‘There have been many times when my mental illness has stripped me of my dignity’
On the surface, we’re all about dignity and equality for people with mental health problems. Underneath, it’s easier said than done
There’s a really unique sense of embarrassment and shame that goes with trying to hide an ugly cry in public, and dignified is not a word that springs to mind when I think about it.
The theme of this year’s World Mental Health Week is dignity, of which the dictionary definition is “the state or quality of being worthy of honour or respect”. This is proving particularly tough to write about when it comes to mental health, particularly as I can talk about it only in relation to my own experience.
There have been many, many times over the years when I’ve felt completely stripped of my dignity. A lot of the time it involved crying alone in public places, whether walking down the street, standing in a shop, or – my personal favourite and a regular crying spot – on the bus home from seeing my therapist. There’s a really unique sense of embarrassment and shame that goes with trying to hide an ugly cry in public, and dignified is not a word that springs to mind when I think about it. At other times, the sense of being unable to cope with everyday life was what got me: not being able to be around my kids, not being able to function at work; having to tell my boss, yet again, that things aren’t going well and that I’m likely to underperform. Quite possibly, the most challenging situations were when I was at my most vulnerable, desperately asking for help, and feeling at best misunderstood, at worst belittled, patronised and ignored by the very people I had hoped would look after me.
On the surface, we’re all about dignity and equality for people with mental health problems. There are support groups, stigma challenging campaigns, and countless celebrities talking about their own issues. It is becoming a more everyday conversation, something people are slowly beginning to recognise as being on a par with physical illness, and that is truly wonderful to see. But – and this is a big but – when we find ourselves in the throes of an episode, or at least when I do, the last thing it feels is dignified. When I’m crying in the car on the way home from work because something has triggered intense emotion, yet again, I don’t feel I am worthy of honour or respect. When I bring stress into the house, again, because I’m really not in a good place, I cannot feel proud of that.
The thing is, it’s possible – no, more than that – it’s probably true that I need to change my perspective on this one. I have had many trips to hell and back over the past seven years, and I’ve no doubt there will be a few more trips in my future. Time and again I have wanted, so desperately, to give up. I have truly believed that my continued presence in my home was nothing more than a crushing burden on my family. And yet, I’m still here.
Am I worthy of honour or respect? This is a question that I have never been able to answer, and even now, after years of therapy, I’d rather run a marathon than sit in a room and discuss that question. (Just to clarify, I am currently able to run for the sum total of one minute before needing a break.) I’m always a little wary of talking about what I’ve learned through my experience over the past few years, because the last thing I want is to come across as someone who has all the answers. I don’t.
If I had to pick one thing I was proud of, one thing that has come out of this whole sorry affair that makes it worthwhile, it would be this: I’m not afraid of who I am anymore. There are times when I greatly resent the hand I’ve been dealt, and times when I would give anything to change it. But like it or not, in learning to manage mental illness, I have come to a far greater understanding of who I am and what I’m capable of – or not, as the case may be. It’s entirely possible that that is worthy of respect, even if I can’t quite see it yet.