I’ve quite glad of how far I’ve come, in terms of living with my own mental illness and in terms of my understanding of mental illness more generally. This past little while has been a reflective time for me. I’ve been doing a lot of looking back on my life, especially the past few years, and I realised something walking home from university the other day: I’ve become the person nineteen-year-old me wanted to be. That makes me feel comforted, proud, and happy. It confirms something I’ve already known (but which I struggle to remember in times of poor health): I’m making progress on this recovery thing. I really am.
That doesn’t mean I’m going to sit back and rest on my laurels, because there’s still so much further to go, both in terms of personal growth and mental recovery. But that’s cool. That’s good! I would hate to think I’d peaked at twenty-one. And let’s be real, here: nineteen-year-old Beth didn’t want for much. She was very ill, very much at war with her body and her mind. Every day was so hard, and she felt so unwell, and she just wanted that to stop. She wanted to be someone who didn’t spend most of the day in bed watching movie after movie because it provided a temporary escape from her reality. She didn’t want to be someone who turned down so many opportunities and invitations just because she was scared. She didn’t want to be someone who hated herself.
Let me clarify what I meant when I said “she didn’t want for much”. The things I wanted sound like quite simple goals, especially from my current vantage point. I didn’t want a lot of money/a fancy car/a nice house. I didn’t want to be the next Prime Minister or to achieve world peace. All I wanted to do was be well. Like it said, it seems like quite a small wish. It’s too easy for me to forget, now, what a big fucking wish that actually was. It seemed impossible.
But now here I am, and I’m doing so much better. If nineteen-year-old Beth could see who I am now, she’d be ecstatic. She just wanted to be normal. She just wanted to wake up in the morning and not feel sick or scared, and to go to bed at night feeling like she’d made the most of her day. I’ve become someone she thought she could only dream of being. And that’s amazing. Sometimes I now take for granted the mental and physical health I experience, but I don’t want to make a habit of that. I want to remember to appreciate the fuck out of it, and often, because for me, it’s not a given. Anyway, the point here is: I know I’ve got a long way to go, but at the same time, I’m becoming someone I’m proud of. I live a life I feel lucky to have.
Part of the life I live involves being a university student, which includes attending lectures and doing readings on subjects that interest me, and sometimes make me think about mental illness on both a personal and cultural level. Surprisingly, this occurred most recently during a MDIA 306: Gender and Sexuality lecture.* This particular lecture was on ‘Disability, Gender and Sexuality’ – to sum up without getting knee-deep into wanky media jargon, it looked at the interplay between disability and gender, and disability and sexuality, that we see in the media. ‘Disability’ here was an umbrella term, which included physical disabilities but also the mentally ill. It’s weird talking about this now that classes have finished and I’ve handed in my last assignment for the course, but what the hell, right? It’s taken me a while to consolidate my thoughts on this, so better late than never.
Among other things, this lecture brought two questions to the forefront of my thoughts, especially in light of the progress of my recovery. They were:
- Does being better equate to being normal?
- What is “normal”? How do we construct mental illness in society?
Without further ado, let’s break these things down.
Does being better equate to being normal?
Originally I thought it did. I know, at least, that when I was really unwell, all I wanted was to be able to be normal. I wanted to be able to do all the things my friends could do. I wanted to be able to do boring everyday things without freaking out. And when I was beginning my recovery, “normal” was what I was striving for.
Now, though, I’m beginning to wonder if that’s the best way to think about this.
The way I understand it, anxiety is a long term thing. I’ve talked about this before, about how I have to accept that this is definitely going to be a long battle, and how it may very well be the rest of my life. That sounds pretty shitty, I know. But, surprisingly, getting to that place has been incredibly helpful because now I can say, “Okay, this thing might never go away. So the goal here is to figure out how I can live with anxiety instead of suffering from anxiety. How can I carry on and get the most out of life in spite of my illness, instead of sitting here and hoping it just goes away?”
So maybe when you get better from something like an anxiety disorder, you never really become “normal”. You’re in remission, which is maybe a different thing. My brain is probably never going to work the way a non-mentally ill person’s does (on its own, at least). Which sucks. But it’s the truth. To be fair, I don’t know that it won’t! But I also don’t know that it will. So, with the proper medication, therapy, self-care and coping strategies, I can live a normal life and be a functioning member of society. But my anxiety’s always going to be there somewhere, isn’t it, in a way that a normal person will never experience.
I’m not bitter, if it sounds that way. I’m simply exploring the idea that “normal” and “in remission” are two different things when it comes to mental health. And that’s not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing. It’s just a thing.
I’m sure there are some people (read: Tumblrinas) who would say “but anxiety’s not BAD! it’s just DIFFERENT! nobody UNDERSTANDS HOW SPECIAL WE ARE”. Which sounds like bullshit to me. I’ve had first-hand experience with how bad anxiety can be. And m8, if there are things I can do to get better, then you better believe I’ll do them. I just wonder if making “normal” the end goal of recovery is as constructive as it first appears. The old “why can’t you just be normal” that gets flung at mentally ill people (and that we fling at ourselves, all too often) is so problematic because that’s kind of the whole goddamned point. That’s what it means to be mentally ill – we’re not normal, and maybe we never will be. Cheers for pointing that one out. Now perhaps you’d like to get on our team.
Obviously, these are just my thoughts on the situation. As ever, it’s just an opinion, which you can feel free to disagree with as openly or as internally as you please. And as ever, I’m always open to opposing views.
What is “normal”? How do we construct mental illness in society?
Stereotypes of people with mental illnesses, as with stereotypes of most things, tend to be damaging and deeply unhelpful. Words (slurs?) like “crazy”, “psycho”, “mental”, “schizo” and so on all conjure up an image of a violent, unpredictable and highly unstable person who should be locked up for the safety of others. These words are often used as insults. Mentally ill people are often portrayed in the media as aggressive, dangerous, murderous incompetent, incurable and ultimately a detriment to society. Furthermore, they are often blamed for their actions as if they have made a conscious decision to behave the way they do, their conditions are often completely misunderstood, they are told they just need to change their attitude and consequently do not seek the help they really need.
What happens because of these stereotypes is that mentally ill people blame themselves for their illness, oftentimes failing to even recognise it as an illness. Mentally ill people are often reluctant to tell their friends and family of their illness for fear of ridicule, ostracism and judgement. Mentally ill people are constructed as being unable to contribute anything of worth to society, and so they come to believe it. People are afraid of mental illness. They tiptoe around it. How are we meant to feel safe in a society that portrays us in this way? How are we meant to communicate if we’re made to believe it’s only going to fall on deaf ears? Even today, it takes an enormous amount of strength and bravery to admit to being mentally unwell.
I’m not saying everyone’s like this. I’m not saying everyone believes the stereotypes. I’m just saying that they’re there, and that this is what they do to us.
The reality of mental illness is, in fact, vastly different from what stereotypes would have you believe. Mentally ill people are not terrible humans. The vast majority of us are not inherently dangerous, aggressive or predisposed to violence. We’re not less than human. We should not be locked away. Instead, we should receive the support and treatment we deserve. We’re also not incapable of contributing to society like, at all. With the right care and help, we can do almost anything. We can lead meaningful, fulfilling lives. We can help others. We can help ourselves. We don’t deserve lesser treatment than you. Most importantly, mental illnesses are not our character flaws. We didn’t want this any more than you don’t want to have to deal with it.
No, maybe we’re not “normal”. But that doesn’t mean we’re not intelligent, compassionate, generous, creative and kind. We can be all of those things and so much more. So next time you see a mass shooting blamed on “mental illness”, or hear someone get called “psycho”, or watch a movie where the sadistic murder is so inclined because of their mental illness, please remember that these are stereotypes and not accurate presentations of reality.
I have some really exciting festive posts planned for the month of December, so I hope you’re looking forward to those!
*If you’re wondering why I’m bringing up a uni lecture when the semester finished over a month ago… At the time of drafting this post, I had just had the lecture and the issues it brought up were fresh in my mind.