a thought process by committee: some ideas are going to be good, and some ideas don’t even deserve consideration or comment. You have a choice in what defines you.
I’m a little nervous to do one of these again but here goes. I stopped for a while when things were going okay for me, but I think it’s important to put my feelings down in words again. My mood has been pretty erratic for the past week. I lost my antidepressants which may have had an effect, but I’m back on them again now so hopefully that will help. I’ve been feeling quite disconnected from reality in a scary sort of way, not feeling sure about what’s going on around me, my identity, or the truth of things. I’ve also been lashing out at others which is one of my least favourite symptoms. Apart from being bad in and of itself it also leaves me feeling very guilty and isolated. I’ve been finding it almost impossible to stay on top of my responsibilities, especially uni work. Even thinking about it makes me feel distressed. I’ve been quite tearful and suffering from mood swings. All in all, I’m in a bit of a state. I don’t really know where to go from here- I’m taking my meds, I’m trying to make a plan each day, but it feels like all my motivation has been sucked from my bones. In addition, my psychiatric service is preparing to discharge me and I’m not getting along with my psychologist so I don’t feel like I’m getting the care and support I need. I don’t have the funds for private care. I don’t know what to do.