Our attitude to mental health is fucked up and wrong

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been diagnosed with a veritable plethora of ‘mental illnesses’. Clinical/severe/manic depression. Anorexia nervosa. Bulimia nervosa. Asperger’s syndrome. Bipolar disorder, for a while. Anxiety disorder. Dissociative amnesia disorder. Borderline personality disorder (or, as the consultant so helpfully phrased it, ‘emotionally unstable personality disorder’) – that’s the latest. It’s also, for whatever it’s worth, the only one I think is accurate. But that’s tangential.

The point is that, since the age of about ten or eleven, I’ve hurt myself on purpose. From age sixteen I started calorie-counting, and forcing my stomach up after every meal I couldn’t escape. I have scars on my arms, hips, hands (and am good at lying). I’ve made it through three suicide attempts. Two resulted in hospitalisation, and the third resulted in my unconsciousness for about four days – nauseous and hallucinating, unable to leave my bed or properly wake. I told my parents I was hungover.

I take an antidepressant of a dose that’s intended exclusively for long-term inpatients. I take tranquillisers every night so I can sleep. Sometimes I sleep for days at a time; sometimes I take sedatives back-to-back just so I don’t have to be awake. I dream about dying. But I don’t feel much; not without the aid of alcohol or other substances, anyway.

In brief – suboptimal.

Now. Surely these criteria qualify me, at least a bit, for being “mentally ill”. Surely, at this point, you (a kind and concerned friend) are dying to pack me up in a little box of diagnoses and ship me off to a(nother) therapist. Surely I need to take a break and look after myself and, you know, just work through some stuff.

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

Well. Actually, no. Because there’s nothing wrong with me. Of course, that sounds hilarious given the above. You want to say that of course there’s something wrong with me, of course there bloody is, it’d be obvious to a blind man on a galloping horse.

And I would tell you to reconsider. In fact, I’d get down on my knees and beg you to reconsider. I’d like you to tell me why you think it’s acceptable to brand my self – my actual self – as ‘disordered’. I’d like you to sit down and explain why you think that there’s a cure for my character. I’d like to know which parts of my personality are wrong.

The blackly comic part of all this is that it’s often the most vehement in their hatred of stigma who end up entrenching it furthest. Every time you demand equal respect and consideration for the ‘mentally ill’ – every time you insist that the ‘mentally ill’ are marginalised, underrepresented, socially disadvantaged – you are reinforcing the idea that they’re wrong. That they’re somehow deficient, inferior, subordinate. This is even more distressing when it comes from those who have their own experience of ‘mental illness’; those who’ve battled (and overcome!) depression, or another ‘disease’.

There’s something paradoxical about how we view the phenomenon: on the one hand, it is something to accept, to treat in the sad-but-resigned way that we treat physical illness. On the other it is something that, with struggle of will and support of friends, can be overcome.

It isn’t as pretty as this.

There are plenty of reasons for our fucked-up attitude towards it; one of the biggest is that ‘mental health’ can mean absolutely anything – in the same way that ‘physical illness’ can mean anything, from a broken leg to terminal cancer . But we don’t actually use the phrase ‘physical illness’, except when discussing ‘mental illness’. That’s because talking about bodily problems as though they were all of a single kind is, plainly, absurd. But we do talk about mental health as if it were a single kind. And, in this case, careless words actually do cost lives.

It could be a tragicomedy. Those with best intentions are so often those with least understanding. They want me, and others in positions like mine, to be able to recover. To recover from what? I don’t know. They never seem to say. Recover from being sad. Recover from seeing the world in such a distorted way.

But – and this is the crux of it – I don’t see the world in a distorted way. My eyes aren’t broken. My senses are all in working order. My world is, very simply, different. It is (or was, pre-drugs) the most beautiful place I could imagine. I love other people, friends and strangers both, in a way so fierce and passionate that it fills my whole body with heat and adrenaline. To me, they are the most divine and lovely people and my adoration for them is as big as the sky.

That kind of love is, obviously, expensive.

I’m not ill. I’m just me. And I suffer – but I’m not broken. Don’t you dare tell me that there’s something wrong with who I am, or what I feel, or how my world is. Don’t you dare say that I’m ill.

Psychological difference has been pathologised for centuries – and still we’ve learnt nothing.

That, more than any of the shit I’ve been through, breaks my heart.

*name has been changed

Tags: bpd — depression — mental health — mental illness — Oxford