Without doubt, we should all have patience and an understanding that people living with poor mental health don’t always find things easy. We should accept that we may need to do things slightly differently to accommodate them. It might be necessary for us to take on a little extra so that they can cope on the bad days.
But, what I have learnt (sometimes the hard way) is that, as someone living with mental illness, there is no place to be the victim. You cannot spend your life at the mercy of your own mental health. At some point, if you want a future, you’re going to have to take charge of your own life.
The people around you cannot continue to dole out sympathy forever. They cannot keep taking on the extra tasks because you are unwilling to change. If there is something you need to do to manage your mental health, and you’re not doing it – be that changing your environment, attending appointments or following a plan – then yes you are going to end up being a burden to other people. Everyone has mental health. You have to take responsibility for yours just as other people have to take responsibility for theirs. And, just as the best people in your life are mindful of your mental health, so you must be mindful of theirs.
As an adult, at some point you have to decide that the buck stops with you. You have to accept that you are not more special; more delicate than other people. Other people can make the choice to treat you that way – that’s up to them. But you can’t make the choice that that is how you must be treated: you have to fight. You have to get up and prove people wrong. You have to show people that you can live with anxiety or depression or anorexia or whatever and still do your job, or live alone, or make sure you follow a routine. To move forward, you have to learn and practise healthy coping strategies and that isn’t going to happen if you’re letting everyone around you do the hard stuff.
Let me tell you a story. Until a few months ago, my mindset was very firmly that I was struggling with mental illness and therefore I had the right to be accommodated. If someone asked me to do something at work and it was something I knew I’d find difficult, I used to be very open and honest about how my mental health precluded me from doing it. I thought that this was being a good advocate for mental health. I thought that I had a right to be in the workplace regardless of my mental health and that if people hired me, they hired my mental health too.
And then I realised I didn’t want people to view me that way. It dawned on me one day that, if I didn’t do something, whether or not it was because of mental health, because I’d been abducted by little green things, or because I couldn’t be bothered, someone else would have to do it for me. I realised that I was trying to be a mental health advocate but I was only really thinking about mental illness: I wasn’t protecting, or being fair, to the mental health of those immediately around me and I wasn’t thinking about making progress: moving forwards, getting better. And then I realised I wanted to be someone who was capable and reliable and good at their job because they gave to it everything that they had. I realised that I was hiding behind my mental health; using it as an excuse because I didn’t think I was good enough, using it as an apology for my inadequacy.
And that changed everything. Instead of being the person who couldn’t be asked to do things because it might ‘tip me over the edge’ or it was ‘too much’, I am a person who can do a lot more than I ever believed I could. I’m nothing special – I say that over and over again but it’s true: I am someone who was unlucky enough to struggle with their mental health who has a job. There is no difference between me and anybody else. None of this, either, means that I’m perfect: I have days where it does feel like too much and there are things that do still worry me, but I feel that going in with a positive outlook makes those things far easier to rationalise. I’ve found that, actually, I’ve developed so many more coping skills whilst trying different things. I’ve found confidence I never knew I had.
And, do you know what? It feels really bloody good when I do something that I thought I couldn’t. Much better than hiding in a corner telling other people how I can’t cope.
If mental health is always the scapegoat then what message are we giving the world? That people with mental illness can’t do things? That people with mental illness need special help? That you can’t trust people with mental illness to do things because they’re not capable? It’s so important that we don’t spread that message when we’ve expended so much energy getting people to understand.
What I really really hate is that people will say that they can’t do something ‘because of their mental health’. Especially in the workplace, it seems to have become the get out of jail free card. I have seen people with severe anorexia come back from heart failure and eat their way back into living a full life; I have seen elderly ladies who walk up and down the stairs every day just to keep going; I have seen people conquer phobia through their own determination. None of these people ever thought for a moment that they should rely upon other people’s sympathy to get them through: they got out there and they did it even when it seemed impossible.
What I’m not saying is that you shouldn’t be open and honest about how you’re feeling. What I’m not saying is that if you are waiting for treatment, or you have a comorbidity that makes treatment almost impossible, that you are a burden. What I’m not saying is that you’re not allowed to have a bad day. Asking for help is good. Talking to people is good. Confiding in people is good. But it’s got to come as part of your recovery.
But waiting for someone else to save you; waiting to wake up and suddenly be ‘cured’…you’re wasting your own life.
Re-reading this, I have gone back and forth about whether or not to post it. At first, I didn’t want to write about my own experiences because it made me feel ashamed that I might have been getting too comfortable in my own illness. But then I realised that it is an illness, and it will take over if I take my eye off the ball. I can’t do anything more than trying and I am trying. Hard. This post might seem harsh, but part of recovery is about believing that you can live a full life and you can have two-sided relationships with people outside that of being looked after. I am posting this here because there I don’t actually know of anyone who reads this blog who isn’t really flipping brave and who doesn’t already do so much to overcome their own illness.
It’s about having high expectations of yourself because you are better than the voice in your head telling you that you can’t do it. You can have a job and interests and a home and friends. You can be that person who doesn’t feel completely subsumed by their mental health. You can recover.
You need to accept help, to develop coping strategies that allow you to live; you need to accept that recovery is a long process and you need to accept that your mental illness does not give you whatever it tells you it is giving you.
But first, you need to believe in yourself: you are no less that anybody else.